Social media explained: A discussion with Michael Sansolo, retail food industry consultant - SmartBrief

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Social media explained: A discussion with Michael Sansolo, retail food industry consultant

6 min read


The Coca-Cola Company sponsors this blog post and the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council, which serves as an authentic and comprehensive “voice of the customer.” Visit to learn more about the council and to download its studies at no charge.

In today’s retail landscape, it’s essential to have a presence in social media. The consumer mindset has shifted to a more online approach to gaining information on retailers, products and services.

According to Michael Sansolo, vice chairman of the board for The Food Institute and research director of the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Councils of both North and Latin America, having an online presence means doing more than just creating an account and harvesting “likes.”

“The social web puts a premium on authenticity and transparency, which is again fairly different than traditional advertising,” he notes. “If you offer anything else you risk losing the relationship and the attention of your shoppers.”

At next week’s Future Connect, Sansolo will discuss the complexities of having an online presence and the benefits to retailers in “Untangling the Social Web,” the new study from the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council of North America. (The entire report is available for free at

SmartBrief recently had the opportunity to discuss the theme with Sansolo, getting some insight into how a retailer can best navigate the sea of possibilities when it comes to the social Web.

SmartBrief: How is a retailer’s message of quality products and services, competitive prices and overall uniqueness in the market conveyed differently via the social Web compared to more traditional forms of communications, such as print, radio, TV or even in-store signage?

Michael Sansolo: The social Web demands a different form of communication, with a premium on listening to the consumer and trying to participate in a discussion with them rather than simply advertising at them. That’s a brand new skill for many companies. The upside is that companies can actually create collaborative relationships with shoppers that can lead to a much deeper relationship with shoppers sharing recipes, strategies and feedback.

From your research, would you say consumers rely more on social media interaction with retailers rather than face-to-face contact?

The social Web relationship is very much a face-to-face contact, just carried out through the media of Twitter, Facebook or others. Companies need to understand we’re talking about a conversation that needs to be fresh, engaging and important — just as we’d like it to be in person. Yes, it remains very important to have the right interactions face-to-face, but the skills of the social Web can help there. We need to train front-line employees to handle both with skill, politeness and an understanding that their words and actions matter.

How do you suggest a retailer go about choosing a platform to best present itself via social media? What are some of the key elements that constitute a “perfect fit” for a company’s online presence?

This is one of the key questions many retailers ask, because it’s almost impossible to have a presence in all of these different networks. Our study outlines some clear questions companies can ask themselves to select the most effective network, but mostly that comes down to finding out where your shoppers are most likely to visit. Once you know that you can use the other sites to push traffic to your preferred network. The key, of course, is remembering that your content must be useful and compelling. Otherwise you won’t have followers to worry about.

In your opinion, can a retailer (small or large) survive in business today without taking part in Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest?

They absolutely can survive, but it’s not a strategy I’d recommend. Retailers of all sizes need to be where their shoppers are, and today, increasingly, that’s the social Web. Ignoring it means missing a huge communication and community vehicle, which could end up costing you shoppers.

Two other points on this: First, a retailer may choose not to participate on the social Web, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t on the social Web. The odds are very strong their customers and associates are talking about the company. So the only voice missing is the company’s own. Second, the social Web allows a big company to look small and local, with personalized messaging, and it allows a small company to look big by spreading out a message.

Many large-scale companies and organizations employ full-time social networking personnel so as to stay alert to what customers or members are saying, and to keep ahead of the social curb. What do you suggest for companies that don’t have the budget for these types of employees, but want the benefits they provide?

Luckily, there are simple and fairly affordable resources on line that can serve as listening posts, in addition to the support that comes easily on Twitter or Facebook. One of the smaller companies on our council used, a really user-friendly website that allows anyone to track activity on multiple networks. In fact, I use that one myself and I’m amazed at how easily I can learn about anything said involving what I do.

Is it possible to “overdo it” when it comes to a retailer’s presence within the social Web?

Absolutely. This is a new medium and many companies are struggling to get it right. Experimentation is welcome and adaptation is completely acceptable. It’s vital to listen to feedback from customers and associates to get a sense of what’s working. The Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council study makes clear that there are measures of success that you can employ to see if you are gaining influence and exposure. Get out there and try, but reports like ours are helpful because you want to proceed as best as possible and a little knowledge can provide a lot of help.

Where do you see the future of social media in the next five years? The next 10 years?

Without getting too dramatic, I think we are witnessing a major change in how people and companies communicate and build community, so I think social networking is here to stay. After all, people are social animals and this technology merely enables connections at a whole new level.

But we also know that change is inevitable in any area involving technology. Our networks are certainly going to become more mobile and possibly even more convenient than smart phones. Think of developments like Google Glass that stream information right in front of our eyes. The big change I am hoping for is clear evidence of how all this networking builds sales, profits and loyalty.

And let’s not forget that even in the age of hyper-connectivity, customer service and face-to-face communication still matters. The technology is a tool that we need to use properly, but we still need to create great experiences.