Social Networking Takes Retail by Storm

Speedy Personalized Deals
Christianna Frizzell, customer relationship manager for Speedway SuperAmerica, said the best online responses will come from email blasts and text message campaigns if you know your demographic and keep contact timely and relevant. It can also be helpful to look at how customers are contacting you. For example, are they emailing or calling from a cell phone? Then follow up with them to see if they are interested in being contacted via email or text message.

Speedway, based in Enon, Ohio, operates and franchises more than 1,600 stores. It uses multiple social media mediums to communicate company information such as its Speedy Rewards and Chase-branded credit card programs, and personalized members-only deals.

Last September, 7-Eleven, the nation’s largest and most recognizable convenience store chain, launched an online music video competition at its frozen beverage fan page, www.slurpee.com. In just one day, more than 10,000 Web surfers—known internally at the Dallas company as potential customers—visited the site to participate.

This is not your father’s marketing. Communicating on billboards and terrestrial radio still has its place, but it’s rapidly being overcome by a more effective means of reaching a new generation of customers: the Internet. In fact, many experts believe social networking has become a vital strategy to connecting with the people you serve.

With more than 50 million “Millennials” between 18 and 29 coming of age in society, and known for their constant connectivity through technology, the presence of social media as a business tool is only going to grow. According to a recent Pew Research Study, three-quarters of Millennials have created a profile on a social networking site, compared with 50% of Gen Xers, 30% of Baby Boomers and 6% from the Silent Generation.

Social networking sites are attracting users at a rapid pace. In February, Facebook announced 400 million users, and Linked-In added its 60 millionth member in March, up from 55 million in December. Twitter has grown to more than 75 million. This means your customers are online and talking about you whether you’re in on the conversation or not.

“More than ever it’s imperative to be relevant to your customers. There are all these different conversations going around online and it’s important to listen and follow up on them, and that’s where social media can really come into play,” said Danielle Brigida, a social media consultant who advises retail chains and also serves as the social outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). “People are having these conversations about your (brand) and listening in can give you some good insights. It’s like a free focus group.”

Brigida has seen the results firsthand. Under her tutelage, NWF began its foray into social networking nearly four years ago and now has more than 100,000 fans on Facebook and 23,000 followers on Twitter. In addition, social media has helped drive 7-10 % of the traffic to its Web site NWF.org. Brigida’s knowledge is in such high demand she speaks on social networking around the country to help other businesses get started. 

Are You Linked In?
Kwik Trip Inc. in La Crosse, Wis., is among the convenience store marketers embracing social media. The 404-store chain has found social networking allows customers to access up-to-date information about its chain and promotions more easily.

“Customers are on-the-go and they can access our social networking pages on phones, PDAs or from laptops. It lets customers know what we have going on in our stores,” said Jenny Frandsen, marketing spokesperson for Kwik Trip Inc., which has 366 c-stores and 38 tobacco outlets in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Kwik Trip joined Twitter and Facebook seven months ago and began airing its commercials on the video-sharing Web site YouTube within the last two months. The chain also emails coupons to those who request the service via their Web site. Within six months of using Facebook, the chain had acquired more than 7,700 fans.

Just who is the chain reaching through its Facebook page? Currently, it has slightly more female than male fans, and the percentages for 18-44 year olds is fairly close, meaning the chain is able to reach a wide demographic. Its followers break down according to age demographics as follows: 18-24 (21%), 25-34 (33%) 35-44 (21%), 45-54 (13%) and 55 and over (6%).

“There has been a lot of response from our customers,” Frandsen said. “They (post about) what they love, as well as concerns, and we follow up. Someone might say, ’you should bring a store to this area,’ and I forward it on to our real estate department. We get a lot of feedback on a variety of topics.”

Frandsen also encourages feedback by posting questions to engage readers, asking them to name their favorite kind of Cheese Mountain Pizza, or what new pizza toppings they would like to see on the chain’s proprietary pizzas. She then sends the feedback to the proper department so it can be taken into consideration.

Twitter has been slower to take off for KwikTrip with 261 followers, and they are not alone. In January, ComputerWorld noted that while the number of Twitter users has grown dramatically, the growth rate of new users has slowed since July, and only 17% of accounts twittered in December, down from more than 70% in early 2007.

But before you stop tweeting, it’s important to note Twitter is still a viable and growing tool for businesses. Brigida noted she measures Twitter followers based not on the number of followers, but on how active those followers are and whether they are driving people to the site.

Having multiple social networking platforms allows Kwik Trip to reach its customers wherever they are and drive home the message it wants to convey about its chain. “What we load onto YouTube can also be linked to Facebook or Twitter, so we’re tying it all together so customers are getting the same information no matter where they log on, and keeping the brand message consistent,” Frandsen noted.

Brigida agreed that having a consistent message as well as a uniform user name and profile across all platforms is the way to go, because after seeing or hearing the same message a number of times, customers start to remember and believe it. “If you stay consistent with your username, it will make it easier for people looking for you to find you on all the different networking sites you’re on,” she said.

Joining the Conversation
One of the most effective steps for joining the online community is to begin using Twitter, or by setting a Google alert for your chain in order to find the people who are already talking—or blogging—about you. “Then you can start interacting with them instead of cultivating brand new audiences,” Brigida advised.

The conversations might not always be positive, but monitoring the chatter will enable chains to put out potential fires, such as criticism about the company, or a bad customer experience.

For example, in March a Virgin Atlantic airplane was trapped on the tarmac at Kennedy Airport in New York for more than four hours. Upset passengers began “tweeting” their frustrations, in real time. The tweets were picked up by newspapers around the country and even Virgin America’s CEO David Cush. Said passenger David Martin: “It’s the power of social media. One phone call from a disgruntled passenger would never get the CEO’s attention, but put it on the Web for the world to see and it becomes too big to ignore.”

Indeed, Cush personally called Martin to apologize.

If customers are venting, Brigida recommended weighing in when the problem is something that can be fixed. “If it’s something I can quickly solve for them, I’ll intervene, or if I just want to let them know I’ve heard them I’ll say, ‘thanks for the comment.’ But I won’t start with someone looking for an argument,” she said. “It works both ways. C-stores can use this as a customer service tool for reaching out to people who are dissatisfied, or those that have something nice to say by asking them to talk more about it.”

Another byproduct of getting involved in an online community is that it helps companies monitor where traffic is coming from. If bloggers are linking to your sit
e, you might want to reach out to them and thank them. Because of the shear number of new users migrating to social networking sites each day, your network is sure to grow organically overtime. The best way to encourage this is to provide value to the customers who visit your page.

“Being online just for your message doesn’t always provide value. If there are special coupons you can give people or ways to make them feel like going to your site is worthwhile, I would suggest that,” Brigida said.

If daunted by all the social networking options, Brigida suggested finding a social media blog you enjoy, which will update you on new sites that are increasing in popularity. In time your social media contacts will also alert you to new social networking opportunities that could help you reach more customers.

Email and Text Message Campaigns
When it comes to emailing customers, the more integrated the campaign, the more likely chains are to succeed. Having your email address listed on your social media pages so customers are familiar with it, as well as placing social media link buttons in the emails to help further connect with customers can increase the success rate of customers opening and reading your emails, Brigida noted.

With customers on-the-go, text messaging about special deals or sending coupons can also be a way to draw customers into the store. According to a Pew Research Study, some 83% of Millennials reported they have slept with a cell phone next to their bed compared to 68% of Gen Xers, 50% of Boomers and 20% from the Silent Generation, showing all generations are growing more reliant on their phones.

According to Epsilon’s 2009 Global Consumer Email Study, when companies send out a permission-based email, 69% of respondents are likely to click on the Web site link, 67% are likely to enter a sweepstakes or promotion and 58% are likely to purchase from the affiliated retail location.

For a higher success rate, be sure to keep emails value-centered and be careful not to send them too frequently, which can be off-putting to customers—although “too often” can differ between customers. “I only send something I would also send a friend, because for me everyone who follows us is our friend, and I also listen to their feedback,” Brigida said. “The most important thing to keep in mind is that you’re working to increase your relationship with your customers.”

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