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JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- When most people step into a convenience store, it's to satisfy their hunger and thirst, pick up a pack of cigarettes or make another on-the-go purchase. But lately, chains such as Sheetz and Pak-a-Sak are encouraging customers to take pictures with store products, make art projects out of fountain cups and more. What's behind this? It's the new trend of c-store sponsored Facebook contests.
Once a method for university students to connect with their friends, Facebook has spread across the globe with nearly 700 million users, according to data from Inside Facebook. The c-store industry has long since taken notice, with companies like Wawa and 7-Eleven regularly advertising special deals and promotions on their Facebook fan pages.
However, multiple c-store chains have begun using their Facebook pages to encourage more interaction with customers. This summer, Kum & Go is inviting its Facebook fans to post pictures of their favorite store locations and explain why they like it. A new Fan of the Week is chosen from the participants each week and receives a $25 gift card.
Other companies also want their fans to get more hands-on: Pak-a-Sak is hosting a contest that runs through June, in which customers transform a Pak-a-Sak fountain or coffee cup into an imaginative "Cup Creation" and then post it to the company's Facebook wall. The Cup Creations with the most "likes" will be entered into a pool to choose a grand-prize winner who will receive $100.
According to social media experts at Vitrue, which provides technology solutions for social media marketing, no matter what the specific contests rules are, it's about changing the standard customer-company relationship.
"Social networks, led by Facebook, have provided a completely unique and extremely valuable communications platform for brands to communicate and actually develop true two-way relationships with consumers," Reggie Bradford, CEO and founder of Vitrue, told CSNews Online. "And it has completely upended the traditional marketing-communications paradigm. No other medium -- TV, radio, email, print, traditional CRM, websites, etc. -- has provided brands with this unique way to reach, engage, communicate and create relationships with consumers -- and in real-time, providing an immediate connection."
Sheetz is one such c-store chain that has pursued that connection. In its "Greatest Sheetz Sellout" contest, the company cross-promoted its own stores with Morgan Spurlock's product-placement documentary, "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," by asking fans to "sell out" and post Facebook photos or videos of them with their own Sheetz product placement. Sheetz appears as a top sponsor in the movie.
But the company doesn't just want fans to talk about their devotion in order to win prizes. Sheetz also injected a sense of childhood whimsy into its "Triple Dog Dare Ya" photo contest, which invites fans to post photos of themselves placing their tongues on any frozen Sheetz beverage for prizes that include an iPad 2 and gift cards.
Contests like these can bring dual rewards. First, requiring participants to feature store products promotes in-store foot traffic and drives sales. "A promotion that brings a consumer to the brick-and-mortar store is a plus," said Bradford. Second, and possibly more important, these contests are engaging. "Promotions/contests should be clever, engaging and fun," he added. "Non-fans just might get interested due to their friend participating or encouraging them to participate in the contest."
It's the social component that makes Facebook contests different from traditional store contests. The Facebook news feed shows users every "like." Their friends can click on every photo or video they post. This can help a contest go viral, attracting the interest of non-customers and customers who may not have thought about checking out a convenience store on Facebook. After all, people tend to be interested in what their friends are interested in.
However, Facebook users also have the option to hide certain news updates or only view updates from the Facebook friends they're most interested in via the Top News feed. This challenges c-stores that want to boost their Facebook presence to keep active without spamming their fans with too many updates. According to Vitrue, it's not the number of Facebook posts that matters, but rather the level of fan engagement within each post. The more enthusiastic fans are, the more likely they'll spread that enthusiasm to others. "A large fan base is great," said Bradford. "But an active fan base is more important."
It sounds simple, but it's important for convenience stores to know what they're after when developing a Facebook contest. "Every brand should have a clear strategy and goal(s) when developing a promotion or any type of marketing program on social communities," said Bradford. "And it should be in line with your overall marketing strategy. Some might be as simple and clear as increased fan base by a certain percentage; or as complex as drive increased brand awareness with current and potential consumers while increasing overall in-store traffic and specific product sales by X percent during the promotion."
Facebook contests may be a rising trend, but they're not just a passing fad. As marketing executives and CEOs increasingly treat social media as another important way to reach consumers, companies will most likely hold more of them. Vitrue expects social media budgets to increase threefold over the next few years, based on multiple industry reports.
Still, marketers must keep in mind that the amount of money spent will not necessarily be proportionate to fan response. "Remember, these are social communities that consumers choose to be a part of … or choose not to be," cautioned Bradford. "The more valuable and engaging brands can make that community, the more connected the consumer/fan will be to it.” When it comes to Facebook, that means making sure c-store retailers give customers something to "like."