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LOCAL TOUCH: A hand-painted sign on Cafe Cusco’s building is remnant of the Towny app.
SBJ photo by Wes Hamilton
LOCAL TOUCH: A hand-painted sign on Cafe Cusco’s building is remnant of the Towny app.

Out of Towny: Loyalty app pilot program pulls plug on Springfield

However, officials plan a return for the service

Posted online

Eight months after Towny launched its pilot loyalty coupon app, it’s left the market – but not for long, company officials say.

Springfield was selected as a test market for Austin, Texas-based Roll Forward LLC, which rolled out the Towny Rewards program in June after two years of development.

Roll Forward Chairman Don Shafer said the company is taking a break in Springfield to update the mobile app while launching in new markets.

“The eight months in Springfield, for us, was very successful because we learned so much,” he said. “I look forward to getting back there.”

The app is designed so that locally owned businesses can use the system to promote repeat sales. About 125 businesses in the Springfield area had signed on, said Mary Guccione, Roll Forward’s single local employee.

Shafer said he was concerned with guinea pig fatigue in the pilot market.

“I didn’t want to keep asking people in Springfield to try something different,” he said. “They get worn out.”

The company now is focused on launches in Lubbock, Texas, at the end of 2017; Waco in February; Evansville, Indiana, toward the end of March; and Lafayette, Louisiana, in April.

Towny officially left Springfield last month, and Guccione said her position as account executive was dissolved in December.

“At that point, conversations were becoming less and less, so I wasn’t really sure what was going on with the company itself,” she said.

Guccione used the app at her wine bar, Cellar + Plate, where she said the response was underwhelming with less than 10 customers redeeming coupons during the pilot.

Cafe Cusco LLC co-owner Joseph Gidman echoed similar results. Gidman was a champion of the pilot, Shafer said, and the restaurant owner was even flown to Austin to provide advice and evaluate the pilot’s outcome.

Glitches and goodbyes
When Towny was emerging in 2016, Gidman said he understood its Springfield launch was a trial, and there was potential it would not remain in town. At the time, the app was called Roll Forward, and the name change was one of the learned experiences in the pilot, Shafer said.

Although the participating businesses in the pilot signed a contract with Roll Forward, they were not charged a fee, Gidman said. Of those companies, Guccione said she worked closely with about 40.

During the pilot period, Towny invested about $120,000 in marketing in Springfield, including billboards, radio and print advertising, printed materials and sponsorships. However, Shafer said the most effective marketing methods were word-of-mouth and promotions – such as additional coupons or discounts with purchases through Towny.

Through conversation with customers, Gidman said he learned many didn’t want discounts at Cafe Cusco.

“Most people who support locally owned places don’t fall into that category,” he said. “They want to put their money into locally owned places because they care about them. They built relationships with those people and businesses and feel a little guilty for taking a deal.”

Because supporting local businesses is the goal of Towny, Shafer said the company has developed a plan to bring nonprofits into the equation.

“People might take advantage of the discount if the discount was going to go to the local charity,” he said.

In its new markets, for instance, businesses can choose that whenever a customer redeems a Towny coupon, a meal or more would go to a local food bank. Towny then matches the donation. In the future, Shafer said businesses could designate a discounted amount to a charity.

Gidman also suggested Towny expand the banking criteria that was originally limited to businesses that used locally owned banks. He said this posed a problem for some who want to be part of the app, but used national banks – including himself.

“It may not fit with their criteria of the local bank, but I know the bank manager by name, and they’re in Springfield, and I have a personal relationship with them,” he said. “I think that was complicated in the app, and I know that they’ve changed that in the other cities.”

Those involved also said many consumers were not as receptive to Towny’s service in app form.

“Our phones have become our scrapbooks, and so many people are unwilling to delete videos and pictures off their phones to create space for an app,” Guccione said.

In addition, Shafer said the app itself had a lot of technical glitches – something he said was expected.

“It’s one thing to test it with 30 or 40 people versus when you turn it on for 4,000,” he said. “We uncovered a lot more bugs that way.”

Key takeaways
Shafer said the company plans to return to the Queen City in the fourth quarter.

Although the pilot experience was worthwhile for Gidman, he said he’d have to evaluate app updates to determine if he’d participate again.

“I would definitely look into them and see what their product is, but I wouldn’t guarantee I would jump on again,” he said.

Similarly, Guccione said she is uncertain if she would rejoin – partially because of a disconnect she felt from the Austin home base.

“With so many conversations being had in the office, you didn’t get to be part of that being in a completely different state,” she said. “It was a fantastic learning experience. I learned a great deal about the digital space and electronic industry – and a learning experience as to human behavior and what people will and won’t do.”

Evaluating that behavior, Shafer said, was a goal he finds successful.

“We were learning how to market through different businesses. We tried different experiments,” he said.

Towny is trying new methods, Shafer said, such as promotions for downloading the app, say a $5-off coupon or 25 percent discount. Additionally, the company is increasing social media while developing a consumer engagement group in Waco. After one week, Shafer said 1,300 are using the app.

“It’s totally unlike everything we did in Springfield, and it’s all based on social media,” he said.

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