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The State of C-store Industry Digital Marketing


Technology continues to shape the way we live and work. Personal computers in the ‘80s, the Worldwide Web in the ‘90s, and the modern-day smartphone in 2007 each had a profound impact on how we form new connections, communicate with others and conduct commerce.

Convenience store retailers are adapting how they engage consumers in this evolving environment. For example, more than one-third now have a mobile app. However, the mobile app is neither the first nor the last technology convenience retailers will apply to marketing.

Retailers recognize such tools have the potential to enhance experiences, strengthen relationships and generate value. We’re already witnessing shifts in how consumers and brands spend their money. Therefore, it’s vital for retailers to have sound strategies guiding how innovations are leveraged. So, what should c-store retailers do to drive stronger results?

Convenience Store News, sales and marketing firm Balvor LLC and industry consulting firm Brick Meets Click collaborated to examine this question. This article draws on the insights we gained by engaging U.S. convenience retailers and understanding their views on and usage of marketing technologies — or what is commonly referred to as digital marketing.


“Digital marketing” refers to the use of digital media channels in support of broader marketing and business objectives. These “digital media channels” are defined in a similar manner as traditional media — like radio, print or billboards — based on how the message is broadcast.

Each channel (see Table 1) may consist of multiple “platforms” that support different forms of content (e.g., text, image, video) and types of content (e.g., owned, paid, shared).

“Devices,” whether a computer, mobile phone, tablet, etc., allow consumers to access platforms in order to, at a minimum, receive messages. “Technologies,” such as beacons, geofencing or even shopper reward programs, are tools that enable more targeted communications.


The website has typically served as the digital hub. However, it appears some c-store retailers are now assigning that role to social media. Today, more use social media than a website (see Figure 1). The social channel’s presence has grown since 2011 when usage stood at 46 percent, according to earlier joint research conducted by CSNews and Balvor.

Nowhere is social media’s growth trend more evident than with c-store retailers operating 50 or fewer locations. In fact, between 2011 and 2015, usage grew from 28 percent to 53 percent among retailers with one to 10 stores, while it increased from 54 percent to 86 percent for operators of 11 to 50 locations. In this area, small and medium-sized convenience store chains have played catchup with the bigger retailers because well over 90 percent of the larger c-store chains were already using social media in 2011.

The lower usage rate for mobile (36 percent) is understandable since mobile has been in the market for less time, requires a different level of investment, and may not be a good fit for all retailers. It’s also interesting that only 40 percent of retailers use texting even though it’s the least complex and has the broadest consumer reach.


When retailers describe how well digital channels support their marketing strategies, social media performs the best (see Figure 2). Nearly half of those using it indicate their efforts are working well or are best-in-class. But these views are affected by how performance is evaluated, which helps to explain the lower scores that email and text both receive.

It’s clear based on the primary strategy used with each channel that retailers are relying on different metrics to evaluate social media, and mobile to a lesser extent (see Table 2).

We found that 41 percent of retailers focus on creating excitement with social media, while 47 percent attempt to drive traffic with mobile. Whereas, retailers are leveraging text (80 percent) and email (77 percent) to drive traffic.

What retailers actually know about performance is also influencing their perceptions. It turns out less than half of the retailers surveyed give their own company a “B” grade or higher for doing a solid or outstanding job in the area of effectively evaluating digital marketing activities on a consistent basis (see Figure 3). In other words, there’s an opportunity for retailers to better understand which indicators they should measure and how often these indicators should be monitored.


Only one in five c-store retailers surveyed (22 percent) have a sound, strategic framework guiding what their company and team members are doing in digital marketing.

However, when a sound framework is present, retailers have significantly stronger organizational alignment with category managers and vendor partners (see Figure 4) because the framework fosters collaboration, improves coordination and clarifies choices.

Establishing lines of authority and assigning accountability are other foundational components of a framework. Our research reveals that retailers who have a sound framework are dramatically more likely to have well-developed roles and responsibilities (73 percent vs. 33 percent), as well as planning and budgeting processes (68 percent vs. 21 percent). These specific aspects help to minimize conflict and ensure the appropriate allocation of resources.


Strategy is about making choices based on fit and competitive positioning. The level of success attained is dependent on doing many things well that are consistent with overall strategic direction, reinforce other activities and optimize the shopper’s experience.

Analyzing a range of capabilities — from identifying opportunities to consider, through monitoring the effectiveness of activities — retailers with a sound framework perform at 73 percent of effectiveness while those without are trailing at 47 percent.

As far as the specific capabilities, retailers are strongest relative to rolling out and promoting activities; whereas, developing the business case is generally the weakest.

It’s not surprising that rolling out receives the strongest score as retailers are very good at getting consumers to like, follow, subscribe or download via promotional offers. The challenge is ensuring digital marketing activities are generating the desired outcomes and to do that, requires retailers to work on the business case and monitor efforts to assess gaps between plan and actual results.


Digital media possesses the potential to broadcast more relevant messages, which retailers may define based on geographical, personal, spatial or temporal measures. However, the benefit of targeting is only as good as the retailer’s capabilities, or if it fits with the overall strategies as we learned.

Time (e.g., seasonal event, day of week or time of day) is the most common targeting tactic, used by 31 percent of the retailers surveyed (see Figure 5). It is a standard feature of most digital platforms.

When it comes to geographical targeting, nearly 30 percent of retailers use a static location set by the consumer, like their preferred store. Meanwhile, 11 percent use dynamic locations that depend on consumers opting to share their location and receive notifications. This appears to be a still-emerging opportunity.

In terms of targeting by customer, just shy of one-quarter of c-store retailers are doing this today. While a sophisticated shopper reward program is beneficial, retailers can still leverage this tactic by using other assignable attributes that help to segment shoppers, such as past-deal redemptions or user preferences. Otherwise, while some tactics may possess more potential to deliver more relevant messages, retailers need to focus on the bigger picture of how it creates value for the consumer.


As technology continues to change, having a framework that guides which innovations to pursue and how activities are coordinated is becoming ever more vital.

Whether a retailer does or does not have a sound framework today, 60 percent of all those surveyed believe that developing more effective ways of evaluating what to do and how to do it will be very or extremely helpful going forward.

This research is only beginning to reveal these latent opportunities and our goal is to continue exploring these areas so that we may be able to share additional insights that, when applied, will help drive stronger results in the convenience channel.

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