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Social media capture the attention of produce marketers

by Tim Linden | April 15, 2010
Do you have a Facebook page? Are you tweeting on your Twitter account? Have you ever posted a video on YouTube?

If you are ignoring these social media platforms, you may be missing a golden opportunity to promote your commodities. At least that's the view of a number of marketing experts, and apparently their advice is being heard by many in the produce industry.

California strawberries have a Facebook page and a Twitter account. So do blueberries, California avocados and North Carolina sweet potatoes. Brands are also participating with "Ocean Spray" cranberries, "Del Monte" bananas and Duda Family Farms "Dandy" labels using Facebook, Twitter or both to connect with consumers.

Megan Zweig, associate partner with DMA Solutions, a produce-specific marketing company headquartered in Irving, TX, answered "absolutely" when asked if a brand shipper or a commodity group should be utilizing social media as part of its marketing strategy. "If you are a produce company with a recognized label being sold to the consumer, you should definitely be involved in social networking," she said.

In fact, while Ms. Zweig didn't say it had to be a firm's top-priority item, she ranked it very near the top. "You definitely should be connecting with the consumer. You should have a web site with a B-to-B (business to business) and a B-to-C (business to consumer) platform, and you should be using social media as another touch point with that consumer."

Jason Stemm, associate vice president at Lewis & Neale, a New York-based advertising agency, agreed, saying that social media platforms - which number many, but certainly YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are the most recognizable - are a "powerful way to connect with consumers directly."

He said that many produce companies are just starting to dip their toes into the social media waters. While he is a proponent of the "go slow" approach, he believes it is the wave of the future - and it has already arrived.

"The conversation [about your product or commodity] is taking place already," he said. "You want to be involved in it and help control it." Carolyn O'Donnell, communications director of the California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville, said that social networking is an important element of the commission's marketing plan.

"It allows us to talk directly with consumers," Ms. O'Donnell said of the commission's Facebook page and Twitter account. "In the past, we would send out a press release and we would need a compelling story as well as very good timing to have it picked up and run by a newspaper or magazine. Now, for a very low cost, we can get our message directly to consumers."

Ms. O'Donnell said that the commission's Facebook page currently has 3,000 fans, while the Twitter account has 1,400 followers. The commission also sends out an e-mail newsletter to a growing list and uses Facebook and Twitter to build traffic for its web site.

Ms. Zweig said that one of the keys to a social-media program is that it has to direct followers and fans to the web site. She indicated that those platforms should be used as part of a marketing strategy to drive the follower back to the web site where more information, such as recipes, is available.

Mr. Stemm said that before embarking on this new way to connect with the consumer, a company should conduct what he called "a social media audit." He added, "Find out who is talking about you, what they are saying and what do they have questions about. Are they talking about health issues, looking for recipes or discussing your product as it relates to their child's nutrition?"

He reiterated that discussions about many items -- be it bananas or blueberries - are happening out there, and the first order of business is to understand what is being said so a company can respond with the message that it wants to tell.

Mr. Stemm and Ms. Zweig said that just having a Facebook page or Twitter account that one occasionally uses isn't enough. "It is very easy to put up a Facebook page," he said. "It's what you do with it once it is up that counts." Cindy Jewel, marketing director for California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville, CA, admitted to being an early adopter who has developed a Facebook and Twitter page for Cal Giant, but she is not quite sold on its efficacy.

While Ms. Jewell is happy that Cal Giant's Facebook page has 700 followers, she admitted that this is not a significant number in the grand scheme of things, and hence she cannot spend an inordinate amount of time catering to those group memebers, regardless of how devoted they are.

"I am not sure exactly who they are," she said. "Occasionally I try to engage some of our followers in a conversation, with limited success. Who are they and why are they following us? I don't know."

She suspects that most followers are already users of the firm's products having found its Facebook or Twitter accounts by buying a package of its product.

Because Ms. Jewel is involved in many other aspects of marketing the firm's products, she said that her attention to the Facebook account, for example, is limited. "I look at it every day, but I probably only post something once a week."

However, she is not ignoring the concept and called it a complement to her other activities. Much of the firm's marketing strategy does try to direct traffic to the company's web site.

Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission, said that the organization has also just begun a social media campaign. "We do have a Facebook page and Twitter account this year, and we are on YouTube. It is part of our overall campaign and allows us to have a conversation with the consumer. We just launched our Facebook page on March 1, and by the March board meeting we had 4,000 followers. So there are people out there that live in the social media world and we are connecting with them."

Ms. DeLyser said that the commission did need to allocate additional funds for this activity, but because the 2010 crop is much larger than the 2009 crop, "we had a bigger budget to work with."

Ms. Zweig believes that a successful social media campaign with Twitter and Facebook requires constant attention, which means time and money. In fact, she said that this is why a marketing company such as DMA is employed by several firms to handle their campaigns.

"We have somebody here that Twitters all day long," she said. "It is their full- time job."

Mr. Stemm agreed that launching a comprehensive social media campaign is not inexpensive. It does require resources and a significant time expenditure to participate in the ongoing dialogue, monitor the conversation about product and direct people to the web site. He said that these tools are available but are not cheap. It is one reason why he admitted to the self- serving belief that utilizing a professional organization to launch a company's social media campaign is economically prudent.

While many can be found who wholeheartedly support a social media campaign, there are naysayers.

Tom Tjerandsen of McClure & Tjerandsen, a longtime marketing group that promotes a variety of items including apricots, asparagus, pomegranates and Chilean fresh fruits, hears a lot of buzz about social media campaigns but does not subscribe to the belief that the time has come.

He metaphorically called it a big wave way out on the horizon, but it's too soon to start paddling to catch that wave.

"There are innovators and early adopters, and I'll admit to being in the late majority," Mr. Tjerandsen said. "I'll wait a bit longer."

Some might say he is behind the times, but to Mr. Tjerandsen, his viewpoint is very pragmatic. He said that for the commodities for which he works, there is only a limited budget, and he does not believe engaging dollars in a social media campaign is the best use of that money.

"There are many other things that you can do that will more effectively sell product," he said.

In fact, Mr. Tjerandsen relayed a recent asparagus promotion that utilized about $1,000 in prize money to substantially increase sales at scores of food-distribution centers. He opined that a similar $1,000 expenditure would not have yielded the same results utilizing social media.

He added that social media campaigns are very difficult to measure with regard to either their reach or their effectiveness, so they give the promoter almost a free pass in the expenditure of dollars with no accountability.