The Social Sell

Ricker's taps Twitter to heat up fuel sales.

Linda Abu-Shalback Zid, Senior Editor

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The man sits in his car, refreshing the Twitter page on his phone. Finally, he is given the location—and it just so happens to be close by. He must get there, determined to arrive before others this time. He drives over, gets out of the car and rushes into the building. “Ricker’s Tweet Up Fill Up,” he says to the clerk behind the desk.

And just like that, he’s earned a free tank of gas. The program, the brainchild of Anderson, Ind.- based Ricker Oil, meant more than free gas to the f rst five people who responded to each of the fi ve tweets that went out at 5 p.m. each day from Sept. 27 to Oct. 1 last year. It also meant an inexpensive way to promote the 50-store chain as a destination for fuel.

Jonathan Bausman, director of media and brand development for Ricker, estimates that the $364.03 the company spent on the fuel equated to close to $30,000 in publicity value, based on the media, Internet and social-media exposure created by the program. (That $30,000 number comes from the cost it would take to run an ad at each of the media points, multiplied by three for publicity value, because it’s a positive story that the company didn’t have to pay for.)

And the total number of impressions garnered from that exposure: a whopping 124,749. “We defi nitely got a lot of bang for our buck,” Bausman says.

While gasoline sales remain weak nationwide, retailers have been experimenting with new ways to goose the largest of c-store categories, using everything from social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook to SMS messaging, loyalty programs and even day-part pricing. In this fuel environment of higher street prices and fl attening-to-declining margins, it truly is survival of the fi ttest.

For Ricker’s, the Twitter campaign created an immediate differentiation. “I think the reason why we got a lot of attention was because it was unique,” says Bausman. “There’s not a whole lot of retail companies that are utilizing Twitter like that yet.”

An App For That

Besides giving Ricker’s the rep of being an innovative company, the Twitter campaign helped it better gauge its customer base.

 “The nice part about social media is I can actually tell you very specifically who’s receiving my message, whom I’m interacting with,” says Bausman. He used hash tags to help him track who was talking about the promotion on Twitter, and a unique URL address for the video about the promotion on YouTube to see how many people clicked on it. The company also used Facebook to promote the program, because many of its 3,000 fans are in Indianapolis and Anderson, Ind., where the promotion was held.

Another benefit, he says, was interaction, as opposed to how other media such as television, radio or billboards work. He and company owners Jay and Nancy Ricker were at many of the fill-ups to congratulate the winners.

What is clear is that the campaign went viral: By the final day, it took only minutes for five people to take advantage of it. “It definitely drove people to our stores; there’s no discounting that,” says Bausman, who at press time was planning to relaunch the program within the next few months, but this time through Ricker’s mobile app, by which he’ll send an alert about the free gas. The app, created by GasBuddy as part of its OpenStore social-networking platform, was launched in early 2010. A built-in store locator enables participants to find the store easily. Bausman expects the promotion to also increase use of the app, which is available for BlackBerry, iPhone and Android operating systems.

Hot Fuel

One might wonder: Couldn’t Ricker’s have simply run the fuel promotion at its stores? Yes, but that also would not have tapped into the expanding world of social networking, and it also would have been easier for competitors to duplicate.

Jason Toews, co-CEO of Gas- Buddy, Brooklyn Park, Minn., says OpenStore is meant to serve as a one-stop shop for e-marketing tools for fuel retailers, including apps for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry, and an e-mail, SMS and social-media marketing platform. As of press time, 13 retailers had signed up for OpenStore, including Ricker’s, Kwik Trip, Rutter’s, Family Express, NOCO Express and Handee Marts. GasBuddy also designed a mobile app and website for Chevron corporate. Three additional retailers are currently undergoing implementation.

Retailers gravitate to certain features in the platform, Toews says. While Ricker’s is executing mobile promotions, Kwik Trip is focusing on SMS marketing such as textmessaging contests and promotions to encourage loyalty (see story, p. 69), while Rutter’s is centered on collecting customer feedback. Toews provided the following best practices for making the most of your fuel-focused social-networking efforts:

To encourage customer sign-up for your marketing effort—whether it be a Facebook page, Twitter feed or text effort—launch with a raffle. “Consumers like a deal, or a chance of winning something, so if I can either get something free or have a chance of winning a free prize (a $100 gas card or iPad), you get a lot of people signing up for deals and promotions.”

Consider coupons tailored for smart phones to push a promotion. “It’s a great way to connect with these people, it’s instant, and you can track that.” It also avoids fraud issues common with paper coupons, Toews says.

Engage customers on socialmedia sites where your brand has a presence. “You don’t want it to seem, especially on Facebook and Twitter, like you’re just spamming them with 10 cents off a Coca-Cola.” Toews suggests asking Facebook and Twitter followers a question, such as how far they plan to drive over the weekend or about their favorite c-store.

“By engaging the customer and not just sending marketing, you become a friend with them,” he says. “That’s what this is all about: building relationships with customers, collecting customer feedback, engaging with them on social-media marketing, and sending them cool promos and deals and giving them the chance to win prizes. Through customer feedback, it helps stores become better.”

At Ricker’s, Bausman kept the conversation going by posting video and pictures of the fill-ups on the company’s Facebook fan page. “It might seem to a lot of people on the outside like there’s some sort of secret sauce, or there’s a magic bullet, but that’s not necessarily so,” Bausman says. “It’s just another tool, like any other form of marketing or advertising.” 

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