Packaging and social networking

Online communities can be a valuable source of packaging-related intelligence.

Sterling Anthony, CPP
Sterling Anthony, CPP
Social networking, consisting of interactive websites, has become a global phenomenon. Every consumer products goods company should accept as a given that it is, has been, or will be an online topic of conversation, if not by name, then by industry or product category. Regardless of whether the conversations praise or pound, the fallout can be viral, spreading exponentially within minutes. Having that potential, social networking is being incorporated into many a marketing strategy. That automatically suggests a role for packaging.

First and foremost, the CPG companies should set informational objectives. The focus should be on packaging's influence on purchases (trial and repeat) and more specifically on such factors as design, materials, sustainability, etc. It takes minutes to establish a corporate account on FaceBook or Twitter, the two behemoths in the field; nonetheless, social networking can be time-consuming. It depends on what the company wants to learn and teach, which goes a long way in determining how time should be divided between monitoring and participating.
Can objectives be served by periodically checking the freewheeling posted comments or does the company need to give greater direction to the conversation? And conversation is what social networking is all about; therefore, in setting objectives, the company should think in terms of what it most would like to tell the social networking community and what it most would like to ask that community.
Who within the company should be the voice for packaging in social networking? What qualifications should be set? What restrictions should be imposed concerning what may be divulged online? Should the person's responsibilities be full-time? A packaging professional might seem a natural candidate; however, during the recession, some packaging departments were downsized. If the person comes from outside the packaging department (marketing might be the obvious default choice) there need to be effective internal channels through which the packaging department provides input and receives feedback.

It's a practical certainty that any company contemplating an involvement in social networking already has a presence on the internet via a website; so consideration should be given to obtaining synergy between the two. The packaging-related content that a company provides via social networking sites should be supportive of what it provides on its own site. It shouldn't be difficult for a CPG company (the operative initial being the P) to mention its packaging in a positive light on its website. Additionally, some strategy should go into how the packaging is shown on all sites, even to the point of displaying mock-ups that present well in thumbnail size. But if unretouched photography is used, a click-to-enlarge feature can be a simple, effective aid.
The preceding paragraph should not be interpreted as advising the company to load its social networking with self-promotion, though that may be a marketer's natural inclination. Strive instead to communicate from the other side's perspective. Of course there's information that the company wants conveyed, but the delivery should not be heavy-handed. A good conversationalist knows the value of being regarded as sincere, engaged, empathetic, and entertaining. A good part of that is injecting the right amount of informality, as opposed to stiff corporate-speak.

The research factor

Packaging-related social networking is not worth the investment unless it provides intelligence for decision-making, notably (although not exclusively) in relation to the physical packaging, because that's what the networkers see, and overwhelmingly, that's what their commentaries address. Under the banner of package design research are qualitative, quantitative, and observational methodologies that measure how a package elicits perceptions, attitudes, and reactions.  What promise does social networking hold as a package design research methodology? Should it replace a particular methodology or be used in conjunction? Answering those and related questions necessitates an understanding of the basic differences between social networking and traditional research methodologies.

Think carefully about the issue of control. You don't have all that much when it comes to social networking. In a focus group, for example, a capable moderator can keep the discussion on target and can reign in a monopolizing participant. In contrast, social networking discussions sometimes go afield and can be marred with non sequiturs. Furthermore, digressing comments can have the annoying (from the company's perspective) effect of triggering others of like kind. Then again, when networkers react like cats to herding, it might indicate that the company is off-base on its assumptions and theories.
But regardless of how tight the discussion, with social networking there's no voice inflection, body language, or other reactions that might have inferential value. Plus there's the anonymity of social networking, exemplified by online names that are not necessarily indicative of demographics or psychographics. Using qualifying questions to screen and classify will meet resistance by some networkers, simply because that's not the reason that they come to the site.
There are social networking groups that have packaging as their expressed interest and companies should add them to the conversation mix. The same goes for the various bloggers on the sites who are self-proclaimed experts on packaging. Some bloggers are paid by companies to chat-up their products and packaging; however, unless that arrangement is declared to the target networkers, issues of ethics and transparency can come into play.
And the envelope, please

Departing farther from the traditional, a few companies have run contests in which social networkers vote on package design alternatives, the winning design to be commercialized. Savvy? The involved companies have not made the disclosures necessary for a public determination. Be that as it may, a company contemplating going that route should exercise caution.

From a risk standpoint, a contest doesn't lend itself equally across all design projects, new versus revised, for example. Even a package revision can range from a tweak to an overhaul. The number of design choices to be voted on and the differences among those choices are just two of the many considerations. As such, what to entrust to social networkers should be backed by sound reasoning.
Yet, besides knowing which choice won, the company might be left knowing little as to why votes tallied as they did. The company can't extrapolate the results if it can't determine the degree to which those who voted for the winner are representative of the target consumer. And as previously discussed, a company is rather limited in its ability to pierce online anonymity (and the privacy that it bestows). Even with a well thought out contest, the biggest short-term benefit that the company derives might only be the temporary buzz created; for, voting in a contest need not foster a sense of ownership leading to loyalty, despite a company's desire for that linkage.
But the company with a longer vista will experiment—whether with contests or other tactics—to learn how to integrate packaging and social networking.  Such a company will be willing to endure fitful starts and stalls, if necessary, because the vastness of cyberspace and its potential justify it.

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center-176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax;
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