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Technology

Former Foursquare Exec Tristan Walker Shares His Secrets On How Brands And Social Can Coexist

Brands and hot social media platforms can succeed—but only by working together.

Illustration by David Schwen

I was the first business guy at Foursquare, the social check-in service. Almost every major brand wanted to work with us. A bunch of brand folks would ask me something like, "Hey, let's create a mayonnaise badge on Foursquare. We're doing this campaign for sustainable farming, so wouldn't it be cool if people checked in at three farms, a retail location, and a bodega to unlock our mayonnaise badge?" They're willing to pay tons of money for that. We would say, "Well . . . that doesn't make any sense. Probably not for you, definitely not for our users."

Brands say they want to use social to engage with their customers. They say that because they have nothing else to measure against. My hope and goal has always been to change that. When faced with that kind of mayonnaise-badge proposal, I'd just keep asking them why until we've really narrowed it down and get to, "Hey, we want to do all this stuff so we can drive sales." From there, we can move toward a solution where we can help measure the effectiveness of any advertising and resulting sales.

In Silicon Valley, there's usually this product-is-everything, you-need-nothing-else mentality—and I don't believe that one bit. You need to understand how advertising can fit into your product and what you do well. At Foursquare, our big ethos was making things that make the world more interesting to explore. That helped us pick partners where integration would be more natural. The perfect example is our first major deal, which was with the Bravo TV network. It already had fantastic local content online, and we brought that onto the Foursquare platform. It encouraged people to get out and explore new things, based on shows like Real Housewives, which felt very much in line with the product but without a sales pitch. It benefited our users and us: Bravo puts us on its commercials, helping us reach a different demographic and a wider audience.

All of these social media platforms are completely nascent and folks are still learning them. It's not the brands' fault. It's not ours. We just need to work together to find greater opportunities.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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