Remember when Twitter sceptics claimed it was a passing fad that was only good for knowing what Stephen Fry was eating for breakfast? Then along came the outing of oil giant Trafigura as a global flytipper, the tidal wave of moral outrage against Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir and a near revolution in Iran.

Twitter was a central player in all three stories and, suddenly, we all realised the immense power we now have to coalesce around a movement or an idea and run with it.

So I’d urge a little scepticism of your own when you hear the inevitable tutting from the same cynics when they scoff: “I already know what Fry’s eating. All Foursquare adds to my life is that I now know where he’s eating it – so what?”

Whether you are a restaurant, travel agent, gardener, circus, accountant, movie star or spaceman, Foursquare will help you find potential customers and understand what motivates them in ways that were previously unimaginable.

I’ll tell you here how Metrodeco, a small tea shop in Brighton, is using the site to do this (here’s our Foursquare page) – but first, a note of caution. Foursquare gives users the ability to hold businesses to account like never before – in fact, I bet your business is already on it without you even realising. Go to Foursquare’s website – you don’t even need to log in – and search for your business’s name. There’s a good chance people are already checking in. Feels slightly uncomfortable, doesn’t it?

So what is Foursquare?

It allows users to ‘check in’ using mobile phones when they visit any location – gym, office, shop, civic building, event, park bench – and not only to share that fact with their friends but to win virtual badges and points for their activity, making it part social network, part game. The best-known accolade in the game is being ‘Mayor’ of a venue – or the user who has checked in most times over a 30-day period.

The application uses a mobile phone’s GPS locator to work out its location and tells the user what Foursquare venues are in the immediate vicinity. Users can see if friends (or friends of friends, or their uncle’s second cousin’s workmate’s plumber) have checked in near them and get suggestions on things to do where they are. For example, you could check in at an airport and turn to Foursquare to see what restaurants are there – and which one might suit you most.

The possibilities for businesses are mind-boggling. For a start, like any reviewing/rating sites (Yelp etc) Foursquare allows people to leave positive or negative comments about you. Effectively, the entry for your business is an endlessly updating entry in an endlessly updating guide book to your locality. Not only can you learn from these comments and improve your service but, crucially, you can interact with those who have left them. ‘Tony M’ checked into Metrodeco and praised our cakes and pastries. Click on his profile and you are told he is contactable through Facebook – so we thanked him for his comments and I think he appreciated the contact. He’s been back since.

More sophisticated businesses will look at the activity and valuable opinions of visitors to similar businesses (ie the competition!) and even introduce themselves in a spam-free way.

As I’m writing this blog, I’ve just opened the Foursquare entry for our nearby friends the Red Roaster coffee shop. The Mayor ‘Andy W’ is a coffee enthusiast and is seemingly on a veritable tour of Brighton venues in search of the ultimate cup – but he hasn’t been to Metrodeco yet. Maybe he just doesn’t know about our delicious Rwandan coffee beans?

You can also use this type of ‘intelligence-gathering’ to spot industry trends or to improve on the strengths of your competition.

The afore-mentioned Daily Mail will shriek hysterically about privacy and the Big Brother society – but I couldn’t see George Orwell getting too exercised, were he still alive. Foursquare users put their views (and often their contact details) into the public domain because they want them to play a small part in improving the world.

Finally, the game element gives businesses a brilliant opportunity to attract customers by giving Foursquare users an incentive to ‘check-in’ to their venue. The Wick Inn in Hove gives its Mayor a free pizza or roast once a month. At Metrodeco, we’re offering a free pot of gourmet tea or a cup of coffee on weekdays with every purchase of food when customers check in. These Foursquare offers are called ’specials’ and they pop up onto a user’s mobile phone screen when he or she wanders into the vicinity or checks into a nearby venue.

Brighton was one of a small second tranche of UK cities added to Foursquare after London in November and, typically for digitally-minded Brightonians, we have embraced the technology with hundreds checking in every day. You can find out what venues in the city are on the service at the Fourwhere website. Yet, there are very few businesses taking advantage.

Apart from the Wick, I can only find one other ’special’ offer for Foursquare users in Brighton and that’s from Domino’s, a national chain whose head office has instructed branches all over the country to run the offer. At the moment, at least in Brighton and Hove, it’s a phenomenon being led by the consumers.

So I’d like to offer a few short tips on how you can improve your bottom line – and your relationship with your customers – by getting involved.

  1. Offer ’specials’ – this could be a discount or reward for people who check-in, or for a first check in, or something even more special for the Mayor. There are many possibilities.
  2. Give tips to your customers – businesses can leave advice in the tips section of their own entry. This might be some info on a new menu item, or a suggestion about how to avoid busy times.
  3. Use the ‘to do’ list facility to show customers what you are aiming to improve upon in your service. Customers are sure to add useful suggestions of their own.
  4. Learn from people’s comments – this is not a new idea but, nonetheless, Foursquare offers the valuable opportunity for users to leave feedback and for businesses to read it and improve.
  5. Interact with your customers – often you can contact people who have checked in. So why not ask them if they enjoyed being at your venue?
  6. Sponsorship – well-funded businesses might want to sponsor a ‘leaderboard’ which shows the 100 most active users in an area in any given week. At the time of writing, there were no sponsors on the Brighton & Hove leaderboard so this would seem to be a fantastic opportunity.
  7. Hold a Foursquare-themed event or party to encourage multiple check-ins at once, instantly boosting your brand recognition on Foursqaure and other related applications.