Listen In

Many CPGs and retailers recognize that social media is a powerful way to engage their customers. The truth is, though, that merchant-to-customer communication is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to leveraging social media. Marketing departments challenged with a new product promotion might find the answers they need just a click away. Twitter, Facebook and other platforms are rich with low-cost marketing research.

In the early days of social media–just a scant four or five years ago–companies waded into the conversation with one-sided messages meant to push products and ideas out to consumers who didn't reply. Today, retailers and CPG companies not only are engaging in conversation, but they're also aiming for that all-important one-on-one connection and analyzing social media chatter as an inexpensive source of marketing research.

Where a company once might have assembled focus groups to test a new campaign, packaging concept or product line, social media marketers now are reaching out directly to consumers for virtually the same data.

"Today, retailers have a wealth of business intelligence data from navigation logs, sales transactions and email marketing, all in silos. An important component to add to complete the profile is social media data, which enriches the information by bringing critical customer behavior and interests into the mix."

– Laurent Feral-Pierssens,

Photo by Kevin Abosch

"Today, retailers have a wealth of business intelligence data from navigation logs, sales transactions and email marketing, all in silos. An important component to add to complete the profile is social media data, which enriches the information by bringing critical customer behavior and interests into the mix," says Laurent Feral-Pierssens, founder and president of Silentale, a social intelligence company.

Consumers can win a visit from the Ben & Jerry's Scoop Truck, which offers samples of new flavors, by tweeting their choice of flavor.

Often the first step is making an effort to create two-way engagement with consumers. Duane Reade, a New York City chain of 250 drug stores and a Walgreens subsidiary, recently topped 1.1 million Twitter followers. Even more than the company's impressive follower count is its ability to engage those users, according to a Sept. 17 AdWeek report. The company's promoted tweets attained a 4 percent engagement rate as measured by retweets, follows, likes and clicks, compared with an industry average of about 2 percent, AdWeek reported.


Crowdsourcing new products has become a popular use for social media among CPG companies, experts say. Earlier this year, Frito-Lay used social media interaction to come up with a new flavor of Lay's potato chips line with its "Do us a flavor" campaign. First the company asked consumers to create a new flavor, then it asked customers to vote via social media. More than 1 million Facebook users "liked" the cheesy garlic flavor, beating out the votes for the other two finalists, chicken and waffles and sriracha, and earning the Wisconsin mother who came up with the winning flavor $1 million, or 1 percent of the brand's 2013 profits from the new variety, the Associated Press reported.

H.J. Heinz leveraged its more than 800,000 Facebook followers to help with the launch of a new line of gourmet ketchup flavors in late 2012. The Pittsburgh-based ketchup maker introduced its new flavors, including balsamic ketchup and jalapeno ketchup, on the social media site and gave followers the opportunity to test the new offerings for several weeks by buying them through the Facebook page before they were available on store shelves. The samples were a hit, and Heinz's Facebook page enjoyed a boost to more than 1 million "likes."

Ben & Jerry's, a subsidiary of Unilever, has long relied on social media to help crowdsource new flavors. In 2013, the company asked Twitter and Facebook users to name city-specific ice cream flavors and then to help decide what ingredients would go into the new brands. The company's Scoop Truck tour offers consumers who tweet with the #ScoopTruck hashtag the chance to win a visit from the ice cream truck serving the newest flavors. "We try to build relationships that are real and authentic," says Michael Hayes, associate digital marketing manager at the ice cream company.

"We try to build relationships that are real and authentic."

– Michael Hayes,

Ben & Jerry's

Ben & Jerry's receives between 8,000 and 15,000 suggestions for new ice cream flavors a year, primarily via its company website. The ice cream maker's flavor gurus look over every suggestion, Hayes says, but they're not necessarily looking for a specific idea for a new product. "Most of the time we won't make the specific flavors fans suggest," Hayes says. "But by looking through all the suggestions, we can look for trends and we can spot the ingredients or the themes that pop up repeatedly."

It's also important for companies to know how to prompt conversations with social media users. Broad, open-ended questions aren't as likely to yield useful information as more structured and specific queries.

For instance, when Ben & Jerry's solicited input for its City Churned campaign this past summer to create signature flavors for a handful of U.S. cities, it didn't ask fans what ingredients to use in the new products. Instead, it asked them to choose among a handful of options that ice cream experts had selected. "If we had just gotten answers from people who said, 'vanilla, cherry and chocolate,' it wouldn't have been as useful, because what are we supposed to do with a list like that?" Hayes asks.

Monitoring for Mentions

Brands often want to track any mention of their products on social media, both to passively keep up with the buzz and also to actively intervene when a virtual conversation turns negative. This used to require someone literally monitoring the flow of social media, which is increasingly impossible.

The market has responded with a plethora of digital products that can monitor the Web, analyze traffic and search for product mentions. The result is more data for decision-making.

Pittsburgh-based grocery chain Giant Eagle discontinued its Foodperks program in early 2013, partly due to negative feedback about the program it received via social media. Users told Giant Eagle the Foodperks program, which provided a 1 percent discount on grocery store purchases for every 10 gallons of gas purchased at the chain's affiliated gas stations, was too complicated. The company also faced a lawsuit from Dallas-based Excentus, which helped facilitate the program, alleging breach of contract, patent infringement and unfair competition, Progressive Grocer reported.

"By listening to what customers, industry influencers and potential clients are saying on social sites, brands tap into valuable demographic info–and they also have a chance to create responsive content that nurtures leads where they're already active online," says Katherine Griwert, who studies search engine optimization, social marketing and new media for Boston-based ContentLEAD.

Marketers should make meaningful conversation with consumers a priority, letting the conversation dictate the platform rather than the other way around, Hayes says.

Ben & Jerry's produces several limited edition, small-batch offerings each year that aren't widely available. Last year, a small-batch flavor called Cannoli (mascarpone ice cream filled with fudge-covered cannoli pastry shell chunks) was a surprisingly big hit, which the company's marketing crew learned when social media users began clamoring for it.

"It went through the roof," Hayes says. "It was the most-liked image on Instagram and was being mentioned across many social media platforms. We were kind of blown away."

But fans were frustrated because they had trouble finding the limited edition product, so Ben & Jerry's marketers created an interactive "flavor finder" using an online mapping function that let fans map the locations where they had found the coveted flavor so other buyers also could find it. Users submitted 30,000 locations to the map.

Along with joining in conversations that consumers initiate about your brand, Hayes says, the cannoli map reinforces the importance of listening to what consumers want. Sometimes it is tempting to dive into new technologies, social media channels or gadgets and then search for a marketing purpose for those technologies, Hayes says.

"You have to stay on top of the new technologies and test them out, but it is important to not just jump on the bandwagon until you see a meaningful use for it," Hayes says. "Not everything is going to work for everyone."

Griwert also suggestes a targeted approach for gathering marketing intelligence via social media. Trying to capture every brand reference or monitor a broad conversation will make it difficult to tune in to the relevant mentions, she says.

Social media marketing departments should seek out users with a substantial following who are influencers, and they should focus on hashtags or keywords that are most relevant to their brand or marketing priorities.

"Find reliable sources of information," she says. "It's not scalable to hunt and peck daily for new insights, but by following key users or joining highly relevant groups, you opt in to listening experiences."

Wynne Everett is editor of Zester Daily food and wine website. She also has written and edited for a variety of daily newspapers.