Going where the customers are

Social networking is becoming a viable way to attract channel-surfing and budget-conscious consumers.

By Deena M. Amato-McCoy

Realizing that word-of-mouth is the most compelling and least expensive type of advertising that any company can generate, grocers are increasingly eager to use social media to engage shoppers. Retailers that can master this method of consumer marketing will differentiate themselves in the marketplace and foster long-term relationships with shoppers.

There is no question that consumers are shopping differently than they did a decade ago. A slowly recovering economy keeps value top of mind for all shoppers, but the media they use to find this value and create a shopping plan has drastically changed.

Spending on traditional marketing vehicles, including television, radio and print, is down. Consumers no longer rely solely on weekly circulars to plan their shopping trips. When seeking value, many make the web their first stop.

“The web has become a critical shopping tool,” says Meyer Malka, co-founder and CEO of Bling Nation, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based pro­vider of a mobile platform that supports social media connectivity. “They want interaction with other consumers, or the ability to get feedback on merchandise.”

This new generation of word-of-mouth advertising is clearly playing a strong role in retailers’ reputations, and thanks to social media, the impact of consumers’ opinions have never been stronger. Unlike traditional media content that consists of pushed, one-way messages, social media invites individuals to join a group or forum, and then encourages real-time, two-way conversations.

Social media has become the No. 1 way for individuals to share content—positive and negative, text and graphics—and strike up conversations. “As a result, a customer can influence other customers to not only shop in your store, but also to influence what items to buy,” says Frank Riso, senior director, retail industry for Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola Solutions.

More importantly for retailers, social media is a vital touch point that allows grocers to reach the consumer.

“Retailers worldwide are considering how to integrate social media into their marketing strategies, especially when they see how extensive and impacting the reach is,” says Janet Hoffman, global managing director of the retail industry for San Francisco-based Accenture. “Supermarkets can connect with customers in a way that just cannot happen inside of a store.”

Going social
While the supermarket industry has been called cautious when it comes to adopting new technology, “a majority of the top 75 grocers in the U.S. had a presence on at least two social media sites, and a number of companies had blogs featuring a food expert,” says Jeff Weidauer, vice president of marketing for Vestcom International, a Little Rock, Ark.-based provider of shelf-edge marketing systems. “Food is social. It connects people. Social media is a natural extension of the industry.”

Social media takes on many forms. It can be consumer product reviews. It can be video commentary. A more common concept is blogs. Web-based, journal-like content has become commonplace on many grocers’ websites.

“The way for grocers to stand out among the social media noise is to share their passion for food, and blogs are a great forum,” says Hoffman. “It is a great way for grocers to connect with their shoppers who also have a passion food, a specific product, or the brand itself. If used correctly, blogs are perfect for grocers to create a unique, engaging experience.”
While there are plenty of social media options, the two most popular sites continue to be Twitter and Facebook.

“Businesses need to find a way to use these tools to participate in these consumer conversations,” Weidauer says.

Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods is clearly a leader at social engagement. Shoppers can  join Twitter, Facebook and the photo social media site Flikr directly by clicking on dedicated links on the retailer’s website.

Shoppers that click on the grocer’s Twitter link are sent to a page that features a variety of Twitter-based Whole Foods micro-sites that cover topics such as the organic food segment, as well as forums with specialists in the cheese, wine and beer categories. Users can also follow discussions with Whole Foods regions of operations, as well as with specific stores.
The chain is also not shy about using social media to reward and engage consumers. The natural and organic grocer gave away a $50 gift card and a million grains of quinoa (about 5 pounds) to its one millionth Twitter follower.

All a Twitter
Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods is also getting in on the Twitter game. It’s most recent initiative was to transition clever Tweets about its Macaroni & Cheese line into TV ads.

The supplier’s advertising agency picked five Tweets and spun off a television ad based on the top 140-character comments. One ad was slated to run on the late night shows Conan and George Lopez and the remaining four were posted on Kraft’s Mac & Cheese Facebook page. The initiative prompted more than 1.5 million Tweets, according to Kraft officials.

Due to a low cost of entry, supermarkets don’t have to choose the best venue. Rather, observers urge grocers to create a presence on all social media sites that fit their marketing intentions.

“Customer service is the true goal for each retailer, and they will need to become more transparent and collaborative with suppliers and customers in their interactions,” Riso says. “Rather than choose one site over the other, grocers should have a social media leader who keeps the company active with blogging, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and even provide an app for both Apple and Android devices so shoppers can stay connected to their favorite retailers on the go.”

The channel is clearly evolving, making it difficult to report quantifiable results. But observers say make no mistake—social media efforts are clearly producing results. Once a shopper signs up as a member of a social network, grocers can track their purchases, determine if they are a new or existing customer and if they have signed up for the retailer’s loyalty card.

Social media promises to encourage stronger shopper loyalty since it provides a trail of information that helps grocers know their shoppers that much better. “Chains already have information from point-of-sale and other customer touch points, but now they can analyze what they purchased and commented on through social media,” Hoffman says. “Re­tail­ers are in a better position to know individuals and even group similar clusters so they can market merchandise and promotions that are appealing to their most loyal shoppers.”

Looking ahead, grocers can build even stronger relationships as they integrate social media with other customer touch points. Bling Nation  is working to bring the offline experience at store level with its Fan Con­nect solution. By applying a code-embedded sticker or card on their smartphones, consumers can tap their phone at a dedicated kiosk or reader to immediately launch an app on their phone to connect in real-time with the store.

“Retailers can send information such as, ‘We see you are a Facebook fan, you visited three weeks ago and here is a promotion,’” says Malka. “It is a great way to interact with shoppers when it is important—when they enter the store, not when they are leaving it.”

The key to succeeding at this integration is to remember that social is not replacing an existing medium. Instead, grocers need to learn how to use all touch points to deliver more effective, consistent messaging across the enterprise.

“It helps consumers see the path of purchase from research and decision at shelf edge,” Weidauer explains. “It is a bridge to one-to-one marketing and it delivers information that retailers didn’t have between five and 10 years ago. How it will pan out is still undetermined, but it is sure to be a fun ride.”

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