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By Linda Lisanti
Unless you've been living under a rock, visiting some far-off galaxy, or are not even aware that something called the Internet exists, you've likely heard of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. You've also likely thought that these sites -- where members can share nearly everything about their lives -- are used only by the younger generations, and have little influence on your business. But you're wrong.
"Social networking started in the teen market, but the technology is starting to mature," said Catherine Brown, director of enterprise social networking for Dotster Inc., a provider of Internet business services. "We're seeing more diversity and more adults using it." Usage is growing exponentially and is not expected to slow down, she added. To see results from a study on social networking usage by age, click here.
For many people, social networking has become an integral part of their lives, with MySpace and Facebook each claiming hundreds of thousands of users. A recent survey of households by research firms TNS and The Conference Board found one out of every four people online visits social networking sites, and about half of social networkers visit on a daily basis. Of those who make daily visits, half say they log on several times a day.
People stay longer on social networking sites than on static Web sites because the content on these sites is constantly changing, Brown noted. With blogs, forums, chats, bulletins, picture and video sharing, and more, there's plenty to keep users amused.
The opportunity to reach millions of consumers in an entertaining and interactive way is leading businesses, including convenience store operators, to begin viewing social networks as an important marketing channel. When 7-Eleven Inc. redesigned its Slurpee Web site earlier this year, it added social networking capabilities so fans can now share photos, videos and post messages about the frosty beverage. From January to May, page hits on the Web site increased nine-fold, according to the retailer.
Shell Oil recently introduced new interactive features on its Web site, including discussion boards and a blog -- both forms of social networking. A search of MySpace and Facebook these days also finds multiple c-store retailers with official or non-official profile pages. Among them are Top 25 industry chains like 7-Eleven, BP's ampm, Chevron, Circle K, RaceTrac, Wawa, QuikTrip and Kum & Go.
"From a business perspective, we're on the cusp of social networking taking off," said Brown, who believes social media can benefit any business whether it's by developing an Intranet where employees can address issues and share best practices, or creating a customer-facing social network that a company can use to strengthen its brand.
Customer-facing networks may include social networking capabilities a retailer adds to its own company Web site, or a persona or presence it develops on third-party sites such as MySpace and Facebook, explained Don Ryan, vice president of technology and media for New York-based TNS. He suggests retailers incorporate both approaches.
However, Ryan cautioned that to make the most of either approach, brands must treat users like friends and engage them as friends, which results in a higher-quality bond.
He refers to this concept as "friending," and said retailers need to understand it demands certain core values in order to be effective. "You have to be authentic, open, provide value, form two-way communication, listen, be lively and interactive," he advised. "What you want to avoid is being one-way, static or authoritarian."
To see other guidelines for social networking, click here.
New Friends, New Business
Cody's Convenience Stores is realizing the benefits of friending. Tom Cook, vice president of operations for the 38-unit chain based in Springfield, Mo., said Cody's profile pages on MySpace and Facebook, which were set up earlier this year by its graphics designer, Andy Jared, help the retailer communicate with shoppers it might not otherwise reach, particularly the teen to mid-20s demographic.
"We're always open to ideas and different ways to generate interest in our company," Cook said. "This is a great way to advertise, to get your name out in a fun atmosphere, and a great way to interact with your customers in a different type of environment."
Since launching its MySpace and Facebook pages in March, Cody's has acquired more than 1,000 "friends." One of the ways it connects with these potential customers is by sending each friend a coupon on their birthday, with the offers ranging from 3 or 4 cents off per gas gallon up to 20 gallons, to a half-price pizza. "The returns we're seeing are as good as doing direct mail," Cook said, noting Cody's uses its MySpace and Facebook pages to promote its monthly in-store specials as well. "If we have hot deals going on, we want to make sure people are aware of them."
Feedback generated from MySpace and Facebook users also has provided the retailer with new ideas for promotions. "We got a comment once asking us if we had ever considered running a cross-promotion with ice and beverage multi-packs, so we tried it in July," Cook explained. "We did a free bag of ice with the purchase of any 12-pack of soda or beer. The promotion was well received. Anytime you get ideas from your customers, you want to roll with it."
Unlike Cody's, Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc. chose not to create its own "official" pages on MySpace and Facebook, but the chain does keep a watch on Sheetz-related postings and the several non-official Sheetz pages on these sites, according to Brad Doliveira, Sheetz digital communications manager. "We look to see what people are feeling; for broad-based issues whether it's service- or product-related; generally, what we're doing right or wrong. We also try to ensure, as much as we can, that there isn't anything being posted that would be harmful to the brand," he explained.
In lieu of third-party sites, Sheetz hosts a social networking feature called Overflow on its company Web site. The idea spun off from a Sheetz music video tribute that was posted on You Tube by Blue Steel, a group of teens from North Carolina.
"When we redid our Web site in 2006, we wanted to infuse more fun into the site, and have a fun way to interact with our younger demographic. Instead of just putting the Blue Steel video up, we said 'let's build off the You Tube phenomenon, and let customers post their own videos, songs and pictures on our site,'" Doliveira recalled, adding everything submitted for posting is first screened by Sheetz for appropriateness.
Today, Overflow gets about 3,000 views per month, with an average visit time of 5 to 6 minutes. Sheetz uses the site to market itself and its products, but in a very non-intrusive way. "People know instantly when they're being advertised to," Doliveira said, "so it's important to walk the line in the marketing sense."
Upon entering the site, users are forced to initiate something like clicking on a picture of a burger or a cup of Sheetz Bros. Coffeez. When they do, they find a tongue-in-check message about that product rather than a sales pitch or a cents-off coupon. "On Overflow, they see what our brand products are, but in a lighter way," he said, noting most of the graphical content takes a youthful spin. "We want to be representative of the Sheetz brand in certain aspects, but a departure, too."
The retailer is now working to add games to enhance Overflow, and even talking about creating an arcade concept that would compel people to return to the site again and again -- further building the brand connection. Sheetz has featured games on its Web site before -- one was a Pac-Man offshoot in which a cup of coffee chomps on cookies
Doliveira also believes there's future potential in establishing an Overflow-type site for internal use, based on the number of submissions Sheetz employees have made to Overflow since it began. Such a site, removed from public view, would foster team building and increase awareness of issues among the chain's 350 stores, he said.
Ultimately, whether it's an employee Intranet, corporate profile pages on MySpace and Facebook, or a social networking site all their own, experts agree social networks are a worthwhile investment for convenience store operators.
"Social media is an important marketing channel for retailers, and it's only growing in importance," said Ryan of TNS. "If a c-store retailer is not involved in social networking today, they should be in the next 12 months."
By then, with the continuing evolution of mobile devices and the amazing advancements being made in video games, there may be a whole new wave of social networks taking over the digital world.
"The trick is keeping up with the next big trend," said Sheetz's Doliveira. "It's a fun and frustrating job."