Why use social networking?

Packaging Professional magazine
15 Jan 2010
A person on a mobile phone

Social networking sites can boost your packaging know how and aid company promotion, but it helps to understand the platforms first. Richard Cooper, IOM3 Webmaster, speaks to prominent users.

‘Hundreds of people an hour are discussing packaging on social networks,’ says Martin Hardwidge, owner of MHA Marketing Communications, a Nottingham-based PR and marketing agency specialising in communications for the packaging industry. The reason for this popularity, he says, is two-fold.

‘Packaging impinges on people in two main ways – firstly from a “green” perspective, as it remains the main waste stream that people come into daily contact with, so they moan about it. Secondly, packaging is a prime motivator in people’s purchasing decisions, so [they] engage with, and discuss, it.’

Established in 2006, the ‘micro-blogging’ site Twitter had a slow start before exploding in popularity with the help of celebrity ‘tweeters’ such as Stephen Fry and Demi Moore. Users type a brief status update (a 'tweet') in answer to the question ‘What are you doing?’ as often as they like. Many large companies and organisations are now on Twitter, along with millions of individual users.

One of the highest-profile packaging tweeters is JoAnn Hines, aka PackagingDiva, an Atlanta-USA-based consultant. She says, ‘I tweet packaging information days or sometimes weeks before it appears in mainstream media… and engage in dialogue with people I might never have access to’.

On the ‘green’ issue, Hines says, ‘The creatives speak about design and innovation and the eco-friendly blast everything about packaging. Sandwiched in between are the branding and marketing people and those who truly understand the role of packaging in modern society’.

Positive publicity

‘Social networking provides a wonderful opportunity for positive packaging messages to be broadcast to counteract all the negative publicity,’ says Chris Penfold, CEO of Design Cognition, a packaging design and development consultancy. He says it is also useful for generating ‘real-time customer feedback, something that, with imagination and flair, could be exploited by packaging companies in areas such as market research and focus groups’.

Hines and Penfold also use LinkedIn. Popular with both individuals and companies, this site is longer established than Twitter and has a more serious image. Its 50 million users can make connections quickly by way of personal introductions and engage in group discussions.

Some social networking tools offer more popular group features than others. Although Hines has established a packaging ‘Twibe’ – a group of Twitter users who tweet about the same topic – it currently has 67 members, whereas a keyword search for ‘packaging’ on LinkedIn Groups turns up over 500 results, with some groups’ membership running into the thousands.

Despite that, Hines says that Twitter works best for her, ‘even though I started on LinkedIn first. Both have [brought] me business. You can’t do them all so you have to find what works best for you’.

Parallel lives

Hines has produced a list of the ‘top 50 packaging people to follow on Twitter’, which she regularly updates and circulates free to her followers. ‘There are two basic types of tweeter,’ she says, ‘the touchy-feely warm and personal kind that talks a lot about their personal lives, and the professional that uses Twitter as a tool to build their business and brands and rarely gets into non-business discussions. There is also the hybrid of both and that’s okay, as long as you stay focused on who you want to be to your followers.’

Some business tweeters, including Hardwidge and Penfold, have more than one Twitter profile to keep business and personal updates separate, allowing users to choose one (or both) to follow.

Hardwidge says his Packaging Radar blog ‘has been really successful. I get about 150 unique visitors a day to it. I use Twitter to generate content for the blog, and also add opinion pieces.

‘When I look back seven years to when I started my business I was telling people that I thought that a website was no longer optional, and I was getting some resistance to that. Now I tell people that a blog on their website should no longer be considered optional’.

Hardwidge is chairman of the East Midlands Packaging Society and has recently moved its static website to the Ning network, allowing the Society’s presence to become more dynamic. The network offers a combination of blogs, discussion forums, member profiles and RSS feeds. ‘It was a doddle to set up,’ he enthuses, ‘It took about 20 minutes, is free and I urge all other Societies to look at doing the same.’

The right message

Most packaging companies are, however, not making the most of social networking. ‘They play at it rather than work at it,’ laments Hines. ‘Most haven’t taken the time to understand [it].’

Penfold echoes this standpoint, ‘Generally I have seen an increase in packaging companies using social networking over the past few months but many miss the point and just bombard people with adverts for their products and services. Unless those companies adapt, and provide useful information and links, people will soon become fed up and stop “following” them, and the companies themselves will see the social media exercise as a waste of time on their part’.

Hardwidge agrees. ‘There are some honourable exceptions, but it is difficult for organisations to get the tone right. Social networking works best as a conversation, not as an interruption. If it’s just used as a way of making announcements then [the company] will be disappointed with the results.’

Penfold notes that many organisations have been slow to react to social networking trends, risking a dilution of status as members and customers bypass them to get information from other sources on the Internet. He says organisations should ‘embrace this “not so new” medium with open arms and nurture the opportunity to build relationships with the younger generation in engaging, meaningful and creative ways – otherwise [the businesses] will die!’.

Our role

The Institute relaunched its website with many new features including discussion forums in July 2008. It has since embraced social networking channels including Twitter and Facebook where users can become ‘fans’ of the Institute.

Among the IOM3 talk boards is a member-only packaging discussion and advice forum, developed from the ‘member help a member’ e-mail service managed by the IOM3 Membership team.

The Institute’s Membership Administration Manager, Julie Bowers, says, ‘Members often prefer the more direct approach of the e-mail to navigating a website. [It] is more personal and some members are more inclined to make direct contact with each other that way than post information on a forum.

‘We direct members to the forum to post enquiries and answers so that they can be shared and archived, but the general feeling is that they prefer the e-mail service [where a member asks a question privately and gets a tailored response through Bowers]. This also keeps us in touch with our members and I enjoy the banter which you often get with the regular e-mailers’.

Packaging Diva’s Twitter tips

• Find your own persona – do not try to emulate someone else.
• Commit the time to use Twitter properly.
• Consider carefully before mixing personal information with business advice.
• Set up your profile before you begin tweeting.
• As a new user, read and learn from other tweeters.
• Give before you take – see how you can help other people with their issues and problems.
• It is OK to post information about your products, services and events, but nothing will turn followers off faster than too much self-promotion.
• Look up your keywords in the search feature to find out who is tweeting about the same topics.
• Follow the people who follow you, and see who they follow and who follows them.
• When someone follows you, thank them with a brief statement about what you do – but do not try to sell them anything.
• When someone tweets something important or interesting, retweet (RT) it to your followers, crediting the source, and they will be encouraged to RT in return.
• Be positive, engaging, complimentary and funny.

Further information:

IOM3 on Twitter

IOM3 packaging forum

IOM3 Facebook page

Martin Hardwidge’s blog

JoAnn Hines’ blog

Chris Penfold/Design Cognition’s blog