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Social media is one of the most important things happening in marketing and media. It's changing the way people use the Internet. It's transforming how marketers communicate to consumers. And it's something convenience retailers should be using to grow their business.
C-store operators who have yet to tap into this emerging marketing medium are missing opportunities to have a unique two-way communication with their customers, and reach demographics they may not otherwise be able to reach.
"Social media is not a fad. It's a new communication medium that will be here for a long time," said Simms Jenkins, CEO of BrightWave Marketing, an Atlanta-based agency specializing in e-mail marketing and social networking programs. "Social media has become the No. 1 complementary platform to market your business. It's a great way to have that digital connection with your customers and prospects where they are."
Early on, social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter tended to attract a younger, more Internet-savvy population. However, over the last year as Facebook has gone mainstream, the population of this site and others like it now closely mirror the overall population of the Internet, noted Jon Gibs, vice president of media analytics for Nielsen Online, which tracks such factors as who goes to social networking sites, where they go, how long they spend and what people are saying on these sites.
"The idea of social media being a kids' platform is no more," Gibs said.
In fact, Nielsen research conducted in November 2009 showed nearly 53 percent of U.S. visitors to member community sites were between the ages of 35 and 64. Overall, there were 142.4 million U.S. visitors during the month, a year-over-year increase of 23 percent.
Among the various sites, Facebook attracted the largest number of visitors for the month at 109.7 million -- a gain of 131 percent year over year. Twitter, meanwhile, topped the rest in terms of growth, experiencing a whopping 501-percent boost in visitors, going from 3.17 million in November 2008 to 19.0 million in 2009.
Given the quantity and diversity of consumers frequenting social networking sites these days, it's clear why retailers are logging on and trying to take advantage of this medium.
In a survey of retailers conducted online by Miami-based Retail Systems Research from July to October, 52 percent said they have a presence established on Facebook; 45 percent on Twitter; 33 percent on YouTube; and 21 percent on MySpace.
Convenience store operators are certainly among the "connected" retailers, and their ranks are growing as more recognize the bottom-line benefits of social media.
"Where it tends to provide the best opportunities is for retailers who feel they can develop a good, unique relationship with consumers they may not have otherwise," Gibs explained. "If you want to be thought of as a fixture in your community, this is just another version of knowing the names of your customers and developing that relationship with them."
The experts caution, though, against diving in headfirst. To be successful, retailers must first develop a strategy with clearly defined goals. "Many companies just throw an intern on the social media site, and that's not good," Jenkins said. "You need to be really clear on what you're trying to do, and then decide how you want to engage consumers."
Finding the Right Approach
RaceTrac Petroleum, a chain of more than 525 c-stores in the Southeast, aims its social media efforts at communicating the company's brand message and meeting its guests wherever they are. The Atlanta-based retailer has maintained a presence on Facebook and Twitter for more than a year, and is looking to add several other up-and-coming social networks this year.
"Social media is another efficient and effective way to reach our guests and communicate to them quickly and easily," said brand manager, Dayna Reed, who is part of the RaceTrac team responsible for overseeing social networking. "We use [it] to communicate store openings, new product launches and other traditional company information. We also are using it to develop a more personal relationship with our guests, and further build the brand."
When it comes to determining success, Reed said each social marketing area is judged according to a different definition. RaceTrac monitors traditional fan count on Facebook, along with its number of followers on Twitter, and tracks the engagement of these followers and fans through their number of replies to the retailer's messaging.
"Our Facebook initiative is successful because it builds brand evangelists and encourages development of a community around the brand," she said. "Twitter's success is measured by our ability to informally converse with our guests at an unprecedented level."
For West Des Moines, Iowa-based Kum & Go, its presence on Facebook and Twitter is tied into marketing and promotions taking place at the chain's 400-plus stores.
This summer, the company partnered with 80/35, a multi-day music festival in Des Moines, on a promotion called "Ticket Tuesday." Every Tuesday for a month leading up to the event, Kum & Go released clues on Twitter and its Web site that led followers to a store in the greater Des Moines area. The first eight people to locate and arrive at the correct Kum & Go location won a pair of tickets to the 80/35 festival.
The promotion was a great success, according to Lisa Lewis, Kum & Go's advertising and promotions manager, and social media leader. "The Ticket Tuesday promotion generated thousands of unique visitors to our Web site, hundreds of new followers on Twitter and a lot of buzz in the social media community," she noted.
The c-store chain followed in the fall with "Fight Morning Face," a campaign designed to create awareness of its 99-cent coffee and cappuccino offer, and engage consumers socially. Individuals uploaded photos of their morning faces to a microsite, www.fightmorningface.com, for the chance to win a Kum & Go gift card and prize pack. With the click of a button, the consumer's morning face transferred onto his or her Facebook profile to share with friends as well. The retailer also communicated the promotion to its Twitter followers with links to both its microsite and Facebook page.
Meggan Kring, director of corporate communications, said one of the biggest benefits Kum & Go has realized from its use of social media is the ability for the brand to communicate with a demographic it may not have been able to reach through other mediums.
"This is an opportunity to share information by either pushing it out to a consumer base, or allowing consumers to pull the information," she said. "It's an efficient way to share events, programs, specials and put your products in consumers' hands to try."
Of course, social media is not only for c-store chains.
Matt Mailler, one of the industry's 85,000-plus single-store operators, started a Facebook page a year ago and has nearly 1,500 fans now. The owner of Matty's in Scranton, Pa., said the social networking site helps him drum up new business.
"You can reach people who would never find your business otherwise. It helps you grab the people on their routine who never look left or right, just straight ahead," Mailler said. "Also, if you don't see people for while -- if they haven't been to your store -- you can give them a shout and ask them where they've been."
Matty's uses its Facebook posts to let fans know what's happening in the store each day, what's on tap for the week, lottery results, new products and more. The independent retailer also has done promotions where customers who come into the store and mention a special Facebook post can win a prize.
Mailler said he tries to make his posts positive, fun and a little off-the-wall -- a reflection of the store's personality. "I want to give a sense of who we are in here," he said.
The good news for retailers is that consumers are open to marketers communicating with them through social media -- but there are certain stipulations, according to experts.
Companies must figure out their hook, said Brightwave's Jenkins. Businesses often provide coupons to those who follow them, but the communication has to go beyond constantly firing out offers. "If all you do is shoot out a "here's 10 percent off" offer four times a day, people will tune out. You have to engage and connect," he said. "Build it and they will come does not work on social media."
Retailers also must realize there is a need for authenticity of voice, and an expectation of responsiveness, according to Gibs of Nielsen Online. The approach can't be "I shout my message and put it on a billboard" or "I tell semi-truths about my brand." It's a two-way communication -- not a projection -- that is cultivated over time, he explained.
"There is a graveyard of dead Facebook and Twitter pages from companies who set them up and then walk away. If you're going to get involved, you have to stay involved," Gibs advised. "Once you cultivate this community, you must maintain it as a community, and actively communicate with the people in your community."