The Sweet Rewards of Tasti D-Lite's Social Loyalty Program

Social Technology Officer BJ Emerson reveals how the social elements of the company's loyalty program help boost customer engagement-and sales.

Frozen dessert franchise Tasti D-Lite built up a strong word-of-mouth following since its beginnings in New York City more than 20 years ago. With no traditional advertising, the company now has 50 locations in seven states and four countries, and has been featured in numerous television shows and movies. As its customers extended their passion for Tasti D-Lite to social media, naturally, the company followed.

In January 2010 Tasti D-Lite added social elements to its TastiRewards loyalty program. Whenever opt-in customers swipe their rewards card during a visit, point-of-sale technology automatically sends a preselected Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare message on behalf of opt-in customers to their social networks. The customizable messages contain mobile coupons as an incentive for their friends, and links to the loyalty program site. In return for participating, customers earn extra points and discounts towards free soft-serve treats.

Currently, one out of five members allow connections to at least one social network. Of those, 63 percent enable connection to one social network, 25 percent to two networks, and 12 percent to all three.

Many companies have social media programs in place, but it's rare to find one so tied to a specific loyalty program. We sat down with BJ Emerson, vice president of technology and social technology officer, to learn about his experiences incorporating social media into the company's loyalty program and overall customer strategy.

How would you define Tasti D-Lite's social loyalty strategy?

BJ Emerson: The company has had a cult-like following for the past 20 years. So when people started getting online and the technology came along for people to share their stories, customers started creating content around Tasti D-Lite. Our objective is to reward them for their digital activity and their brand loyalty. When they share online about Tasti D-Lite we want to recognize that and reward them for doing so.

We want to bridge the gap between all this virtual activity and the physical realm. You have all this digital content and all these conversations happening online. How do you convey that perspective in the physical space? For the past three and a half years we've been engaging with all kinds of social media and doing creative things. We have laid a foundation of being a social-friendly brand even before we launched the social loyalty program. We were put in Twitter's 101 case studies, we were doing creative things with mobile coupons, we were a launch partner with Foursquare nearby specials, etc.

Any brand can be engaging online. But what happens when the customer walks in and there's really no continuity between the online experience and the physical, in-store experience? We want to make sure that culturally we are an organization that is socially aware and social friendly.

In addition to the TastiRewards program, how do you bridge that gap?

It's a holistic approach from a number of different angles. One of the things we do is we have point-of-sale pole displays. As you're waiting, we can show Tasti Tweets, which are the Twitter conversations happening online. We're bringing that into the physical realm. People walking up to the cash register can see what people tweet about us. It's about communicating all this digital activity that's out there to each one of our locations so customers can see that. We can also show Foursquare tips, and have some different messaging around Google Places, Facebook, quotes from customers, etc.

In addition, we recently mounted "Tasti-Pad" iPads in different locations. It's essentially a customer kiosk where you can get different information about Tasti D-Lite. You can look at different nutritional labels for the different flavors, register your rewards card, watch a franchise information video, or sign up for mobile or email flavor alerts, which sends a message when your favorite flavor is featured at a particular location. Thousands of customers use that. Messages go out every day, and we're capturing their email or phone number through that. It's been a really interesting touchpoint because people get messages from us every day about which flavors are "on tap."

[It's] important to our brand to capitalize on the passionate following that Tasti D-Lite has and disseminate that as we grow domestically and internationally.

How have your social media efforts been received internally, and who owns the social customer?

It started from the top down. Our CEO Jim Amos saw that this was going to be something that would be huge for Tasti as far as the online presence and customers using online tools to spread the word. My background is in search engine optimization and Web development, so we started there, impacting search engine results, etc. Then we moved onto social media optimization, which is about optimizing the rest of the Web to drive traffic to your website.

In terms of who owns it, it has primarily come out of my discipline (technology). My job and responsibilities have grown and expanded to include this, so I'm the primary driver of a lot of things. I work very closely with our chief marketing officer who is a classically trained marketer. He has really embraced this, as well. Now all of our marketing campaigns have some sort of social element. It really works best when you use [social and traditional elements] in tandem.

I would hope over time that everyone in the organization would want to own it. Culturally, this is where I want to take it and I know our CEO has this vision, as well. That pushes down to franchisees and their employees so that we can be the social-friendly brand. I think there's a competitive advantage to being that.

During company meetings every two months I pull out customer insights and share stories and other things going on online. This really helps employees gain virtual perspective of what customers are saying and what they think about some of the things that we're doing. When you show [employees] the engagement opportunities that are out there, they understand that it's a no-brainer.

What have been some of the program's benefits?

With the loyalty card program, we wanted to let customers go across locations. We find that they spend more money on average, and that's a bottom-line benefit, and allows us to invest in more features for the program. Many people heard about Tasti D-Lite for the first time through social media. When we open a physical location, they have some familiarity with the brand already and we're finding that more people are recognizing that.

The engagement and the response that we've gotten from customers have been great. You take a little bit of a risk when you go on Twitter or Facebook, reaching out and trying to do something creative. But the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We've been embraced by customers.

What challenges have you faced?

In a franchise organization you have different franchise owners. We spent a couple of years putting in place standardized point-of-sale systems [with POS vendor pcAmerica]. That was something that we had to work through that other brands are also struggling with. We are probably a few years ahead of many other brands that don't have that centralized technology platform. And that's what has to happen first before you can roll out something like a loyalty program. We laid that foundation early, which was a challenge in the franchise organization. But once you have that foundation laid and the technology pieces in place then you can extend that with other things like the social loyalty, pole displays, and Tasti-Pads.

What lessons have you learned from the loyalty program so far?

We learned that we need to quickly respond to the communities. When we first launched we had one default message for our customers' social postings. We quickly turned on a dozen more choices so that we could get creative and fun with it. We also included links in these messages to coupons for their friends. All the objections [about it being potentially being spam] just stopped because we're providing choice and adding value with these coupons so your friends can benefit from your loyalty activity.

So responding quickly and being nimble when it comes to responding to the needs of the customer is something I think has been a great lesson.

What advice do you have for others looking to build a social loyalty program?

Listening is the most valuable thing you can do, and learn from the community. Before jumping into any one of these communities, listen. We listened for months to try to understand the opportunity, the etiquette, what's appropriate, what people will respond to, etc. Just blurting out marketing messages is not going to work. It requires engagement and investment in the communities.

Some companies try to outsource some of these campaigns and tools. Sometimes you can outsource engagement, but you don't want to outsource your relationships with customers. You're really hurting yourself if you're not capturing these insights from customers and pushing that into your culture and your organization.