Social Media Musings

Targeting web strategy and top technology trends

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

CHICAGO -- While attendees at last week’s convenience-focused technology standards conference worked toward identifying emerging industry trends, online consultant Anthony Shop helped put those trends in perspective.

Speaking before about 60 retailers, suppliers and manufacturers, Shop, founder of Washington, D.C.-based Social Driver, said that while daunting, social media is a fast, cheap way to establish the kind of two-way relationship between retailers and customers that used to exist when his grandfather owned a gas station.

“My grandfather used a cigar box as a cash register,” Shop said. “But he’d always complain to me about how customer service today wasn’t like what it was back then. When he had his store, they’d go out to the cars, fill the gas and talk with customers. It was a community.”

To grasp the community-building potential of social media, the first thing retailers need to do is step away from having a “broadcast mentality,” where options like Twitter or Facebook are used simply to “push” content. “Social media brings people together around a conversation, like a campfire,” he said. “It’s a way to get people together, with information going back and forth.”

Shop named a few common industry problems social media can address:

  • Reducing customer-service call volume: If a retailer is prepared to respond directly to customer complaints via Facebook or other social-media outlets, then that company can cut down on the number of phone calls it accepts on its own lines.
  • Increasing awareness of the branding and marketing message: As companies work to develop the community tied to its brand, a stronger, more direct communications pipeline builds.
  • Quicker feedback from customers: Shop mentioned a soft-drink company that used a particular word in an ad that apparently offended customers. Fortunately, the supplier discovered the mistake before that ad rolled out and was able to correct the situation.
  • Connecting employees: With most employees having cellphones, communications about promotions and other important customer-facing information can flow to those devices, Shop suggested.
  • Recruiting talent: Again, a stronger pipeline to customers can also result in a better way to identify potential new employees.


What companies need to do, however, is to first identify their core strategies and then align them with an outcome. Often this preliminary work will lead to the kinds of social-media activity--be it texting programs or smartphone applications (apps)--that are warranted.

A second step would be to review existing programs that are working and build upon those, as well as to tweak or eliminate what’s not working. An assessment of what the company owns in terms of its own communications networks and what it shares is also a part of this review.

Eventually, the company will veer toward social media methods that make sense. Shop said this phase typically asks questions about when and how people like to receive information. People expect certain levels of privacy and control over what retailers tell them.

“If you don’t have permission, you’re interrupting,” Shop said.

Strategies to gain permission over time can start several ways, one being search engines, he said. A good question for a company to ask is: What comes up when people search online for the chain or the goods and services it provides? Does the webpage provide them what they need? Or with regards to a Facebook response, is it helpful or possibly even witty?

The conversation that naturally starts with social media feeds itself in many ways. Shop said awareness of brands and their web presences builds as more people talk about them online. He likened it to a road map, where rural areas have thinner, fewer roads, but cities have bolder roadways and a concentration of lines that define it as a hub.

Timely responses to Facebook comments, for instance, give the impression that the chain is actively engaged. A witty answer to a complaint may then elicit a positive reaction and in turn, that customer sharing the response with others. All this activity builds back to the brand’s presence online.

Shop said he knew of a company that identified “influencers,” or individuals within its e-mail list that appeared to have a large number of social-media friends. In addition to that group, the company added people who communicated with larger groups as a matter of profession or community activity. The company communicated directly with this select group to engender affinity. The effort resulted in a surge of interest in its website and offers.

PCATS members themselves were very engaged in the discussion, both for its standards committees and for growth as a not-for-profit entity in its own right. Gray Taylor, executive director of the Petroleum Convenience Alliance for Technology Standards (PCATS), led the group in a strategic-planning discussion to identify critical technology trends facing the industry.

Three of the top topics included mobile trends, digital promotions and loyalty mining, and data security and Europay MasterCard Visa or “EMV.” In addition, the group believed digitized customer identity, social media, price synchronization and wireless communications between the store and the customer or even the car itself were also of growing importance.

The four-day PCATS meeting in Chicago involved retailers, suppliers and manufacturers, gathering to discuss and develop technical standards for devices, services and processes relating to the c-store industry. PCATS is affiliated with the Alexandria, Va.-based NACS.

Angel Abcede, CSP/Winsight By Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP
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