BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- The oil industry hasn't exactly been the darling of social media lately, nor have service-station operators been particularly progressive marketers. That makes the increasingly sophisticated social and digital-media campaign from the company that operates gas stations in Walmart parking lots that much more remarkable.
Murphy USA, which has about 1,100 service stations/convenience stores -- all but about 60 of them in the parking lots of Walmart Supercenters -- has in recent weeks rolled out an iPhone/iPad/Android app that offers up-to-the-minute gas prices for its stations and those of surrounding competitors, a text-messaging service that warns subscribers a few hours before gas prices go up, almost unheard-of mobile coupons for gasoline and a check-in service via Whrrl that gives people a chance to win $50 in free gas.
Murphy's Facebook fan page has more than 30,000 likes, and its website, MurphyUSA.com, drew 115,000 visitors in May. While the latter may be no great shakes by many people's standards, it was about on par with the website for far better-established service-station operator Shell and the April (pre-Gulf-disaster numbers) of BP, whose traffic then ballooned more than tenfold to 1.7 million.
New approach for operators
Murphy, of course, would prefer to build web traffic and get social-media attention some other way than BP. And it's going about that with a series of surprisingly useful utilities and promotional offers that up to now have been rare for gas-station operators. It has retained Collective Bias, Bentonville, Ark., a "social-shopper marketing" agency that's a unit of Mars Advertising and headed by former Walmart social media executive John Andrews, to help develop a program. (Collective Bias has an ownership stake in Whrrl.)
The company may be embracing social media, but it hasn't much embraced the traditional sort, so its executives declined to comment for this story, citing corporate policy. But Mr. Andrews, who developed the ElevenMoms network of mommy bloggers for Walmart and a similar community for Murphy, said the service-station operator's social/shopper marketing efforts are fast becoming a strong example of what retailers of all kinds can do.
Murphy's SMS text gas-price alert and comparison tools, which can be activated through its website, MurphyUSA.com, or by texting "Murphy" to 87963, are fairly gutsy given that the price comparisons don't always cut Murphy's way, such as during a check earlier this week of Cincinnati-area locations.
But the strategy is based on Murphy, as a rule, being cheaper than competitors, much like its supercenter symbiant Walmart. Indeed, also in Walmart-esque fashion, a South Carolina TV station noted the "Murphy Express Effect" after some of the company's standalone stores entered the market with lower prices and other gas stations followed suit.
The goal, of course, is not really to get people to buy cheaper gas, which is at best a low-margin item for gas station operators and at worst a money loser given the cutthroat competition on the commodity. The goal is to get people into the stores to buy more profitable merchandise.
Capitalizing on synergies
To that end, Mr. Andrews said Murphy has been using its mobile programs to distribute coupons for free samples of its private-label Red Strike energy drink and is exploring ways to let subscribers to its apps buy soda or snacks via their mobile devices while they fill up, and then pick the products up at the store.
Given the proximity of Murphy stations to Walmart Supercenters, the company is also looking at ways to capitalize on synergies that would drive additional sales in Walmart stores when people stop by Murphy stations to fill their tanks, Mr. Andrews said. As many of the mobile discounts for Murphy are driven by suppliers who also do business with Walmart, supplier-led programs are one likely avenue for this.
Murphy "reminds me of Walmart 30 years ago, because they've been very aggressive about looking at, 'How do I take these all these technology streams I'm getting and turn them into tools for my customers?'" Mr. Andrews said. "Part of the problem with apps is if I get the Kraft app, how many recipes am I going to make with just Kraft products? But Murphy is thinking about utility, and what I like about how they're thinking is that they're not just thinking of one technology stream but all of them, because consumers are fragmenting in the technology they're using. So if you want text, you can get text alerts."