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As the Mayor of 25 places nationwide, I think I’ve earned the right to question the value of foursquare. As someone who uses social media quite often as a tool to help clients generate word of mouth, I feel it is my responsibility to engage in and understand new media (especially when it was touted as being the next “mainstream hit”). I started using foursquare seven months ago, hoping to be ahead of the curve when it caught on. I’ve been using it pretty diligently, but I’m still not sold on its significance.

Recently, I found that a good friend of mine was on my heels in the week’s foursquare points race (this was the first time anyone had come close to my points total). I let her know that I felt her creeping up behind me, and that I was planning to step up my game to beat her. She replied that she was up to the challenge and even went on to mock the fact that my being Mayor of “Bed, Bath, & Beyond” ought to deprive me of my man card. The exchange went back and forth for a while about our competition on foursquare. Here’s the important part… the entire exchange was conducted via text message, and not through any social feature provided by foursquare.

And, therein lies my biggest problem with the site. It seems to fall under the category of “Social Media,” but there’s almost nothing social about it. There’s no way to actually interact with each other, short of looking up where a friend is at that moment and immediately going to the same venue (Can you say restraining order?). It is all about ME, ME, ME! As I’ve written time and again on this blog, social media should be about relationships and conversation, meaning not only talking, but listening and responding too. It should be about US, US, US!

Now, let me point out a few caveats to my dismay about foursquare. First, I live in Phoenix, a city where it hasn’t caught on and isn’t used as widely (seriously, I only checked in at “Bed, Bath, & Beyond” a couple of times, I swear). In New York and San Francisco, for example, I hear it is much more common. Also, I do see value for those marketing products (particularly retail). Foursquare allows you to engage with potential customers when they are geographically near, and make them an offer right on the spot to either draw them in from a location nearby or to encourage a purchase while they are there. Plus, the possibility of becoming the Mayor of a venue (for having checked in at that location more than anyone else) encourages repeat traffic.

Foursquare’s biggest worry doesn’t come from this blog post, of course. Its popularity will be threatened by sites like Twitter and Facebook incorporating their own location-based features into their existing sites.

As a marketer, I feel like, after 7 months, I get it. I don’t need to test or explore it any further. If a client asks me about foursquare and how it could be useful to their organization, I can intelligently explain the uses and benefits. As a person who uses social media as a way to connect, however, I’m completely bored with foursquare. So, I’m going to take a hiatus. I’m not sure if I’ll come back, but if I do it will be because of changes that make it more social and unique from experiences I can get from any other site.

If taking a break from foursquare means I run the risk of losing the title of Mayor of Thrifty Rental Car in San Jose, so be it.

My first encounter with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) was in June of 2006 in San Francisco. I was working at an ad agency in Phoenix in the PR department, frustrated with the model of traditional marketing. Writing press releases and pitching journalists on stories they rightly had no interest in didn’t feel like relating to the public to me. I wanted to connect the public to my clients, and trying to convince a reporter for the LA Times that she should write a story about a tiny spa in Bullhead City, AZ just wasn’t cutting it.

Fortunately, the agency sent me to the WOMMA conference in San Francisco, and my life changed. Finding WOMMA was like finding professional religion to me; I was quickly converted and devoted to finding a way to practice word of mouth marketing. That conference, led by then CEO Andy Sernovitz, was full of enthusiasm and passion. It was a group people trying to build a marketing movement; it felt like the Obama campaign trying to win the Iowa caucus. The highlight of the conference was Jackie Huba’s compelling keynote address, where she opened our eyes to the power of enabling customers to become evangelists (that speech is still the best marketing presentation I have ever seen). Sernovitz and crew were creating more than an association; they were creating a discipline and wanted me on board along with anyone else with the passion and skill to move this thing forward.

Fast forward to last week in Vegas. I have my own word of mouth marketing business and some really great clients. I went to the conference looking to gain new, fresh insights on how to harness the power of word of mouth for my clients and my business. I returned poorer and frustrated, but with as much passion as ever for the discipline of word of mouth marketing; unfortunately, now I feel like my passion is not shared by the association that holds the discipline’s name.

When I registered and at the conference, WOMMA staff tried to convince me (with an albeit soft sell) to become a paying member. That’s not going to happen any time soon. Here’s why:

WOM is not all about social media. At the very beginning of this conference, social media was introduced as a “subset” of word of mouth marketing. What other subsets did they mention? None. This was not a word of mouth conference; it was a social media conference. I mean, the tagline of the conference was: “Beyond Social Media.”

WOMMA Summit Banner

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a BIG believer in the power of social media. I use it for my business, my clients, and myself all the time. But, social media is a tactic that helps generate and amplify word of mouth. It is not the whole of the discipline. Read Sernovitz’s book. No, seriously, READ SERNOVITZ’S BOOK! It’s about people, ideas, and conversation. He writes about word of mouth marketing, and yes, social media is in there as a tool for enabling the conversations. WOMMA is now solely about social media, mostly Twitter. This conference didn’t teach me a thing I don’t get in my inbox everyday from a surplus of “social media experts.” Andy Sernovitz was nowhere to be found at the WOMMA conference; I don’t know him, and I don’t know why he wasn’t there, but I’m guessing his vision doesn’t exactly jibe with WOMMA’s so much anymore.

What’s the benefit to me exactly? Each time I’ve been approached to become a member, I ask what the benefit will be to my company. Other than being able to say I’m a member and get a discount on the conference (which doesn’t make up for the $1,000 membership fee for a small business), I’ve been unable to determine a benefit. In fact…

I shouldn’t have to compete with my own trade association. WOMMA was very excited to sell us on their new Learn It, Do It! series that is “offering Brands, Agencies, and Non-Profits on-site education about Word of Mouth and Social Media Marketing” for the low, low price of $1250. Well, that’s one way a lot of word of mouth marketing consultants, like myself, make a living. Sometimes we’ll have to compete with each other for jobs, but we shouldn’t have to compete with WOMMA for work. I thought they were supposed to help us succeed, not take away opportunities from their members. If an actor has to compete with his agent for jobs, it’s times for the actor to fire the agent.

Costs too much for a very small business like mine. Like I said.

So, I’ve whined and griped (without even mentioning how amazing and right-on Emanuel Rosen was), but now I’ll tell you a bit of my vision for a better WOMMA. I’m not sure if WOMMA is interested and I’m not even sure that a better WOMMA for me is better for most its members, but for what it’s worth:

“Beyond Social Media”: Social media could – and should – be the biggest focus, but let’s look at the other subsets, and how to start offline conversations before we amplify them with social media. Let’s look at how to create the big ideas, the experiences, the products and services that get people talking, and then let’s give them a place to shout about it. And then, when we do talk about social media…

Look to the future. Jackie Huba talked about Shakira’s use of fan-generated video in 2006. In fact, it’s all in her last book. SERIOUSLY, READ BOTH OF HER BOOKS! Most of us know how to use YouTube and Twitter; we need to know what we’re going to use in the near future before it happens. I didn’t hear any content about Google Wave or Foursquare, much less whatever 3D-hologram-virtual-reality-social-community-marketplace is coming after them (hopefully including a jet pack).

A little humility, please. You don’t get credit for the popularity of social media. If I had seen Mark Zuckerberg or Biz Stone on the board or even a panel, it might’ve merited the amount of backslapping. We’re an industry about building relationships; being a little more approachable will go a long way. I will admit a lot of you have amazing hair, though.

On that note. I know you’re proud of the FTC thing, but now what’s next? Other “marketers” are abusing our channels in many ways. Most of my Twitter friends have let me know how to “make money online with Google.” Daily, hackers, spammers, and phishers are negating efforts of true relationship building. I have always respected how early WOMMA came out with its code of ethics. How can you help enforce more than just full disclosure on blogs?

Look, I’m not saying that other people or businesses shouldn’t join WOMMA. In fact, if you look at the Twitter stream from the conference (of which I was an active part) you’ll find that most commenters found value and show a lot more enthusiasm for the event. If you are a large brand with a big budget and a traditional marketing team that doesn’t already use social media, WOMMA may be exactly what you need. I’m saying that it isn’t what I need. And that sucks. I’d love to have the old WOMMA back to support and inspire me. I’d love to join 2006 WOMMA, but at least for now, that doesn’t seem like a possibility.