Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Social Media: Reaching Out To Consumers

Published in the November/December issue of Candy and Snack Today magazine

The Internet connects suppliers and retailers with millions of consumers every day. Discover how networking sites can gauge shoppers’ attitudes, raise brand awareness and reinforce positive associations with the category.

As candy retailers and suppliers explore sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, they are realizing their impact on brand awareness and company credibility.
Social media is definitely sparking consumers, with more than 105 million in the U.S. using these sites. What’s more, two out of three participants in a recent social media marketing industry report noted an increase in web site traffic, subscribers or opt-in lists after investing just six hours per week. 

“I equate this to the beginning of e-commerce. A lot of retailers looked around and said, ‘Can I really make money doing this?’ Some retailers didn’t know if they would have anything to gain, and others ventured in, and while it was not profitable for many years, it’s now the bright spot in the industry,” asserts Ellen Davis, vice-president of the National Retail Federation. “In fact, the online world is growing much faster than the traditional retail sector.”
One NRF study shows 60 percent of retailers added or improved Facebook pages in 2009, and 59 percent added or improved Twitter pages.

Social media’s ability to attract varying age groups is a plus, Davis notes. Brands targeting consumers between the ages of 15 and 18 might invest in placing information on Facebook rather than a web site because two-thirds of these consumers visit social networking sites weekly, according to results of a 2008 Forrester Research, Inc. survey that looked at consumer packaged goods marketing.“Before the holidays, companies seemed to be trying to gain as many Facebook and Twitter followers as they possibly could so that when the holidays came, they could promote different areas and direct people to their web site,” Davis tells Candy & Snack TODAY.
NRF research has also found social media is an effective way for retailers to reach other valuable consumers.
“It’s very popular among moms, who are a huge target among retailers. It’s also popular among more educated shoppers with higher incomes. And the young adult crowd, which a lot of retailers are trying to cultivate, is very active in social media,” Davis says.
But, she points out, it’s easy to overdo it. “Retailers should understand they need to exercise caution and be really strategic in how many times they reach out to consumers.”
Food marketing expert Phil Lempert defines social media as technology increasing the breadth and depth of word of mouth.
“It’s reputation on steroids,” Lempert tells Candy & Snack TODAY. “It’s really understanding what people want and doing it in a way that’s engaging and personal to them. Putting out an email with a logo and a price is not going to engage shoppers.”
Social media is a targeted, inexpensive and effective way to relate to consumers and build relationships that drive sales, he says.
Supporting his claim, a review of more than 100 companies’ media use from the digital consulting firm Altimeter Group and the social media platform Wetpaint shows companies with high social media activity levels — including Starbucks Corp., PepsiCo Inc. and the American Honda Motor Co., Inc. — increased revenues by an average of 18 percent in 12 months.
The least active companies saw sales drop an average of six percent during the same period, according to the study.
Twitter is said to connect more than 50 million users, and while that seems small compared with Facebook’s 350 million, many candy companies are exploring Twitter’s outreach capabilities.

Social Media Attracts Followers, Fans

Ce De Candy, Inc. has been operating its Twitter account, Smartiestweet, for less than a year, and Eric Ostrow, vice-president of sales and marketing, says so far the company has had only positive experiences.
Ostrow notes while it’s difficult to measure the direct impact of social media on sales, it is often just as difficult to isolate the cause of a spike in sales based on traditional advertising.
“It’s an inexact science,” he says. “Candy is an impulse item, except during traditional candy holidays when consumers write it on their lists, so you need something to make a little light bulb go off.”
Mars Chocolate North America Spokesperson Ryan Bowling says Facebook allows consumers to become personally involved with the company’s iconic brands.
The Snickers page has more than 270,000 fans, and the M&M’s Most Colorful Fan of NASCAR page has more than 4,500 fans. The company also operates a Twitter account for Ms. Green, the Green M&M’s character, which boasts more than 4,700 followers.
“Our core consumers’ behavior revolves around social and user-generated media,” Bowling explains. “So we create opportunities within social channels, enabling our brands and consumers to communicate openly, which at the end of the day influences purchase decisions.”
Bowling suggests consumers are the company’s best source of both information and inspiration for products.
“Companies need to respect and support opinions that might not always be positive on their respective social media pages,” Bowling adds. “Transparency and being genuine are extremely important.”

Joining The Candy Conversation

Cybele May, author of Candyblog.net, follows more than 300 accounts on Twitter, including candy companies and retailers.
She has been using Twitter — “tweeting” — since 2008 and blogging since 2001. May says consumers gain positive ideas about a company and connect with a brand when they post fun facts about products and a company history.
“There’s a life outside of what comes in the package,” she says. “A company’s web site is its brochure.”
In addition, May suggests part of what makes social media different is that when consumers tweet negatively about a product, they are scolding the company publicly. When a company responds quickly, it appears responsive, friendly and concerned about consumers’ needs, May stresses.
Brooke Feldman, communications manager for Chuao Chocolatier, updates the firm’s ChuaoChocoholic Twitter account, using her photo as the profile image. While it’s important to promote the brand, she says companies also need to develop relationships with followers.
“If I’m only talking about our product and never engaging anybody, it’s as if I have a megaphone, and nobody has a conversation with somebody speaking through a megaphone. I try to keep the voice of our brand and engage people,” she explains.
Feldman uses TweetDeck, a tool that provides a feed of Twitter updates from accounts she is following and keeps her plugged in to conversations about the company’s products.
“TweetDeck is constantly searching ‘Chuao,’ so if someone tweets about it, that will immediately appear,” she explains.
Feldman says the company utilizes consumer feedback, though it has not developed a system to gauge the effect “tweeting” has had on sales.
“We’ve used comments and responses from our followers and fans to show our buyers how excited people are,” Feldman says.
For The Hershey Co., Facebook has been valuable on the social media front, according to Anna Lingeris, public relations manager. Brands such as Reese’s, Twizzlers, Bliss and Hershey’s have their own pages, with Reese’s racking up more than 1.4 million fans.
The company has also made strides with blogger outreach, sponsoring events for BlogHer, a community for women who maintain blogs about products, travel, personal experiences and recipes, Lingeris says.
“There are a lot of bloggers we have good relationships with,” she says, adding, “They’re passionate about what they do, and have lots of great ideas.”
A Forrester marketing report on reaching females between the ages of 25 and 54 who say the Internet helps them manage family life shows 35 percent of these women visit blogs at least once per month, compared with 24 percent of people outside the group.
At the BlogHer Food 2009 conference, Hershey sponsored breaks and used its Scharffen Berger brand in demonstrations with Elizabeth Falkner, a chef who has appeared on Iron Chef America and Top Chef Masters.
“We provided samples and press materials, and saw a lot of online coverage after the event,” Lingeris says.
Hershey has explored other social media avenues, including smartphones. “We developed an iPhone app with Walmart, called Blow A Kiss,” Lingeris tells Candy & Snack TODAY. “It was a great way to tie-in an iconic brand that people know and love with a very hip, cool device.”
Spangler Candy Co. holds accounts on Facebook, YouTube and the photo-hosting site Flickr. E-Commerce Director Mattea St. John says she posts photos of the original Dum Dum Drum Man and the company’s historic factories.
In July, Spangler introduced a 99-cent iPhone Dum Dum Pops “Flick-a-Pop” app, which directs users to the company’s web site. By August, 50,000 people had downloaded it.
St. John also monitors TweetDeck for conversations about the company. “It’s a way for us to listen and get the word out about our product,” she says.
Spangler is developing ways to measure the feedback, St. John says. “We have a guest register in our store where consumers can say how they heard about us. A lot of people say they found us on Facebook,” she notes.
Some companies are hesitant to use these sites, but consumers talk regardless of whether the company has a voice in social media, claims Chris Abraham, president of Abraham Harrison LLC, a social media PR firm.

Social Media’s Drawbacks

“Type a company name or brand into a search engine and you’ve got product reviews and video results on YouTube, so you can get a feel right away about whether people are crazy about the stuff,” he says.
Abraham, who has 10,600 followers on Twitter and more than 5,000 friends on Facebook, explains it’s important to be aware of conversations so if a problem arises, there’s time to fix it. He suggests retailers can also use social media to find out what people are saying about a company before stocking its products.
“If they search and something bad comes up, that can be very bad for perception management,” he notes. “You have to worry about things that can be bookmarked, have a permalink, or can be referenced in a site like Digg.com.”
Consumers submit articles, videos and images to Digg, an open forum used to promote — or bash — any product or company.
Abraham says damage control for Twitter doesn’t always mean sending a case of chocolate; it simply requires a response. “People just want to know they’re being heard,” he adds.
The Federal Trade Commission recently cracked down on social media users to ensure ethics and reliability of product reviews. In particular, bloggers must now disclose whether they’ve received money or free samples in exchange for reviews and endorsements.
“Most bloggers were pretty responsible about doing that anyway,” notes Susan Whiteside, vice-president of communications for the NCA. “I’ve always been impressed with their professionalism.”
David Nour, social media expert and leader of the Nour Group, Inc., says companies should consider social media a way to drive awareness to a hub where the company is in control — a blog, a web site, or even an 800 number.
Nour studies how social media drives merchandising, research and development, as well as product launches. He has researched more than 200 networking sites, and says social media is most effective when used as a tool to engage consumers and gather their feedback.
“Years ago, we did focus groups, which were expensive and took a long time. I can give you similar feedback from Twitter in a matter of days or hours,” Nour says.

Before You Jump, Test The Waters

Molly Lederer, brand manager of Verve, Inc., set up a Twitter page to figure out how to use it before she began posting as the Glee Gum brand mascot, Glee Guy. The profile has attracted more than 750 followers since June.
“People are excited about promotions and want to know where to find the gum,” she says. “We send them a link to our store locator.”
Lederer tracks how many people follow the link. But it isn’t strictly about providing information; Lederer tries to avoid a product-focused voice because being too pushy can halt the conversation, she says.
“When someone says, ‘Oh, I love Glee Gum,’ we want to write back and say, ‘Thank you so much. Here’s a coupon.’ It’s a way for us to respond with gratitude.”
A study from Razorfish found 43 percent of consumers follow brands on Twitter looking for deals or offers, while 23 percent find the content interesting, 24 percent are current customers, and four percent are seeking service support.
The New England Confectionery Co. instituted Twitter and Facebook pages in 2008. Jackie Hague, vice-president of marketing, says social media is an important part of the company’s campaign for the Twilight Series Sweethearts brand.
One account, my_sweethearts, offers Twilight movie trivia with prizes. Necco also reaches out to bloggers involved in the movie’s fan community to spread awareness of the products, Hague says.
In addition, she says the company asked consumers “How do you say I love you?” And some of the responses have made it onto the products.
At American Licorice Co., Paul Barron, brand portfolio manager, says listening in on consumers’ comments is used in tactical planning for product improvement.
“We’ve heard that consumers would like reclosable bags, and that’s something we’re working on,” he says.
However, Barron says the company has not used social media to directly communicate with consumers. Though American Licorice is working on a strategy for 2010, there is much to consider, Barron explains.
“It’s very tempting to respond and participate, but we’d rather let our consumers keep talking,” he says. “We’ll engage them someday, but we want to do it the right way.”
About one-third of the people who use social media sites are sharing their opinions about products and brands, according to Richard George, food marketing expert and professor at St. Joseph’s University. What’s more, he says 20 percent are using it to seek advice and opinions about products and services.
George says using social media to provide coupons and other benefits to consumers is not only generating brand awareness, but also influencing behavior. By responding to consumer questions, social media can even reduce customer turnover, he points out.
“Ninety-six percent of people who had a bad experience with something before social networks didn’t complain. Social media changed all that,” he says.
Digg, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook give consumers an opportunity to share whatever they’re thinking with a click of the mouse — and, as George puts it, listening to them is vital to successful word-of-mouth marketing.
“The greatest advantage of social networks is advanced consumer knowledge — what they like, dislike, think about and how they behave. The better we know our customer, the better our business is going to be,” he says.