Social media is likely to assume ever-greater significance within the global food industry but, writes Jonathan Thomas, there is still uncertainty among marketers over how to make the most of the phenomenon.

The likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube look set to continue to be a vital part of the marketing mix of FMCG companies.

“We are consistently improving our commitment to digital media. The industry is growing and as a major retailer we have to be at the forefront to continue to support our customers whether it’s letting them know about a promotional offer, sharing a story about one of our colleagues or responding to a customer service query,” Joel Dawson, head of digital marketing at Sainsbury’s, says.

However, the perception remains that many businesses are still uncertain as to how to use social media for maximum advantage. There are misperceptions among business and marketing personnel about the role social media should play.

“Social media is never the full solution… rather, it should only form part [of the marketing mix],” Kieran Hannon of social media consultants eSocialMedia says.

A recent IBM survey claimed marketing executives lack a “clear consensus on how to best utilise social media”. There will, it says,  be ongoing experimentation with these channels. 

IBM surveyed over 350 marketing professionals worldwide across a number of industries. The results, published in June, showed marketers plan to use social media in a variety of ways. Some 26% intend to launch applications on third-party social network sites, 24% plan to incorporate user-generated content into their social media efforts and 23% are looking to launch social media ads or share links in email and web offers.

However, IBM warned the majority of marketers were not using data from these social media “experiments” to shape decisions on offers or messages. “This may represent a missed opportunity for marketers looking to best meet the needs of today’s customer,” it says.

There are a number of opinions on how best to use social media but interactivity and engagement appear to be key ingredients. “Social media [campaigns] must tell a story to connect with people… this helps to add authenticity,” says Richard Sedley, a leading authority on social media from Foviance, a consultancy that works with businesses on multi-channel strategy.

The quality of social media content is also an important barometer of success. At eSocialMedia, Hannon says companies should create content themselves and be responsible for updating it. He believes companies are expected to keep more of their social media activities (especially in terms of developing content) in-house in future rather than using agencies.

However, critics of the use of social media in marketing suggest campaigns often deliver little in terms of any noticeable increase in sales or market share. It was rumoured, for example, that engagement levels for Cadbury’s Spots v Stripes campaign fell below original expectations. The confectioner refuted the claims when the campaign finished; it said almost half of participants and spectators were more likely to play games and get involved in sport as volunteers. “We have used game playing to bring people together and build stronger communities in areas that need it the most,” insisted Norman Brodie, general manager for Cadbury’s London 2012 activity, said earlier this year.

Although concerns persist over the question of rate of investment from social media campaigns, industry watchers broadly agree the analytics for measuring this are now improving. “ROI [for social media campaigns] can be measured through clickthroughs… improving analytics mean that better monitoring of traffic is now occurring,” says Luke Brynley-Jones, founder of consultancy Our Social Times.

Hannon says it is possible to measure the success of campaigns on Facebook and Twitter by looking at conversations and engagement with consumers. However, he adds: “It is often difficult to measure the impact of social media on offline sales.”

Nevertheless, Brynley-Jones argues the focus on ROI meant the longer-term benefits of using social media are being ignored. “Companies often under-value relationships with their customers… social media should be about building a relationship with them and generating trust. Over the next few years, more companies will come to appreciate and see the value of trust, and the same can also be said for their customers,” he says.

Another question mark over how the use of social media could develop is whether or not websites such as Facebook have the potential to become direct sales channels for food brands. Marketing analysts Forrester Research says “there was a lot of anticipation” in business that Facebook would “turn into a destination, a place where people would shop”.

However, a campaign from Heinz to allow US consumers to buy its new balsamic ketchup through Facebook faltered amid technical problems. Perhaps expectations were somewhat overstated, especially given the fact that purchasing goods is generally not a top priority for people using Facebook. 

That said, social media websites do possess the power to act as sales channels, and many industry sources feel the likes of Facebook will represent an increasingly significant part of the selling environment. A campaign from Heinz selling personalised soup via Facebook to wish friends and family to “get well” concept showed the company had learned some of the lessons from its earlier efforts involving ketchup. Heinz used PayPal during its soup campaign, which was more acceptable to consumers since PayPal was a trusted online payment tool. During the campaign, interactions on Heinz’s related Facebook page increased by 650%.

When Heinz’s two campaigns were analysed at the subsequent Facebook Marketing 2012 conference, it was pointed out that simply replicating an e-commerce platform on social media websites was unlikely to achieve success – one reason for which is that Facebook tends to lend itself more to impulse, rather than pre-planned purchases. Instead, it was suggested that a more useful way of using social media would be to offer exclusive or unique products via the likes of Facebook, in order to reward loyal fans.

Social media, then, can work and can offer manufacturers and retailers with opportunities to enhance their brands, launch products and even sell goods. However, the fast pace of its developments means how to use the medium can prove problematic. The IBM survey showed over 40% of marketers believed keeping up to speed with the channel would be their biggest challenge over the next three to five years. It is a medium with pitfalls as well as potential.