Text-Message + Twitter Check-In App

(TL;DR: I built a thing! Go here to play with it, or read on to find out the story behind this.)

Last week I was in Los Angeles -my first time in the city- to speak at WebCongress about how to create affordable content.

I spend all day alongside my friends and colleagues at Distilled working with clients who have large creative & content budgets, doing work that can have huge impacts on their brands and businesses. We rarely put our name to the work, but occasionally we do get to blog about it.

However, since the audience at WebCongress was predominantly smaller brands with more modest budgets, the premise of my session was that there are plenty of ways to create engaging content without spending tens of thousands of dollars. Click below to see my whole deck -with the audience-bating title of "The Growth Hackers Guide to Creating Content"- or visit slideshare.com/RobOusbey.

Growth Hacking Your Content Strategy

I'd given examples & case-studies for every single tactic throughout the session, but I wanted to prove just how possible it was to put these into action. So, in the 24 hours leading up to the conference, I worked on creating a number of quick & dirty pieces of content.

One piece that I built was a single webpage, finished minutes before I went on stage. When I pulled it up onto the conference screen, it contained just an instruction to text your twitter username to a certain number. I'd only sent one text to see if it worked, so after about 10 seconds with my heart in my chest, I was relieved when the first profile picture appeared on the screen.

With each person that sent a text to the number, it immediately displayed their Twitter profile image - through the magic of modern APIs.

Text message check-in app, as presented at WebCongress LA 2015

Over the next minute, dozens more images appeared on the screen and scrolled away. It was fun!
OK, it's simple and trite, but I'd built it, and it worked - and that's my kind of fun. This was something I'd always imagined would be awesome to have onscreen before a conference or event; a more shared experience than checking in to an event on Lanyrd or Foursquare.

So, I spent a few hours over the last two evenings tweaking the code - mostly so that people can create their own dedicated pages for an event. I'm now ready to throw it out into the world and see if it's useful for anyone else.

How To

I'd love you to go and try it out. Here's the simple 'How To':

  • Visit CheckInText.appspot.com
  • You can immediately test it by sending a text message with your Twitter username to the number you see on the screen. (NB: this only works from the US at the moment.)
  • Hopefully you will only have to wait a second before you see your profile image appear on the screen.
  • You can hover over the images to discover the Twitter username and click through to visit their profile.
  • Do adjust the browser size (Control/Command and +/-) to find the balance between the text and images on each page.

And here's the 'Expert Mode', so that you can immediately use it for your own team or event:

  • Visit any subfolder on the site, for example: http://CheckInText.appspot.com/MyEvent
  • You'll see the last ~10 people who added their image to this page.
  • Follow the instructions again, and send the keyword plus your Twitter username. It will appear exclusively on this page.


The Future

I don't know how long I'll actually leave this up for, since every text message received costs me real money.

If anyone's interested in a custom version of this for their own event, I'd love to create that for you. The back-end code is complete, so we could quite easily create a page that matches your branding, and uses a personalized phone number (eg: "555-MY-EVENT") or a 5-6 digit shortcode (such as 31337 or 420420). Plus, everything would be locked down & private.

This would look fantastic on a screen in the lobby of your office, or on the stage between sessions at an event.

Contact me if you'd to talk about the opportunities!

How Does It Work?

My usual disclaimer here is: I am not a programmer or engineer; I just taught myself to write some code. Even calling myself a growth hacker does a disservice to many people who excel in that role. So please bear this in mind when you see any of my code.

As I mentioned, my conference session was about hacking things together, as cheaply as possible, which (for me) often involves relying on as many existing services or APIs as possible. Over the last ~5 years, the explosion of different time-saving frameworks has been incredible for people like me to create things quickly. (You can see the only active lines of 'real' code for the conference version of the tool on this slide.)

So, the ingredient list for this app was:

  • Twilio: the magic service that deals with all the text messages, and also helped me get a kick-ass phone number for the project. I'm only using it to receive inbound texts here, but it does voice calls and outbound SMS equally well
  • Dweet.io: I'm using this to handle the Websockets, so the browser doesn't have to refresh all the time. It's ridiculously easy to use.
  • Cloudinary: This image management service is actually saving me the headache of using the Twitter API. They have a URL format that allows me to pass a Twitter username in the URL, and receive the user's profile image - wonderfully easy to use
  • Google App Engine & Python: so that I don't even have to learn about provisioning servers or anything else. Just write code, test it locally and then push it live. Python makes everything as simple as import antigravity
  • Twitter Bootstrap: because it's great to have a simple base where I can just change a few colors and not worry about building the front end from scratch
  • jQuery: deserves a mention because it means I don't even have to learn to write Javascript properly.



I loved playing with Lego as a kid. Smushing these different services together to build new things is totally the grown up version of sticking some colorful bricks together.

I'm grateful to the Webcongress & Distilled team for letting me present on the topic, and the enthusiastic audience who gave such positive feedback. Thanks to my friend and fellow speaker Ian Lurie for summarizing my "tell them it can be done, then show them it can be done" process.

(For some much more SEO focused advice, read Ian's deck: Where Rankings Really Come From.)

Finally: I don't have a name for this thing at the moment. Any suggestions for a good domain name would be much appreciated. (The obvious candidates like check.in or checkin.io are in the frustrating position of being registered by unused.)

Have fun with the tool, and feel free to send me any feedback!

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