Facebook’s new “Timeline” layout and its associated functionalities are allowing supermarket retailers the opportunity to expand and deepen their virtual relationship with shoppers while challenging them to craft online personas with the same care they’d give to the best display of produce in their flagship store.
The Timeline layout has been slowly rolling across Facebook’s personal pages for months but became mandatory for all brands on the social networking site on March 30. Timeline represents a major change from previous iterations of Facebook. Not only is the look upgraded — notably with the horizontal “cover photo” and content arranged chronologically in boxes providing more visual impact and a more compelling search — but the behind-the-scenes upgrades now give brand managers more visibility into how visitors to their pages interact with them on and off their “walls.”
Brands now have the power to talk to fans directly, just listen in on them, or even shut them out. The change evolves Facebook from being a kind of sprawling democratic message board to a place where brands craft a narrative that relates with their fans socially.
“At a minimum, Facebook has become an important touch point within a portfolio of touch points for a retailer. And being sure you’re showing up there, and showing up well, as part of a multichannel communication strategy is an important thing,” Bill Bishop, chairman of Willard Bishop and chief architect of its associated digital shopping project Brick Meets Click, Barrington, Ill., told SN. “But Facebook isn’t just a nice thing that’s happening. It’s something people are making a big part of their lives. For retailers it can be a way to share information, to influence opinion, to deepen relationships and ultimately, to deliver value. It’s relationship building. Not the kind of relationship building inside your loyalty card, but relationship building in a broader, more authentic kind of way.”
Immersed in the Conversation
That’s the potential of Facebook, anyway. Realizing its capabilities is forcing supermarkets to sharpen those branding skills, observers said. They need to be attuned to trends, prepared to spark conversation, and be immersed in ongoing discussions with shoppers in a voice that at once reflects brand ideals while also being a credible representation of a store’s real-world presence. Above all, Facebook requires brands to have an overarching strategy to take it on.
“It really makes brands work harder,” Leesa Wytock, digital director for Jack Morton Worldwide, a New York-based digital branding agency, told SN in a recent interview. “The way it’s set up, you can’t just throw everything up there at once. You have to have a point of view on how you’re talking to customers at any one point of time.”
The specific features of the new pages include the namesake Timeline — a column along the right side of the page that archives posts chronologically and can be backfilled with milestone moments. The timeline on Weis Market ’s Facebook page, for example, dates back to 1912, where a post and vintage photo details Harry and Sigmund Weis’ founding of the company’s first store in Sunbury, Pa.
“The timeline suits itself to tell the story of a brand really well,” Wytock noted. “In the case of a grocery store, I can see this being very useful in telling their evolution from mom-and-pop grocery stores into regional and national chains. I think people like that mom-and-pop feel. They like to know that the store they go to now grew up from a great entrepreneurial spirit.”
Visitors to the Facebook pages of their favorite stores using the timeline now also see when a Facebook friend of theirs also “likes” the page as well as some interactions between a brand and the visitors’ friends. For example, Safeway ’s Facebook timeline recently featured a post from a user that “tagged” the company in a post congratulating a friend for a promotion at a Safeway warehouse. “Friends care about friends,” according to a Jack Morton white paper on the new functionality, “making the prominence of this section a compelling reason for brands to respond to each and every post on their pages.”
Price Chopper's Softer Approach
Soliciting user posts and responses in the meantime is keeping supermarket social media strategists busy. Heidi Reale, director of marketing and consumer insights for Price Chopper Supermarkets , said getting into this kind of interactivity with Facebook fans is at the heart of Schenectady, N.Y.-based retailer’s Facebook gameplan. It’s a softer, less promotional tact than the company typically takes in other advertising mediums, she noted.
“The things that work best on Facebook is to be engaging but not a hard sell,” Reale told SN. “When you’re a promotional retailer, your focus is item-and-price. Social media is different. Social media is a relationship. It’s not, ‘We have strawberries at $1.99 this week.’ It’s talking to people about their favorite Easter candy. We’ve found that when you just put up item-and-price on Facebook it doesn’t get the same traction as when you talk to people about their lives.”
As a result, many of the posts from Price Chopper on Facebook today ask shoppers to fill-in-the-blank or solicit captions or reactions. Its recent posts, for example, asked readers to recount the most exotic foods they’ve eaten; to comment on the severity of their spring allergies; and answer the question, “This Spring, I want to buy flowers for _______!” These are often tied to a special offer exclusively found on Facebook.
“This is different than the old push-pull of marketing,” Reale said. “We are not pushing things down on our Facebook customer, we are putting things out there that drive them to you.
“Facebook fans believe that by engaging with you they are getting an ‘in,’ something that is special beyond what’s in the chain ad,” Reale continued. “So we try to have something that’s different. The coupons we put up on Facebook are themed. We try to tap into the lifestyle of what the customer is doing at the time.”
Weis Markets has grown its Facebook audience from 4,610 fans to nearly 50,000 fans in the last 18 months. “Social media help us tell a story in a more engaging way, enhancing the interaction and relationship with our customers,” Steve McFarland, online marketing coordinator of Weis, told SN.
The Facebook timeline also gives brands a little more control over their pages than it previously had. Administrators can control where and how many user comments appear on the site and are given the option to “pin” important posts at the top of a page for up to a week. This changes the “bulletin-board” quality of previous Facebook incarnations where newer posts always dropped older posts farther down on the page. On the other hand, the Facebook timeline provides less prominence to custom applications and does away with gating content behind a so-called “welcome page” requiring visitors to “like” the brand before proceeding.
These changes put further emphasis on engaging fans, and not just counting them, Wytock said.
“In the past, if people were running a promotion on Facebook, they’d force you to ‘like’ the brand before you got to the content. Then the brands could go back and say, look at all the likes we have. That’s become obsolete with the timeline. What’s happening now is that you’re judging success on levels of engagement — comments and other interactivity such as people talking about your brand outside your wall. That’s a more interesting way to look at the effectiveness.”
Wal-Mart, Target Getting Traction
Some early studies indicate brands are getting more out of pages converted to the timeline feature. A study by Seattle-based analytics firm Simply Measured earlier this year showed engagement per post increased by an average of 46% for a select group of brands who’d adopted the timeline on Facebook including retailers Wal-Mart Stores , Sears and Target , and consumer product brands like Tide and Coca-Cola. (“Engagement” is a Facebook measure of a post’s total shared, “liked” or commented on by users.) Posts including photos and video were seeing greater engagement than those without, the group added.
The Jack Morton paper, citing Facebook sources, also confirmed that posts with photos or videos — and generally, two lines of text or less — performed best. It also said brands tended to be most effective when making a single post every day.
The ultimate reward of all this engagement remains something of a mystery, experts say. Retailers can track the rate of redemption of Facebook offers, and can glean anecdotal insights from listening to their customers.
Occasionally, Facebook can deliver public opinion swiftly, as it did last month when Kroger  announced on Facebook that it would continue to carry some meat products with so-called “pink slime” then reversed course a day later and said it would remove all such products when hundreds of fans took to Facebook dismissing the initial stance as a “cop out.”
Reale of Price Chopper simply said her company uses social media because it’s where their customers are. “The overarching objective for us is to connect and engage with our customers in the way they want to connect and engage with us.”
First Impressions: Analyzing Facebook Pages
Supermarkets are doing a lot of things right on their Facebook pages, but can still do more.
At the request of SN, Leesa Wytock, digital director of Jack Morton Worldwide, examined some supermarket retailer Facebook pages and noted they generally made engaging posts. In particular, she praised the “voice” of Safeway (“The way they wrote about stuff had a personality and a little bit of authenticity.”) and the utility she found at Schnucks (“They make it really easy for people to find the weekly ad, and a special program for Wednesday Wows.”). However, she felt supermarkets in general hadn’t fully exploited the visual potential of the new site.
“The [cover] images they used appeared a little ‘stock’ to me,” she said. “They were all vibrant photos, but to me they could have been any supermarket. There are ways they can utilize that really long space, even that little square in that long space, in a really interesting way. It’s an opportunity to get a really sensory reaction when people come to your Facebook page.”
Retailers note that the new Facebook guidelines for brands forbid them from including price or purchase information or a contact in their cover photos, which can put retailers using price as a major element of their brand at a disadvantage to those who rely more on selection and lifestyle. However, Wytock said she would encourage retailers to think of the cover photo as they would a store where a vibrant and memorable first impression can be established.
“I see Facebook as a representation of the brick-and-mortar of a supermarket in that, a lot of thought goes into the layout of the supermarket,” she explained. “You’re hit with the produce and the most visual products as soon as you enter through that door. And even if it’s not the most utilized section of the market, it’s used to evoke a sensory response. And markets spend a lot of time and money concerned with how their products look on the shelves. I think that’s something to keep in mind. Timeline is an opportunity to take the things you focus on putting into your stores — what you want consumers to see when they walk into your store — and make them the first thing they see when they get to your page, and begin to tell your story that way.”