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    The Secret Behind Alon Brands' Mobile Success

    The retailer increased customer engagement and redemption rates via text messaging, social media and a social CRM system.

    DALLAS -- Three years ago, Alon Brands Inc. began to incorporate mobile marketing into its multi-channel promotion strategy and now, it's the heart of the overall program. Through text messages and social media -- offering its customers discounts, coupons, contests and games -- the company is building a database of loyal customers and tracking each interaction in a social customer resource management (CRM) system from PocketStop.

    "Texting was our gateway drug," Scott Shakespeare, Alon Brands' general manager of branding, advertising and promotions, told the audience at this year's MCommerce Summit in New York. "We started simple with pumptoppers and posters, telling customers to text in a code for an offer like a free Big Gulp with a tamale purchase, or a gallon of milk for $1.89, which is a $2 savings."

    Customers use their mobile phones to text in a unique code, and the company captures the phone number in its database. Each code is tagged with a unique number in order to track redemption, and customers simply show the text to a clerk at one of Alon Brands' more than 300 7-Eleven stores to redeem an offer. Also, each text sent out by the company allows customers to opt out by texting the word, "STOP," to cancel.

    "It builds a database that you can go back to, and we tag everything to a unique channel within that database," Shakespeare said, explaining that the database has grown 150 percent on a year-over-year basis. When a promotion is run, whether it's a text, new poster, postcard or other advertisement, each is tagged with a unique number to track where traffic is coming from and how customers are interacting with it.

    "If we do a promotion over five different markets, each promotion has the same keyword, but the last digit of the number is different so we can identify each market in the database," he noted.

    Before PocketStop's CRM system, the company collected scattered information, but now everything -- including social media interactions -- is housed in one place. When a texted response comes in, the system stores the cell phone number and zip code in the central database.

    "Everything feeds into the social CRM and connects in one database, instead of the silos of information we had before," Shakespeare said.

    In addition to its own company-operated stores, Alon Brands also supplies fuel to more than 850 locations, including Allsup's, Uncle's Convenience Stores, Pic Quik and Hop and Sack. This makes it harder for Shakespeare to be sure managers implement marketing programs at the store level.

    "Store owners have their own agenda and are busy, so when I say, 'I want to do a texting program,' I have to explain it," he said, noting that he eventually created promotional materials, so internally everyone would understand how the program worked and the benefits.

    Other examples of text messages sent to customers include: "7-Eleven FINA: Hurry in for the Happiest Hour! 7-11 a.m. & 7-11 p.m. get any size fountain drink for only $0.99! Stay tuned for future offers," and "ALON/FINA 7-Eleven: Get a FREE Medium Slurpee from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. April 5th ONLY! While supplies last, limit one FREE Slurpee per customer."

    These texts often include UPC codes and directions for store staff to enter into the system when the customer redeems the offer.

    "Texting is just really simple," Shakespeare told the MCommerce Summit attendees. "Everyone has a cell phone in their pocket, and while it may not be a smartphone, odds are good they have a texting plan."

    At one point, Shakespeare said he realized the company collected a lot of mobile telephone numbers, but didn't have many e-mails, so a text campaign went out asking customers to send their e-mail addresses for a chance to win GPS units. He cautions other companies, however, not to text too often or people will begin to opt out.

    "We don't send a text every day because everybody would drop out," he explained. "You have to respect the customer."

    Additionally, since each promotion is tagged, the company captures metrics to gauge which campaigns are successful. For example, a promotion offering $1 off of milk did better than its foodservice promotions, Shakespeare said. Coupon redemption rates currently range from 5 percent to 50 percent, depending on the offer, and website traffic increased by 25 percent as a result the mobile marketing.

    Another successful text campaign allowed the company to gain 3,000 "likes" on its Facebook fan page the first day it launched.

    Beyond Texting
    Aside from interacting with customers via text messaging, Alon Brands utilizes its Facebook page and a new consumer website, MyAlon.com, often running contests for customers to win prizes, including free gas, iPods and iPads.

    "I'm a big believer in giving stuff away," said Shakespeare. "We have received letters from people that were amazing and we didn't expect. One woman had a lot of health problems and a sister who was dying two states away, and winning a $2,500 gas card allowed her to get around. It's about making that connection with people."

    June promotions will include a Summer Roadtrip contest called "Snap-a-Pic;" a Best Summer Tunes contest on Facebook; a Dad of the Year essay contest; an Alon store scavenger hunt; and a text-based Father's Day haiku contest, according to Shakespeare.

    Since seeing how well the mobile technology has worked with customers, the company decided to extend it within its employee network as well to create a mobile employee communication system. For example, the company can send out a text message letting employees know a certain store needs a shift covered and they are willing to pay a bonus to whoever can cover it, Shakespeare said.

    Also, if there is an IT issue affecting a certain area, a text can go out to avoid a flood of help desk calls.

    "Once you have the technology in place for one thing, you start looking at where else you can use it," he said.

    Looking toward the future, the company researched mobile applications (apps), but found there wasn't enough smartphone use in the area yet, and before launching, Shakespeare wants to create an app that offers more than gas prices and coupons.

    "Right now, we are focused on mobile, texting, Facebook and foursquare," he noted. "We completely redesigned our Facebook presence and built online games to offer deals. We also launched the new consumer website."

    Alon Brands is also working on point-of-sale integration, so each promotion and customer can be identified. The company will be extending the use of its PocketStop social CRM functionality, too, to incorporate additional customer metrics from Facebook, foursquare and other social media sites into the database.

    "We could look at how many people bought coffee somewhere other than our stores through Facebook or foursquare, and then send them a coffee coupon for us," he said.

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