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Supermarkets and the social Web

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Facebook and Twitter have become such a big part of everyday life in such a short span of time that marketers in all areas of business are struggling to catch up and keep up. It’s no different for grocery marketers, said food industry consultant and former Progressive Grocer Editor-in-Chief Michael Sansolo. Recent research shows grocery marketers worry that they don’t have the skills and social media savvy to make the most of social media tools, said Sansolo, who is also the former senior vice president of the Food Marketing Institute and a member of the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council, whose retail members are in the midst of a long-term study of the effects of the social Web on the supermarket industry.

“The big thing to remember is that whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or something else, social media is a tech-enabled solution to do something we’ve always done — build a relationship with your shoppers and your associates, so you become someone they lean on not just for products but for ideas and solutions,” Sansolo said.

Grocers have always endeavored to become a go-to source for recipes, menu ideas, nutrition data and other food-related information that helps customers make better decisions. Social media take that relationship and accelerate it.

“So much of social media is simply the basics of human interaction. It isn’t as though [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg flew to Mars and brought back a brand new idea, but it enables incredible speed and large circles with friends and acquaintances that can become trusted allies,” Sansolo said.

Sansolo’s additional tips:

Communicate with value

“You can’t just talk, you can’t just blather — you have to communicate with value and give people a reason to come. You have to be interesting or helpful or insightful. You can’t just be there … There’s something like 250 million tweets every day, and most of them are idiotic. For a company to put valuable information into a tweet, they have to really think about what they’re communicating.”

Realize it’s a two-way street

“Put a lot of importance on the listening. Customers are far more empowered than ever to talk about the experiences they have. If I comment on your store, and I had a bad experience, I want to hear back. By responding to consumers, you can turn a negative into a positive, because you’ve shown my opinion and experience matters.”

Remember high school

“Think about the high-school lunchroom: There were those people who always kind of knew stuff; they were these simple little pods that we learned to navigate, and the social Web is very similar. If I’m a supermarket, nobody’s going to look to me for information on the latest cellphone. But if they’re worried about peanut allergies, for example, how does the supermarket become the expert on that?”

Give up old ideas of control

“The biggest change the social Web brings about in every company is that the whole notion of control is gone. It used to be that people selling goods had a lot more information than the people buying — that day is gone. People buying a car today can know more than the dealer, so the mindset by which we all operate has to change.

You create a sense of what you’re looking to achieve within your company, but how do you control what everyone will say so you stay on message? You can’t, but there are things you can do. You may say there are some people in the company we want out there talking about things, but we want them talking about a certain range of things. For example, your bakery expert can help to share advice on how to make cakes. That can be helpful information, and they can take it further to address specific issues. You may have customers who are celiac, so your expert may be talking about gluten-free.

But one of the things we’re constantly teaching ourselves is that the kind of control a CEO used to be able to assert, that’s changing because everyone is sharing everything. You really can’t say, “This is all you’re allowed to talk about.’ “