Getting SOCIAL

Grocers try their hand at social media to expand their reach and build customer loyalty.

By Deena M. Amato-McCoy

As the saying goes, “If you can make good on even one customer complaint, you have the chance to win that customer’s loyalty for life.” Social media is proving to be the perfect backdrop for such a task, according to industry observers. Supermarket chains offering the right blend of interaction and value within social media arenas are boosting marketing initiatives, building a more loyal customer base and reaping the rewards of increased sales.

Facebook. Twitter. YouTube. Flickr. Plaxo. LinkedIn. When you hear these names, there is no doubt about what the conversation is about: social media. And this electronic media is all the rage—for both consumers and businesses.

Unlike traditional media content that consists of pushed, one-way messages, social media is an electronic vehicle that invites individuals to join a group or forum and then encourages real-time two-way conversations between members and the hosting company.

Social media has become a primary way for individuals to share thoughts—both positive and negative—as well as photos, videos, likes and dislikes with their online network of friends, family and colleagues.

It is this interaction that is grabbing the attention of retailers, as many use it as a venue to virally share their messages with shoppers. Interestingly, growing retail interest is a far cry from many chains’ initial interest in creating a web presence.

“Everyone recalls how it took a while for most of the retail industry to understand the need and importance of an online presence and company website,” says Jeff Weidauer, vice president of marketing, Vestcom International, based in Little Rock, Ark.

Fast-forward five years to present day, when the vast majority of grocers have websites that feature weekly circulars and specials, meal ideas and recipes and even digital coupons. Innovative chains even integrate loyalty programs online, enabling shoppers to sign up for a program, check their membership or savings status, or even download digital coupons onto their accounts for redemption during checkout at their next store visit.

Grocers’ websites initially served as a way to interact with their shoppers, but consumers’ proclivities toward social media are changing the game, according to industry experts. That’s why savvy grocers are following “the different ways consumers access the Internet, as well as the different retail channels and devices they use to connect with their favorite retailers,” says David Gruehn, U.S. retail industry solutions director for Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft. “This is forcing marketers and advertisers to change the way they do business.”

It is this empowerment that is helping chains make the move into the social domain. “Retailers are always focused with how to connect with the shopper in a direct way and since this is where the consumers are spending their time, social media is the perfect place to create this dialogue,” says Weidauer.

But the move to social outlets is not just about following the consumer. “We have entered a new era where the constituent most responsible for pulling new technology from the retailer is the consumer and the consumer wants social media,” says Paula Rosenblum, managing partner of Miami-based Retail Systems Research.

Getting started

Grocers seem to be open to the new, popular media, however this is still an emerging channel. While there are no steadfast rules, supermarket chains that want to succeed must create a strong game plan before joining the game.

Clearly, “retailers that can create a shopper network and engage them in the right way will be able to build a community of advocates to help spread the word about their brand via word of mouth,” says Mark Zieff, brand manager, U.S. retail division of Danvers, Mass-based High Liner Foods (USA).

The first step is to create a business plan. In fact, the surest way to fail is to jump online without a strategy. “Too many companies get out there without really knowing why, what they want to accomplish, or worse, without an inconsistent message,” says Weidauer. “If you provide a site that has no value, no ongoing connectivity or lagging responses, you are doing more harm than good to your brand.”

That said, chains need to appoint an individual, or if possible, a team dedicated to all social media projects. Depending on available resources, these individuals can be internal associates or an outside agency. Their responsibilities include maintaining the company’s page or profile, posting content and responding to member posts, creating blogs and notes and measuring responses.

The team is also tasked with delivering the best message to create advocates.  “All companies want to use social media, but the key is to use it the right way,” Zieff explains. “It can’t simply be an advertising platform. It has to include information that initiates conversation.”

Sea Cuisine for example, engages its social media networks with discussions on health benefits of fish and seasonal recipes as well as cooking tips from its executive chef. “The people who join your brand’s social network likely know enough about your product or brand already, so they need to be engaged in a less formal, more interactive way,” he says. “It also helps when you incentivize consumers that participate more actively.”

The key to supporting these incentives and discussions is to keep members engaged with timely conversations and responses. This is especially important as shoppers use the space to air their thoughts—both good and bad.

It is no secret that social media is the perfect way to take marketing campaigns and promotions viral and reach millions of people in minutes. However, negative messages also go viral.

“If someone posts a negative experience, it is up to the retailer to understand what is happening and respond,” Weidauer explains. “This is the perfect opportunity to turn a negative experience into a positive one and that is dependent on learning from the experience and responding accordingly.”

And speed is the name of the game. Gone are the days when shoppers lodged a complaint online and waited days for a response. “Responses must be within an hour and the only way to do this is to have people dedicated to the process,” he says.

Choosing channels

With a game plan in place, the next step is to determine which is the best sandbox to play in. A chain’s social media team should analyze customer demographics to identify which media channels they frequent most. Next, the chain needs to establish its social media goal.

“Ask yourself what your aims are. Is it to share news, create a community, or provide customer service?” says Shish Shridhar, retail industry market development manager for Microsoft. “It is also important to determine where conversations are happening related to your brand. Studies have shown that while consumers go to websites for information about a brand, they use social networks to voice their opinions and connect with other customers.”

While there are many flavors of social media, the top two online meeting spots are undeniably Facebook and Twitter. In simplest terms, Facebook is a free social networking website that allows members to create profiles, upload photos and video and send messages to friends, family and colleagues. Twitter is also considered social networking, but instead of creating profiles, Twitter members send messages—known as tweets—consisting of no more than 140 characters. It has become a popular way to keep friends in-the-know about events and, more importantly, to solicit feedback.

Popularity of both venues is on the rise. Facebook has more than 400 million active users, and 50% of these members log onto Facebook daily, according to the site. Even more impressive is that Facebook gets more than a third of the number of unique visitors than Google, according to Reston, Va.-based research firm comScore.
Meanwhile, Twitter has almost 106 million registered users and an average of 300,000 new members sign up daily, according to the site.

“This is where the shoppers are, so there is no better place to gain a membership, discuss corporate culture, share value and build a brand,” Weidauer reports.

Finding fans

Grocers are making big strides as they experiment with the interactive media. At press time, Whole Foods’ Facebook page had 261,614 fans; its Twitter account had almost 1.8 million followers. Safeway’s Facebook page had 96,847 fans; however its Tweet account has a bit less interest, with only 2,368 followers. Meanwhile, 189,996 Facebookers “like” Trader Joe’s.

“Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are two great examples of how to use Facebook to build a community,” says Nikki Baird, managing partner, Retail Systems Research.

Safeway also created a niche. By having different associates participate in its online blog, fans can hear words of wisdom from a produce associate, then from someone in the meat department, for example. It also shares blog posts, such as recipes, on Facebook or Twitter.

Similarly, BJ’s Wholesale teams up with consumer product goods manufacturers like Sea Cuisine to keep up the social momentum. The CPG launched a $200 seafood dinner sweepstakes in March and the team used Twitter, Facebook and blogs to spread the word virally.

Among those who currently have the winning combination, chances are they will find their fans walking their store aisles in no time. Unlike traditional marketing messages, social media keeps retailers in the know instantly. “Just by reading posts, you quickly learn what they want and like, which helps retailers run their business much more efficiently,” Weidauer says.

As the media continues to evolve, grocers are also eager to measure results. While some experts say it could take up to two years to get a clear picture of what social media marketing campaigns are capable of, there are already advancements in tools and analytics that help chains monitor and measure social media efforts.

Microsoft hopes to ease the journey with a new proof of concept business tool the supplier calls LookingGlass. Harnessing Microsoft’s software platform, the technology looks holistically across the spectrum of social media content, including blogs, images, microblogs, videos, web pages and activity on wikis.

“Then it enables retailers to overlay sales and support data and other key business information to take targeted actions and enhance the return on investment of participating in social media,” Gruehn says.

Next step

While supermarkets are learning to use social media to their advantage, clearly there is plenty of work to be done. For example, grocers are still learning how to tie the experience “together in a cohesive way,” explains RSR’s Baird. For example, she says a blog on a grocers’ website may feature a recipe on arugula, but there’s no link in the article to help the reader actually buy the arugula—or even potentially purchase a kit of the other ingredients for the recipe.

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