Grass Roots Goes Digital:
Connecting with Today’s Consumer
Through Online Social Media
By Nathan Rice and Renee Kelly
A revolution is upon us.
The importance of engaging in online social networking is no longer hype.
Early questions, which asked whether a business should participate in social media, are evaporating.
This article will not reiterate the reams of statistics that show how internet-based social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube—not to mention hundreds of thousands of blogs—are changing communications. We’ve witnessed their power to affect change first-hand.
Look no further than President Obama’s unprecedented use of social media to engage voters before and after his election. His Twitter followers alone surpass 2 million people and his YouTube Channel now has more than 22 million views.
This same power of social media is also already being used to drive the organic movement. When a British study that called into question the value of organic came out this past summer, Nature’s Path was able to use social media to immediately start setting the story straight. The company gathered information from the Rodale Institute and the Organic Center and within 24 hours created a video rebuttal of the study, posted it on NaturesPath.com, YouTube and Facebook, and then used Twitter to drive followers and bloggers to the video. Because of this social media effort several national TV stations picked up the story, as well as countless blogs including The Huffington Post. Nature’s Path’s following on Twitter and Facebook also grew exponentially.
What all of this proves is that social media is no more a passing fad than the Internet itself. It’s a long-term change, one that will require companies to actively engage their consumer base in ways they might not have considered before. This is particularly important within the organic industry, where authenticity and transparency are key to consumer engagement.
The real questions now center on where social media fits into an organization’s broader communications strategy, what resources need to be in place to be successful, and how organizations can effectively go about engaging consumers in this space.
When answering these questions, remember that social media is not a campaign, and treating it as such may cause more harm than good. Also remember that whether you choose to participate or not, social media is altering how consumers experience your business and receive your story. Consumers are now your storytellers, and it’s vital to formulate a strategy and listen to what both your existing and potential fans have to say.
Organizations that are willing to authentically engage consumers with transparency and genuine passion will find fans welcoming them with open arms.
But before you jump in, consider a few things:
• Have an agenda. Identify your top three social media goals. These goals are not necessarily the same as those for your website, which tend to be more marketing focused.
• Allow your passions to show. Spend your time inspiring conversation about the passion around your company and the mission that drives you, as opposed to the product itself.
• Know your fans. Discover and listen to your target online audience. You may find that this audience is different from your core audience.
• Know your limits. Think through the amount of time you realistically are able to spend building quality relationships online.
• Be comfortable with a different type of success. Temper your early expectations, as relationship development takes time. Most importantly, decide how you will measure success.
Creating Your Social Media Agenda
First, take time to figure out the big picture of what you want to achieve through social media. Have discussions with your team about your social media strategy, addressing the nature of customer relationships and the main purpose of engaging fans online.
Organic restaurant franchise Pizza Fusion is an interactive powerhouse whose agenda is transparent. The staff, including the founder himself, communicate the company’s story with a thoughtful, up-to-date blog, Facebook updates, YouTube videos and regular Twitter activity, where they claim to be “saving the earth one Tweet at a time.” The message is clear: Pizza Fusion wants to increase awareness about the value of organic food and green lifestyles and they care a great deal about engaging their audience online. Of course they want to sell more pizzas, but their use of social media primarily is non-promotional, and seeks to offer users a way to relate to the company through shared interests.
The restaurant’s Twitter feeds are a great example. Through this online tool, which limits postings to 140 characters, Pizza Fusion shares a “Green Tip of the Day.” One recent posting was “Don’t bag up those fall leaves...turn them into compost to save energy & landfill space!” This was followed by a link to a full story on TheDailyGreen.com. All Pizza Fusion’s online media communications from Twitter and Facebook are also compiled on the company’s website, alongside their blog entries.
Nature’s Path is another company with a well-organized social media agenda. One of its primary goals in developing a social media strategy was to take its web presence from static (a simple website) to dynamic. By integrating social media into its website redesign, Nature’s Path gave its customers a chance to interact with each other and the company itself. Users can click on “Get on the Path” on the company’s home page, and enter a virtual journey to better health and social and environmental responsibility. Through a tool called “Facebook Connect,” users can take a quiz on how well they are doing on “the path” at naturespath.com, then have their results automatically published to their Facebook page and their Facebook profile picture will show up every time they get back on naturespath.com. Clicking on one of the stops along the journey such as “composting” will take you to a page about the subject that also has the company’s live Twitter feed and blog.
Meanwhile the company is also taking a modern-day, grass-roots approach through what it calls “blogger outreach,” where a member of the marketing team searches for specialized food blogs and actively engages bloggers in non-sales-pitch conversations, offering free product trials. In just three months the company has developed relationships with over 70 bloggers who include the company in their posts.
Both Pizza Fusion’s and Nature’s Path’s social media efforts appear so tightly integrated that to the outsider it appears easy. But learning about and educating your internal team on this new medium takes time and is sometimes met with apprehension and frustration. The bottom line, though, is to make sure your entire team is talking and moving forward with a unified social media agenda.
Authenticity: The Key to Building Your Online Community
Social media is about developing, maintaining and nurturing relationships with your consumer community—it’s not just another medium for marketing. Compare your participation in social media to an active dinner party. Treat the people you interact with online as fellow guests.
“Many people go wrong with social media by shoving too many promotions down their followers’ throats. If every time you talked to your friend on the phone they were trying to sell you on a multi-level marketing scheme, you probably would stop picking up the phone,” says Vaughn Lazar, one of the founders of Pizza Fusion. “There are rules of ‘netiquette’ that apply to online conversations just as much as they would in a face-to-face conversation.” Understanding the right way to use social media is so important to Pizza Fusion that the company even includes training classes on the subject for each of its new restaurant owners.
Create Real Conversation. For Annie’s Homegrown, a brand known for its fun and friendly voice, being authentic comes naturally. The conversation the company inspires online strikes a healthy balance between Facebook contests and product mentions, alongside active discussions about various organic industry issues—and telling the occasional bunny joke. Annie’s understands and listens to its core audience, which is very active online, and is willing to take part in a dialogue with online community members.
“Whether mentioning they added Cheddar Bunnies to their child’s lunch, telling friends about a new promotion, or making a unique recipe based on our mac and cheese, Annie’s fans congregate online and discuss our brand on blogs, message boards and social networking sites,” comments Aimee Sands, marketing director for Annie’s Homegrown.
“Annie’s has placed strong emphasis on our social media outreach this year because we want to be an active part of that conversation,” adds Sands. “Engaging our consumers in an interactive dialogue—not only about Annie’s products but also the organic food industry, parenting and healthy lifestyles—deepens our relationships with our fans. Since Annie Withey founded the company in 1989, consumer feedback always has been important; social media opportunities now help us connect directly with the moms and dads who have helped and will continue to help our brand grow.”
Take the Bad with the Good. Being authentic means not being afraid to show your less-than-perfect side. As the folks from both Pizza Fusion and Nature’s Path will attest, sometimes people complain on their Facebook or Twitter postings, but Maria Emmer-Annes, director of marketing for Nature’s Path sees this as a chance to grow. “If you listen, you can use this as an opportunity to help develop a better product.” Lazar agrees, “It is a chance to take their 3-star experience and turn it into a 5-star experience.”
Getting to Know Your Fans
Throughout your social media experience, listening to online chatter among your customers is important for both proactive planning and strategic response.
When the Organic Trade Association (OTA) decided to reach out to consumers in an online environment, it did not immediately set up Facebook and Twitter accounts. Instead, OTA used a tool called “Google Alerts” to monitor online conversations about organic. Using this tool, it set up keyword searches that notify staff when certain keywords, like “organic,” for example, are used on websites or blogs. From this, OTA was able to learn more about who was talking about organic, what they were saying and on what websites and blogs these conversations were taking place.
Today, OTA continues to listen to its audiences via Google Alerts and use newly acquired knowledge to develop relationships with organic consumers online. Another tool OTA uses to monitor chatter is “Twitter Search.” Similar to any search engine, Twitter Search tracks real-time mentions on Twitter and includes a powerful advanced search option that yields geo-targeted results. For example, by using Twitter Search, the OTA team monitors individuals talking about organic food and products and often begins following them on Twitter. This, in turn, enables OTA to identify and respond to issues of importance to organic consumers.
“OTA has found these tools to be incredibly helpful as a means to keep a finger on the pulse of consumers’ thoughts and feelings about organic,” says Jennifer Rose, OTA’s new media manager. “Plus, tools like Twitter and Facebook have provided valuable and cost-effective opportunities to communicate key messages about organic. In a matter of a few seconds, we can educate thousands of people about the benefits of organic—and do it all without spending a dime.”
Here are some suggestions to help you monitor and manage all the cyberspace chatter:
• First, determine keywords and phrases to begin monitoring. It is impossible to monitor everything, so start with your company name, key individuals (such as the founder or CEO) and important product names or industry terms. Do not get preoccupied with choosing too many phrases. It is more important to begin monitoring. Terms can always be added later.
• Incorporate monitoring tools. Besides free tools from Google and Twitter, there are also more comprehensive, fee-based online monitoring tools such as Radian6, Filtrbox or ViralHeat, which allow subscribers to monitor and analyze social media mentions.
• Finally, consider dedicating a single individual within your company to monitor and interact with online conversations. This ensures a consistent, authentic voice for your brand. Once the value of participating in social media is demonstrated, more individuals can become involved in your online initiatives.
Understand the Networks Available to Tell Your Story
It seems like every day new tools are coming out, taking the social media experience to the next level. It is key to stay on top of the latest. Below is a quick review of some of the most popular tools:
The Top 4
• Facebook is currently the most widely used social network, with over 200 million users worldwide, and over two-thirds outside college age. Through “Facebook Pages,” businesses can create profiles where fans can engage in and contribute content. For more information see “Facebook for Businesses 101”. Check out these Facebook pages for companies within the organic industry: Annie’s Homegrown, Pizza Fusion, The Wedge Natural Foods Co-op, Peak Brewing Co., Nature’s Path and Organic Valley.
• Twitter is considered a micro-blogging network. It provides an opportunity to show real business results because a number of followers and company mentions can easily be tracked. While Twitter can be a bit awkward in the beginning, millions of “Tweets,” or postings, occur daily and thousands of businesses join in and continue conversations. If you like something you see you can re-Tweet it on your Twitter page. For more information see “Twitter for Businesses 101” on page 34. Check out these Twitter personas for companies within the organic industry: @organictrade, @organic_valley, @stonyfieldsarah—and of course @opmag (Organic Processing Magazine).
• Blogs (WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, etc.) are viable social media tools and offer a way to easily publish your story through regular, dynamic posts that can tell a story with an honest, authentic voice. Blogs provide a place for fans to dig into your story deeper than Facebook and Twitter. Check out these bloggers within the organic industry: www.organicnation.tv, www.prana.com/blog, blog.countrychoiceorganic.com, blog.pizzafusion.com.
• YouTube is a highly popular online video sharing website that allows users to upload videos for public or private viewing. You can also set up an account to allow people to subscribe to your group, which will alert them every time a new video is posted. “Subsbribers” are all listed on a page where they can build community around their shared interests.
Other social media outlets worth looking into:
• Digg lets users submit articles, images or videos that they like to be published on the Digg website. If other members like the link they can click on “Digg it.” The more Diggs a story gets, the higher the ranking and placement on the website. Businesses can put the Digg link next to postings on their websites that they want users to Digg, and if the user clicks on the “Digg it” logo link, they are taken straight to the Digg.com website, where they can cast their Digg vote.
• Flickr at its core is a photo-sharing tool. Peel off a layer and you will find thousands of social groups, providing another opportunity to join the conversation by sharing and connecting with people who share interests similar to yours. Check out these organic-focused Flickr groups: www.flickr.com/groups/organicgardeners, www.flickr.com/groups/etsyorganicteam, www.flickr.com/groups/organic_group.
• Another creative way to connect with people is via music. Pandora.com lets you create music stations based on a song or artist you like. Businesses can make their own radio station and post it on their websites.
• Delicious is an online social bookmarking service that allows users to tag, save, manage and share web pages from a centralized source. Beyond the practical benefits, Delicious also allows sharing of those bookmarks with like-minded consumers. Having your site become a popular bookmark is another way of showing you’re a valuable source of information.
Simple Tips and Tricks
Taking part in the social media experiment is worth it. Here are some guidelines to help pave the road to success.
• Pay particular attention to online profiles (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Google Profiles, LinkedIn). This is your “About Us” section on social networking sites. Take advantage of this space and make it easy for people to find you and to “share” your content among their networks.
• Partner and collaborate with those in the organic industry. Their content may be relevant to share with others, and you likely will attract the attention of their fans or followers.
• Use social media to promote and improve the experience of your events. Using Twitter at events to communicate about speakers and activities has become increasingly popular. “Facebook Events” gives you and your fans another way to promote events. You might also consider setting up a Flickr account to share your event photos, or a YouTube account to display event videos.
• Don’t be afraid to experiment and get involved with other groups that are trying new things. For example, the School Food Trust in the United Kingdom is experimenting with providing lunch information through Twitter (@SCSSchoolMeals). Imagine the possibilities of partnering with them to provide organic food alternatives or education about school lunches.
Creating a Social Relations Department
Is a director of social media in your company’s future? It is useful to look back in time to understand how staffing has progressed to include social media management.
In the mid-1990s, businesses were grappling with the idea of adding team members to manage initiatives such as web strategy, content development and technical implementation. Companies today are asking themselves where a social media function should live (e.g., public relations or information technology) and what those resources should look like.
Early on, it is important that resources live close to the heart of your business strategy, and within a group of people who possess a solid understanding of your organization’s culture and messaging. A social relations department will not exist early on for most organizations but it is something to consider adding soon, as the function will be an integral part of success in this new space. In its ideal operating mode, a social relations department will help organizations develop into their own media outlet, harnessing the power of employees, consumers, families, etc. as “reporters” who tell their story with transparency, authenticity and relevancy.
Just as it’s important not to underestimate the power and importance of social media, it is critical to get help if you need it. Dozens of professionals are available who can help develop and execute your social media strategy, as well as develop your organization’s team and their responsibilities in this space.
Bottom Line: Measure Success
How is success with social media measured? Social media, first and foremost, is about developing relationships. However, since sales is commonly an organization’s ultimate goal, it’s important to recognize which actions inspired by relationships will likely lead to sales.
When considering social media metrics, consider the number of interactions, as well as the depth of engagement a fan has with your brand. Instead of overvaluing the number of followers, consider the number of times a fan mentions your organization. In other words, measure expressions of satisfaction and loyalty.
On Twitter you can do this by tracking how many users forward your message within the network (something called “re-Tweets”). Using Twitter Search you can track mentions of your brand on Twitter alongside the number of followers you’ve gained. Another tool called “Twitalizer” calculates metrics in five key areas such as brand strength and clout.
Other tools include “Google Analytics,” a powerful program that allows companies to closely measure their website traffic and user behavior. There is also “Facebook Insights,” a statisitics package that allows businesses to see user activity, fan demographics, ad performance and trends.
Additionally, a common way to track Facebook activity is by monitoring the number of times fans click “like” on a particular status update. Rather than simply counting the number of fans gained, clicking “like” demonstrates that the fans you do have are paying attention and engaging with your brand. In any case, it is necessary for companies to track metrics on a given tool and place value on each individual metric.
What’s Around the Corner?
Predicting the future, especially in the changing social media space, is practically impossible. However, consumer relationships are likely to evolve and expand given these factors:
• Websites will become more social. Tools like Facebook Connect, which allows users to transfer their online identity and connections across other websites, will spark further integration with the e-commerce and website user experience.
• Mobile phones will continue to dramatically alter social media, connecting consumers faster and more deeply with their favorite brands.
• It may not come as a firestorm, but pay attention to virtual worlds such as “Second Life.” Their social media market share will expand and further affect social relationships.
• Connecting locally through social media will become more sophisticated. Twitter allows geo-targeted, advanced searching, and Facebook forces you to enter a city to sign up. Expect more integration in this space and subsequently, more opportunity to connect directly with consumers on a local, more community-based level.
Why wait for the future? Your customers already are talking about you online, so if you haven’t entered this space, the time to start is now. Social media tools are becoming more useful for companies, especially those within the organic industry. Those willing to have an authentic conversation with
their fans have an opportunity to shine in this new space.
Nathan Rice and Renee Kelly are storytellers with Haberman (www.modernstorytellers.com), a brand public relations firm that tells the stories of pioneers who are making the world a better place. Together, Rice and Kelly co-lead many of the grassroots movements the firm implements on behalf of its broad portfolio of Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) clients. They achieve success integrating Rice’s expertise in interactive storytelling, including social media campaigns, online reputation management and online community development, with Kelly’s proficiency executing communications strategies, public and media relations campaigns, marketing initiatives and cause-related programs. You can reach Nathan and Renee at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Or find them on Twitter at @NathanDRice or @reneekel, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/modernstorytellers.