What’s a city government to do when it finds that — although it has thousands of fans or followers on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter — it still doesn’t connect deep enough with residents?

Most just try harder to reach out using the same online platforms. A rare few, though, try to innovate by engaging citizens and pushing them toward e-government services.

The latter could be emerging in Minneapolis, where the local government plans to utilize social media to genuinely advance some of the city’s business priorities. Last week, in an effort to connect an increasing number of citizens to its services, Minneapolis joined the social networking site Foursquare. Minneapolis is thought to be the first city in Minnesota, and one of the first big cities in the U.S., to join this networking platform.

By “checking in” via a smartphone app or SMS to Foursquare, users share their location with friends while collecting points and virtual badges. Foursquare guides real-world experiences by allowing users to bookmark information about venues that they want to visit and surfacing relevant suggestions about nearby venues.

“While lots of cities are using social networking — and we are not doing it any differently — Foursquare will be used as an additional tool for the city’s administration to communicate with the people of Minneapolis,” said Matt Lindstrom, a communications specialist for the city of Minneapolis. “We hope to share our news and information with people who may not visit the city’s official website regularly to get that information. Or for those who might not see a story of one of our initiatives on the news.”

According to Lindstrom, although Minneapolis has a significant number of Facebook fans (8,600 “likes”) and Twitter followers (13,200), don’t necessarily reach people when they are “on the go”.

“With Facebook we proactively share a lot of our news almost on a daily basis; the driving force behind joining Foursquare is to reach out to the large [number of] registered users who log in to the social media site frequently,” said Lindstrom.

What Minneapolis officials like about the Foursquare’s potential, Lindstrom said, is that the city can reach users when they are engaged in a specific activity or are at a specific location. The reach, too, is potentially global.

Some social networking observers believe Foursquare can be used to have citizens and tourists rediscover their city with new (digital) eyes. According to its website, Foursquare currently has a worldwide community that is 15 million strong and logs 1.5 billion check-ins daily. Increasingly, businesses (with 60,000 registered entities) also are leveraging the Foursquare platform by utilizing a wide set of tools to obtain, engage, and retain customers and audiences.

Initial Goals

On Foursquare, Minneapolis will try to align the delivery of information about city initiatives with the location of the user. “We are using Foursquare to give information about an activity they care about, and we are giving them information about a city initiative that ties in to activities they are engaging in,” Lindstrom explained.

The city is starting off with a handful of goals. For instance, officials obviously would like residents to purchase pet licenses, which aids animal control efforts and helps to identify runaways and strays. “Therefore, we are using Foursquare to leave tips at area pet stores and area dog parks so that if anyone checks in at one of these locations they will see a tip about how to license their pets,” Lindstrom said.

Similarly, the city has also placed Foursquare “tips” at area high schools and libraries for its STEP-UP summer jobs program, “so when students or adults, for that matter, check-in at these locations, they will get a tip -- hopefully raising the awareness of the internship,” Lindstrom said. The thinking is that an adult who’s involved in a teenager’s life might see this particular tip and encourage the students to apply for the internship program.

“The city is against placing random tips,” Lindstrom said about the Foursquare strategy. The city is trying to be selective, strategic and thoughtful.  “So, we place tips at locations that make sense and are tied to a city initiatives or city objectives.”

Another of the city’s goals is to promote government transparency by helping people understand how to watch or track City Council and committee meetings -- in person, online or on a mobile device. Henceforth, if a residents checks in at Minneapolis City Hall, tips pop up for how to watch City Council meetings.

So far, Minneapolis has bagged about 155 users who are following the city on Foursquare. Although that’s a minuscule number compared to its Facebook and Twitter followings, John Marino, CEO of Minneapolis-based RSP Marketing, said “Minneapolis has done a fantastic job” by joining Foursquare.

“Besides giving the city another platform to reach out to its residents, Foursquare also gives the city a better idea or better measure of what people are using and talking about,” Marino said. “For example, [if] people are checking in a lot at a park, then the city has a great way of knowing or gauging what is getting popular and can target development plans around that knowledge.”

This is why Lindstrom considers Foursquare “only the beginning.”

“We are always looking for new ways to reach people,” he said. “We are still researching on the locations to be added [to Foursquare]. Residents can look forward to a few possibilities -- like farmers markets, tips on healthy eating, growing and supporting local food.”

Indrajit Basu is a Digital Communities contributor.

Indrajit Basu Indrajit Basu  |  Contributing Writer

Indrajit Basu is an international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.