Reward Point Revolution

By Christina Volpe, Associate Editor | May 06, 2011

When it comes down to how companies should leverage technology there are two schools of thought: you can choose to support your organization through technology or you can choose to empower it. BJ Emerson, vice president of technology for the 50-unit frozen dessert chain Tasti D-Lite (www.tastidlite.com), believes in the latter.
 
“I almost feel like a technology ambassador,” he says, explaining his role in the advocacy for cross-departmental collaboration, especially as it pertains to how IT can empower marketing’s social media efforts. “I think that part of our job is to provide visibility to what’s going on online related to the brand.”
It is this proactive thinking that led to the development and execution of a revolutionary customer engagement strategy that bridges the gap between customers’ online and in-store experiences. And at the center is a loyalty program that lets customers earn points through their social networking connections.
 
The ‘A-ha’ moment
When the online portion of its nation-wide customer loyalty program was being developed, the folks at Tasti worked with POS vendor pcAmerica (www.pcamerica.com) to come up with a game-changing notion that would connect guests’ social networking activity with brick-and-mortar purchases.
 
The process begins when customers log onto their myTasti.com account to register their Tasti TreatCards. MyTasti.com features many of the bells and whistles that can be expected of an online loyalty program component, such as the ability to check rewards point balances. However it also offers customers the opportunity to earn extra loyalty points by opting into a unique feature that enables a secure connection to their social networks of choice, made possible though Tasti’s partnerships with loyalty processor, Mercury Payment Systems (www.mercurypay.com) and pcAmerica [In February of this year, the start-up firm SNAP (Social Network Appreciation Platform; www.snapforbusiness.com) was created as an off-shoot of these partnerships, to integrate in-store loyalty programs with social media].
 
Here’s how it works: Every time a customer’s TreatCard is swiped at the point-of-sale, an automatic message is sent out to their Twitter, Facebook or Foursquare account telling their network of friends that they just earned TastiRewards points. To avoid monotony, customers are able to select from a handful of pre-approved massages, or even create their own, which are then selected randomly and sent out whenever their cards are swiped. If enabled, an automatic check-in is also generated on Foursquare for the customer at the Tasti D-Lite location. This turns an active check-in into a passive check-in through the use of the loyalty card. And lastly, the messages that are blasted out to users’ social networking connections will periodically contain links to coupons.
 
“Many of them [customers] were already talking about Tasti D-Lite on these networks,” says Emerson, noting that the company had been engaging and investing in these online communities for some time. “It wasn’t a surprise to customers that Tasti brought social into the loyalty program because we had already done some creative things with Twitter and Foursquare. It was really a natural continuation.”
 
Since launching a little more than a year ago, roughly 95 percent of Tasti’s locations are invested in the loyalty program; and one out of five registered myTasti.com members have opted into the social networking feature. With a growing base of 24,000 loyalty customers, and a greater percentage registering online each month, Emerson expects the adoption rate to continue to increase. “We expect that to grow rapidly,” he says. “We have some locations where two-thirds of the transactions are loyalty transactions. So if we have a lot of new locations like that opening up where the franchisee is aggressive, then we expect that the numbers would grow at a given rate, granted we are educating the franchisee on this opportunity from the beginning.”
 
Laying the foundation
For Tasti, one of the keys to successfully pulling off its social-friendly loyalty program was in having a social presence prior to its start. “If we had jumped into this thing before previously investing in these communities, then it would be a little different. I think they would have been a little more skeptical,” says Emerson.
 
In fact, he notes that when it comes to social media, one of the biggest mistakes that companies can make is to jump into the conversation without first understanding the spirit and the etiquette of the community. “It is like a bank. You can’t go into a bank, open up a checking account, and then say, ‘I would like to withdrawal $500.’ They are going to look at you and send you on your way. You have to put into it before you can take out of it. So companies that try to withdrawal without making an investment are going to fail.”
 
Emerson notes that listening is a requirement that should never take a back seat. “Part of the challenge is continuing to listen to those communities and always going back to step one, which is remembering to go back and stay in the listening posture to receive feedback even after some of the success that you have had. You have to be consistent.”
 
While Tasti’s previous social networking efforts helped to facilitate the adoption of its loyalty program, a number of preparations on the back-end proved instrumental, such as having a standardized point-of-sale across all of its locations. “It is something that took us some time, but we did it, did it early, and got it right the first time. That provided us this platform, or this foundation, to which we can extend a number of different things,” says Emerson, such as the addition of pole displays (provided by Logic Controls; www.logiccontrols.com) that show rotating Tweets from customers, and iPad customer information kiosks called TastiPads.
 
The TastiPads, which are only available in select locations, enable customers to register their Tasti TreatCards, access nutritional information, search for locations, view franchisee videos, and sign-up for FlavorAlerts (daily messages that alert customers of the flavors that are ‘on tap’ for that day). The addition of QR codes allows customers to take information with them. “So we are bridging the gap by allowing customers to get it [information] on a mobile device, and walk away with it so that they can learn more and keep it with them,” says Emerson.
 
Don't forget the front-line
While implementing a standardized platform can prove to be an enormous undertaking for any company, getting your people ready is just as important. “Those go hand-in-hand,” says Emerson. “Getting the platform ready is one thing from a technical standpoint, but then you cross a line and you need to get your people ready. It doesn’t matter how innovative you are. If the person behind the counter looks at you with a blank stare and doesn’t understand the program to be able to execute on it, or to be able to offer the benefits to the customer, then we have failed,” he explains.
 
To prepare its employees, implementation guides outlining the program were distributed in addition to one-on-one training. “We did go location by location to do some hands-on training with them, and then all new locations as they are opening are fully trained.”
 
Next steps
So what’s next for Tasti? The company plans to introduce leaderboards that enable customers to compete against their friends for points, and customized badges that are unlocked at certain point levels or after a designated activity.
 
“You can get really creative with these things and encourage different customer behavior,” says Emerson. Imagine this scenario: operators reward customers with extra points for their group loyalty by encouraging customers to bring their friends to a location. “When a bunch of [customers] show up at the same time, and when your transactions are within a certain timeframe, together maybe you will all get a certain badge, and with that get extra points because of your group loyalty.” Now that’s social.

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