Del Monte Gets Social

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2008-07-30

As social networking’s popularity has exploded in recent years, sites such as MySpace and Facebook have been transformed from unfamiliar names into cultural icons—representing a potential goldmine for marketers. But behind all the hoopla about the promise of Web 2.0 technologies lies an important fact: Few major companies have learned to use social networking to achieve any substantial business gains.

Del Monte is hoping to buck that trend and capitalize on social networking as a marketing tool. The San Francisco-based conglomerate—known for canned fruits and vegetables; major retail brands such as College Inn, Contadina and StarKist; and pet products such as 9Lives, Gravy Train, Milk-Bone and Meow Mix—is looking to gain a competitive edge.

“We understand that business has entered a new era and social networking tools must augment conventional marketing methods,” says Walter Wdowiak, vice president of marketing services for Del Monte.

To that end, the company has introduced two initiatives designed to tap into the power of social networking, and it will soon introduce a third. “I Love My Dog” offers a community where canine owners can interact and share ideas, and “Moms Online Community” lets mothers exchange ideas and information. Both initiatives help Del Monte glean insights into market psychology and put its finger on the pulse of emerging trends. Del Monte, working with new-media marketing firm MarketTools, will soon add an “I Love My Cat” social network to the mix.

“Social networking tools help us get much closer to consumers,” Wdowiak explains. “We’re able to identify the most pressing issues for customers and understand topical matters that factor into buying decisions. We’re also able to explore concepts, including the development of new products. The technology allows us to pinpoint ideas in a much more thorough and accurate way.”

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.

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Exploring the Possibilities

When Del Monte executives decided to pursue social networking as a marketing tool, they recognized that the company didn’t have the creative knowledge or IT expertise in that arena to assure success. So they turned to MarketTools, which developed—and hosts—the sites, perfected the data collection and analysis methods, and set up the technology required to make everything work.

This approach opens up possibilities that lie beyond the scope of Del Monte’s IT department. For example, when MarketTools began working on the “I Love My Dog” initiative, it gathered data from roughly 50 million blogs, forums and message boards over a period of months, Waite says, in order to do deep contextual processing and identify key themes in the marketplace. Teaming with a partner, Umbria, MarketTools conducted detailed analyses of social media, built a data warehouse, and developed key algorithms that led to themes and discussion points for the then soon-to-be-developed community.

MarketTools uses the same type of contextual analysis technology to build intelligence from discussions and blogs relating to moms on the Web. Once every quarter, the media marketing company embarks on a research initiative and then uses the data to revise the site and its approach.

Online facilitators who manage the two sites ultimately combine grass-roots information from the community with more general data from the Web.

“They gain a deep understanding of the marketplace and the consumers we’re attracting,” Wdowiak explains. “We gain insights that would never be possible to get through traditional market research.”

Not surprisingly, Del Monte plans to expand the use of social networking. Presently, the company is unveiling the “I Love My Cat” network to support marketing of its Meow Mix brand.

One characteristic that makes the MarketTools platform so compelling, Wdowiak says, is the ability to use it as a template for quick rollouts without incurring additional development costs. As Waite explains, “Once our platform is in place, it’s relatively easy to expand it and create new sites.”

The communities have also brought unintended benefits beyond the scope of specific products and market segments. For instance, when the tomato salmonella scare hit earlier this year, Del Monte was able to quickly gauge consumer attitudes about its products. It also tapped into the community to glean essential information during earlier pet food recalls involving tainted wheat gluten. Done right, these online communities can create an almost one-to-one interaction and raise marketing intelligence to new levels.

“Social networking adds an entirely new dimension to marketing,” Wdowiak says. “The technology isn’t cutting edge. We’re simply applying it creatively and finding new ways to analyze and interpret data. That’s where the true value lies.”