Gaining—and Sharing—Insights

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2008-07-30 Print this article Print

Del Monte is hoping to capitalize on social networking as a marketing tool, to help the company get closer to its customers and create the kind of products consumers want.

Gaining—and Sharing—Insights

What makes social networking so compelling as a marketing tool is that it creates new ways to sift through information and identify opportunities. “Web 2.0 tools, including social networking, create a platform that’s well-designed for the development, refinement and evaluation of ideas,” says Mike Waite, a vice president at MarketTools.

That’s a realization that Del Monte, which faces fierce competition from other food conglomerates, made three years ago. Understanding today’s fast-moving marketplace is paramount, and sophisticated database and analytics tools are no longer capable of addressing that challenge on their own.

“To really serve a customer base, it’s important to really understand them,” Waite says. “Online communications that revolve around a shared interest can pay big dividends for companies.”

One example is the “I Love My Dog” program, introduced in 2006. Providing the technology foundation for social networking, the browser-based application relies primarily on the Drupal open-source content management platform. It offers an open-source content-management platform and provides tools for a wide range of features, including polls, templates, threaded discussions, blogging and role-based permissions.

The site lets dog owners discuss issues, chat, participate in surveys, share photos and videos, and track down resources. Nearly 500 consumers use the password-protected site, which is accessible only by invitation.

Of course, Del Monte isn’t operating the site only to make pet owners’ lives richer: It gathers data that can help shape its marketing decisions. The private network guides decision-making about products, test-markets campaigns, helps understand buying preferences, and generates discussion about new items and product changes.

For instance, when Del Monte began exploring a new breakfast treat for dogs, it surveyed members of its network to find out what they thought. The result was a vitamin- and mineral-enriched treat called Snausages Breakfast Bites.

Del Monte’s Wdowiak says the value of the site extends far beyond what’s possible in a focus group, since participants are involved with the initiative on an ongoing basis. The Snausages Bites project took six months, and the company interacted with members of the dog lovers’ group regularly during that time.

The process helped Del Monte formulate the product, while also guiding packaging and marketing. Research showed that buyers were more likely to be small-dog owners—which led to shaping a smaller treat. The process shortened the product-development cycle, while also giving Del Monte a better idea of what to expect in the marketplace. As a bonus, marketing the smaller-size dog treat trimmed costs.

The “Moms Online Community” helps Del Monte glean information about the preferences and buying habits of mothers. It has approximately 10,000 participants (shared among eight MarketTools clients) and uses a community manager to moderate discussions and facilitate day-to-day communication. The site features tips, forums, recipes, subscriptions for topics of interest and profiles of moms participating in the community. The company periodically provides topics for discussion or uses polling to gather feedback on ideas, products and trends.

Del Monte targets a few primary areas to keep participants engaged and information flowing in. An initial discovery phase focuses on understanding what customers are thinking about and what their concerns are. “It’s about understanding how different target groups view the marketplace,” Wdowiak says.

A second area involves monitoring what participants are discussing online and what they appear to be interested in. Besides keeping an eye on informal conversations, Del Monte sets up formal discussions approximately once a month.

All the data comes together in the third phase, when Del Monte may send out products for participants to sample and will collect detailed feedback on the responses. The company may send out different iterations of a product and ask participants to post their comments online, or it may set up a Web survey that quickly tabulates responses and helps adapt a strategy. “The management team can look at the data and decide very quickly how to revise products or create new products,” Wdowiak explains.

Samuel Greengard is a freelance writer for Baseline.

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