These days, it's hard to do anything online without encountering a cluster of Tic-Tac shaped social media icons. As the popularity of social media networking grows every day, more retailers are turning to social media tools to communicate with customers. And, although the resources and promotions supermarkets provide run the gamut, many of the most interactive campaigns incorporate fresh foods departments.
For instance, the Onalaska, Wis.-based Festival Foods ' recently brought attention to many meat department products with its “The Perfect Pairing” campfire recipe promotion. Since Festival Foods and the radio station Y100 sponsor the five-day music event Country USA, they wanted to find a new way to promote it using social media.
“There's a huge camping contingent to this event. And thousands and thousands of people that camp there. So obviously they're cooking down at the event while they're camping,” said Nick Arlt, director of public relations at Festival Foods.
Arlt said Festival works a lot with recipes, hosting 60,000 recipes on its website, so wanted to see what kinds of recipes people came up with while they're camping.
“The idea is to try to see what are people doing out in the campgrounds. What types of foods are they making, how are they making them. And just see what we can learn,” said Arlt. “And then we're going to choose the five that we feel are the best. We'll have those people come in to the studio. We'll have a couple of judges and pick the best one.”
Last month, participants submitted recipes with photos using the Facebook application Wildfire Promotion Builder. The finalists were still being determined at time of publication, but all of the campfire recipe entries on Festival's page, including “Pocket Brats,” “Missy's Amazing Chicken” and “Southwest Barbecued Burgers,” happened to be meat based, aside from a lone Banana Boat recipe. The brat recipe even calls for using Festival Food's Oktoberfest Brats as the main ingredient.
The top five campfire chefs will win $50 in groceries and a free Country USA, and the grand-prize winner will win either $1,000 in Festival Foods groceries; a Y100 autographed guitar and $500 in groceries; or reserve seat tickets.
The Festival campfire recipe promotion is a good example of working with shoppers' already established behavior.
Supermarkets should be sure to use social media to “scratch customers' itches,” according to Jeff Molander, chief executive officer of Molander & Associates, who will be leading the session “Off the Hook Marketing: A Practical Way to Make Social Media Serve Your Bottom Line” at the Food Marketing Institute Future Connect show in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, May 12.
“Consider mixing in promotions that create opportunities to connect those itches (problems, urges) to products,” Molander told SN. “Design interactive processes that let customers guide themselves towards destinations they choose — offering them relevant products when appropriate.”
Festival has also run a few other social-media-based promotions, including one last year that ran in conjunction with a “make your own pizza” print ad campaign. Encouraging shoppers to make their own pizza using Festival's in-store bakery pizza dough, the retailer ran a contest where shoppers submitted their pizza photos on Facebook to be voted on by other customers.
“We had some pretty creative ones,” said Arlt, adding that the photos varied from the standard magazine-style pizza shots to photos of pizzas with the Festival boomerang logo. “We had just all different kinds of cool things. We had people spelling things out with pepperoni or with some of the ingredients on the pizzas. It was just a fun contest.”
Social media tools also allow retailers to cater to their individual customer bases that may be interested in department-specific information.
Already very active on the social media sphere, Whole Foods Marke t, based in Austin, Texas, created a Facebook page for its meat department following the introduction of the Whole Foods animal welfare rating system this winter. The page features a video explaining the five-step system and shows happy-looking animals living on different farms. The page gives the same Whole Foods shopper who would be drawn to an animal welfare rating system more information about the animal welfare system as well as visual evidence of the animals' experience. In addition, Whole Foods uses the meat department Facebook page as a resource for atypical meat recipes (most recently, bison chili), cooking tips and supplier profiles.
The department specialization extends to Whole Foods' Twitter feeds, one of which is run by the retailer's global cheese buyer, Cathy Strange, who highlights cheese specific news and personal cheese experiences, such as her meal of heirloom tomatoes, Taleggio cheese and microgreens at an Austin restaurant.
Establishing a social media policy is important as more employees are on social media, said Virginia Mann, public relations and public affairs strategist at Virginia V. Mann, Etc., Corporate Communications. “It's in the best interest of companies to make sure that they have policy in place for what is and isn't acceptable in terms of employees' communication on social media,” Mann told SN, adding that companies shouldn't try to discourage employees from communicating, but make guidelines clear.
In addition, it's important to set Twitter expectations for customers, she said. “You need to be clear on setting expectations on Twitter corporate accounts as to what hours someone will be responding,” said Mann. “Because you don't want to have customers writing to you at 11 a.m. on Tuesday and there's no response until Thursday afternoon.”
Hannaford Supermarkets  of Scarborough Maine, who has over 2,800 Twitter followers, makes the limits of its interactions clear: “While we think about great food 24/7, we're on Twitter from 9 a.m-5 p.m., Monday to Friday. Give us a shout. We'll respond as quickly as we can.”
Surprisingly, social media marketing is still underutilized, according to an October 2010 report by the research firm Mintel. The report cited 22% of respondents said that social media helped them “make good purchase decisions.”
In fact, social media might make retailers better at customer service. “Many brands also are finding that they have no choice but to engage with consumers on social media as some brands find that Facebook pages eclipse brand site traffic and that they must respond to negative feedback on sites such as Twitter or risk their reputation,” the Mintel report said.
Some retailers have taken the opportunity to use their social media pages as a public forum for answering store or department-related questions.
When one poster wrote, “Why do I no longer have a choice of fresh pork products… All the fresh pork in the fresh meat counter is injected fresh pork?” on the Supervalu  chain Jewel-Osco's Facebook page last month, the retailer responded within 15 minutes that Jewel-Osco actually does carry non-enhanced pork products and referred the poster to a hotline or store manager. The store representative and the poster exchanged a few more posts until the poster thanked Jewel-Osco, saying the matter had been resolved. The Facebook page left evidence of the resolution.
According to Molander, everything done with social media should have a purpose and help customers solve problems. “Social media doesn't give us a chance to push promotions and coupons in new ways,” he said. “It gives stores a chance to qualitatively improve the in-store shopping experience and drive store visits more frequently … to serve a larger function to shoppers. Just as co-locating a bank branch helps serve customers. Social media is no different.”
As over 38,000 people “like” Jewel-Osco's Facebook page, it makes sense the retailer is cultivating the page as a resource for shoppers. “On our Jewel-Osco Facebook page, we offer recipes, coupons and up-to-the minute answers to customer questions as well as tips from company experts, including our registered dietitian, pharmacists and category experts, such as our kosher and cheese specialists,” said Karen May, external communications manager at Jewel-Osco.
Some of the Jewel-Osco posts provide specific items, such as a dollar-off coupon for Just Baked fresh bread, but others promote departments as a whole. For instance, last month, one of Jewel-Osco's store nutritionists posted a roasted vegetables recipe, and asked the question, “What's your favorite way to eat veggies?” The post prompted 36 comments and gave shoppers meal ideas that might bring customers to try new types of vegetables.