Taking cues from our tech-savvy President's playbook, some candidates in next month's midterm elections are tapping a new social networking tool to connect with constituents: Gowalla, a service that lets its users check in via smartphone to share their locations with friends and earn colorful digital "stamps." The Texas-based company has come out with a campaign tool kit that's designed to draw potential voters to town halls and fund-raisers. Governors Charlie Crist of Florida and Rick Perry of Texas are among the earliest adopters of the technology, which enables their campaigns to schedule events on Gowalla and reward supporters with candidate-branded badges for attending and checking in—a big incentive for the social network's users, who make a game of collecting stamps in their "virtual passports."
"Whether it's at a rally or speech, Gowalla gets people involved, rather than just watching from afar," says Rob Johnson, campaign manager for Governor Perry's reelection. "Rather than just tweeting 'I'm here,' you check in and show people where you are. We wanted to capitalize on that politically." He boasts that Perry used social networks so successfully during the primary that the campaign didn't bother with yard signs, direct mail, and paid phone calls.
Arizona congressional hopeful and Gowalla board member Jim Ward has also embraced the service. Prior to running for office, Ward oversaw global marketing campaigns for BBDO and Wieden+Kennedy. "The key challenge is not just reaching as many people as possible," he says, "but keeping them engaged. Gowalla is a tool in my arsenal to do that." He envisions "super-stamp" rewards for his most ardent supporters and an integrated donation feature.
But will Gowalla — with only 400,000 users — give candidates an edge in November? Its partnership with Facebook's new check-in feature should give Gowalla a boost. "In certain places, there is enough density to move the needle," says Josh Williams, CEO of Gowalla, though the company will not release state-by-state (or even country-by-country) numbers. He calls the midterm elections a "dry run" for the campaign tool kit. "Two years from now, Gowalla will hit a sweet spot for the presidential election. Then we're really going to see these services having a remarkable impact."
Until then, it's not clear that virtual passports filled with politicians' stamps will bring many voters to the polls. "Is it a silver bullet? No," acknowledges Ward. "Does it replace shaking people's hands? No. But it's the next step."
A version of this article appeared in the October 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.