Virtually Farming For Public Relations or How Not To Game The System

Let’s say you’re BP. You are nearly fifty days into what could be the worst environmental disaster in United States history. Ouch, that’s going to be a heck of a public relations nightmare, isn’t it? But, wait, here’s an idea! Why not invite all those connected Facebook users who live along the Gulf coast to play a game to raise awareness about the environment!

Volunteers could “check in” at locations via Foursquare and unlock badges for their volunteer efforts. Or they could earn patches of the ocean as rewards — similar to the (Lil) Green Patch game on Facebook that empowers users to fight global warming.

That’s just the kind of strategy companies and organizations need to be pursuing to win public relations battles in this social-networking era. (Source)

Yes, because while you’re looking out on the shore and see the oil on the horizon threatening your family’s future and your community’s economy and environment FarmVille will solve the problem.

I’m sorry, but if I were living in Louisiana and BP sent me an invite to “check in” and unlock badges or get myself a patch of the ocean as a reward I’d tell them where to virtually stick it.

Social gaming is pretty darn big as anyone with a Facebook account and a million invites to Mafia Wars will tell you. With applications like Foursquare and Gowalla providing virtual merit badges for physically roaming about town, there are opportunities for businesses to really turn online interest into offline activity in new and exciting ways (insert “ooohhhh” and “aaahhhh” here).

Social gaming requires a certain level of buy in and effort by the users, usually for little reward other than bragging points. It is the companies who help create real world reasons to play that capitalize best off of this.

Richmond has already experienced a few local examples of businesses utilizing Foursquare successfully. Westpark Beer & Wine hosted a Foursquare Swarm Badge party in March, filling the store with over 50 customers who enjoyed a wine tasting and received a 10% discount through the end of Spring just by showing their Swarm Badge. Many local businesses are already rewarding Foursquare users all sorts of discounts and freebies not just for Mayors but just for checking in.

National brands such as Starbucks have also started offering rewards. Pepsi has developed it’s own application, Pepsi Loot, that tells you where to find the closest delicious Pepsi and rewards you for checking into Pepsi serving establishments with free music to enjoy while partaking of your delicious cola.

What makes these attempts successful are the REAL rewards given for virtual efforts. Foursquare just gives you badges that look neat on your phone and maybe profile. Foursquare + businesses = free stuff that make you really want to play more because, hey, who doesn’t like free stuff?

Companies aren’t just getting on board with location based games. Zynga, the folks you should blame for FarmVille and Mafia Wars, have teamed up with 7-11to provide packaging for your hot dogs that include codes to get you stuff for Zynga games. Not only that, but 10% of the United States spends their time playing FarmVille. Yes, that’s right, your grandmother and at least two of your cousins are playing FarmVille.

There’s gold in them there virtual hills for businesses and organizations who can wisely invest in the medium.

It’s a matter of finding your niche and utilizing it properly. But also working the measure into your already existing Public Relations strategy (or nightmare depending on what’s happening).

If you’re, say, Roundup and you want to spread your brand’s name, latching onto something like FarmVille might be a smart play:

But Roundup isn’t faced with an environmental disaster that will take years to measure the full results of.

If you’re BP, is this a wise investment? Do you really take your money and personnel and image and buy into a game when public opinion right now is that you aren’t doing enough to stop the spill? That you aren’t taking it seriously?

That’s thousands of dollars BP could and should be putting into clean-up costs, measures to help small businesses in the effected area, local charities that will be directly impacted by the catastrophe. Real world investments that are the kind of public relations BP needs to be “buying” right now.

Look at Nestle, a small chocolate company you may have heard of. They got into a bit of bad publicity that they handled very poorly on Facebook when an organized Greenpeace effort to give them grief over its use of palm oil succeeded mainly because Nestle’s social media presence acted like jerks. What did Nestle do to help their image? They didn’t invite folks to plant virtual trees in their farm. They didn’t ask people to volunteer to go to the rain forest and replant trees they had a hand in cutting down in exchange for virtual badges or plots of forest to claim as their own. No. They partnered with The Forest Trust and began work on changing the way they do business to be more environmentally conscious in the future. They developed a strategy that created real world results for their efforts.

BP’s trying to buy forgiveness. And you don’t get that with virtual rewards that rely upon the efforts of those you are trying to win over. You get that by actually investing in the physical things that play directly into the results you want to see. You spend your time and money focusing on the communities directly impacted by the disaster. Because no matter how bad this spill gets, Facebook, FarmVille, Foursquare? They’ll still be there. But will the Gulf Coast?