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Foursquare Frenzy

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Dennis Crowley, co-founder of hot location-based social service Foursquare, addressed a roomful of marketers in June. He asked for a show of hands of how many had tried to work with the company but didn't hear back. A lot of hands went up. The simple message: the still-small company is struggling to further develop its service while responding to the avalanche of requests.

Now, with $20 million in new funding, agencies are hopeful the digital world's new belle of the ball will build tools to help them use the service in deeper ways.

Adweek spoke with several agencies that report frustrating experiences with Foursquare. Some have found it both hard to contact and unwilling to come up with marketing ideas. One agency representing a major package-goods client said the company put the onus on the brand and agency to find the best way to use the service.

"They're not responsive and extremely hard to work with," said a digital agency exec who asked not to be named. "It's hard to bring campaigns to life. Nobody knows how to create a badge or ask [Foursquare how] to enable behavior. It's black magic." In general, he said, "it's pretty much unworkable."

One sticking point is Foursquare's strategy of initially limiting advertiser participation. Pepsi, for instance, has an exclusive lock on the soft drinks category. Additionally, Foursquare has identified one "charter advertiser" for some major categories, which it then works with to better understand what works before taking on other advertisers. While less formal than exclusive contracts, it nonetheless leaves some competitors out in the cold, if only temporarily.

"There have been a number of things we've been told we can't do because it's already being done in some markets," said Adrian Ho, a partner with Zeus Jones. Working with Foursquare, he noted, is in some ways similar to working with Facebook in its early days.

Foursquare doesn't "have the infrastructure that makes clients comfortable," Ho added. "It's a bit like the Wild West. It's hard to get meetings in person. It's hard to get time on the phone."

There is the danger the hiccups will sour relationships. Mark Drapeau, Microsoft's director of innovative social engagement, left a scorching comment on a blog post about Foursquare. He said he tried everything from e-mailing to calling to stopping by Foursquare's office in the hopes of doing a partnership for a Microsoft event that would include a custom badge. He said he eventually gave up.

"They're creating a new marketing opportunity," said Andrea Harrison, social media lead at Razorfish, which has yet to work with Foursquare on a program. "They don't have the packaged media kit ready to go."

Many startups, of course, experience growing pains. The company's smaller competitors, for instance, are also still figuring out how to work with businesses. Gowalla, for one, does not yet have self-service tools for businesses. Josh Williams, CEO of Gowalla, said it's working to develop them.

"There's a lot of hype in the space," he said. "There's promise of great things that will happen, but right now it's really fledgling."

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