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Social Media Redefines Community Relations

DALLAS — Social media has redefined the way retailers interact with their communities and created new challenges and opportunities around branding, communications and the longstanding processes of retailing organizations, according to a panel at FMI2012 here Tuesday.

“[Social media] is almost the window into the soul of your brand,” said Cathy Green Burns, president, Food Lion, in a panel called “The Business Side of Social Media” at FMI2012.

She said that while some companies might view this as a challenge, she sees it as an opportunity to connect with the communities where Food Lion operates.

“In the old days, not so long ago, customers would write us a letter … and it was one-on-one, and pretty private,” Green Burns said. “Now, in a second, people can post a compliment or identify an opportunity for your brand, and it is very public. “I see it as a real opportunity to engage customers in a conversation about our brand.”

Increasingly, she said, Food Lion is looking for opportunities surrounding interaction on a more local level geographically with its customers via social media.

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Others on the panel included Jerry Golub, president and CEO, Price Chopper Supermarkets, who said his company is keeping an eye on Pinterest as its next frontier in social media.

He agreed that transparency is key in the world of social media.

“It has become clear that there are a number of ways that we have to change the way we view the world,” Golub said. “You need to open up your company to more transparency than ever before, and if you don’t, it actually hurts more than it helps you.

“You really need to be willing to give up control,” he added. “The truth is that we have already given up control, and we just need to recognize that and respond to it. This is about a conversation that is taking place in the space that’s all around us, and it’s going to happen whether we respond to it or not. Ultimately you can use that to your advantage.”

J.K. Symancyk, chief operating officer, Meijer Inc., said taking full advantage of social media as a communications platform requires changes in the processes at a company’s organization. Retailers are used to pushing information onto consumers and having them react, he explained, but in social media, that situation is reversed.

“This space is about listening as much as it is about what you want to say,” he said. “That is really a big shift for us as an industry. This is really the beginning of engaging in a conversation with customers.

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“You quickly realize that you are not as customer-focused as you think you are once you go down this path, because there’s a whole lot of stuff people are saying about you, and to you, and now you are required to weigh in, to know when to speak, when not to speak. It’s a whole different world. It really is like starting a one-to-one relationship with, in our case, 600,000 customers [who are Meijer Facebook fans].”

Symancyk cited an example that illustrates how social media can be a valuable tool for listening, but can present challenges for retailers. The chain discovered that fans were talking on social media about how Meijer was a good source for youth baseball equipment — but realized that there was not an established process at the chain to capitalize on that information.

“How do you get that into the store managers’ hands, so they can take advantage of it?” he said. “Then multiply that by 100 or by 1,000 [for all the social media conversations].

“You have to think about how you communicate internally around this, as well as how you prioritize what’s coming back to you and how you react to it.”

The panel was moderated by Michael Sansolo, president of Sansolo Solutions and research director of the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council of North America, who presented data from the five-part CCRRC study on social media. He led the panel off with a presentation from The Integer Group, which conducted the research for the CCRRC study.

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