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Social monitoring tools give GNC marketing muscle

Rosemary Cafasso, Associate News and Site Editor

Company: General Nutrition Centers Inc., a global retailer of nutritional products, such as vitamins, sports nutrition supplements, herbs and energy products, with 4,800 retail locations in the U.S.

Social tools: Radian6, a social monitoring tool recently acquired by Salesforce.com,

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a beta version of Crowdbooster, a social media dashboard, and “all the free tools,’’ including Twitter and  social media analytics tools.

Social CRM goal:  Extend customer service and engagement on social channels, serve as online “trusted adviser’’ and create “a net increase in the discussions about GNC,’’ according to Chris James, director of social media at GNC.

GNC’s social strategy:  James works with a few part-time community managers to monitor what is being said about the brand on a variety of social channels, from Facebook and Twitter to niche communities of bodybuilders.

The community managers observe conversations in real time with Radian6 social monitoring tools. 

The Radian6 dashboard can be configured to present social data in various forms including verbatim comments and timelines, comment totals per channel and bar charts that illustrate activity. The software can also be used to identify key influencers -- the people that other people listen to -- based on followers and comments.

But, “it is only as good as the eyeballs on it and the brain behind it,’’ James said.

The community managers determine what comments warrant a response, which are best ignored and which ones get classified as potential problems that need a direct response from customer service.

James, meanwhile, is handling what he calls the “50,000-foot view.’’ James can spot trends and tweak marketing strategies based on Radian6 reports. For example, James said he can connect a revenue change with a particular product based on activity around an online event, such as issuing a coupon. The company recently was able to quickly issue a coupon on coconut water because it had instantly seen  such a huge spike in demand for the product.

"We were really getting hit on margin on that,’’ James said.

GNC is also using social monitoring tools to track online activity around the current cross fit trend. Cross fit is an intensive exercise and training program that involves calisthenics and various weightlifting techniques. Pariticipants work toward personal goals and compete against members of a group of peers.

By listening to cross fit-related conversations, GNC plans to better target products to this community.

“We are identifying the scope of this; the major players and are finding out where they are hanging out and what they consider [as nutritional] supplementation,’’ James said. “It’s a fundamental shift in how we are finding new customers and a lot faster than commissioning an expensive study.’’

James creates high-level summary reports that he forwards to GNC’s CEO to provide a big-picture take on market activity and opportunity.

By looking at trends on different online channels, James can see where different customer segments are congregating. “It shows me where we are really kicking butt,’’ he said. “It has allowed me, for instance, to discover that Twitter was as much of an opportunity for us as Facebook.’’

Through social media monitoring, James has been able to better target engagements with customers by seeing who they are on each forum. For example, although he does not yet know why, James knows that the bulk of most GNC customers on Facebook are 18- to 25-year-old males, while more female and Latino GNC customers are using Twitter.

From monitoring, James and the community managers have learned to step in and comment when someone is asking a general question, but to stay out of exchanges between friends.

“If they are asking a friend, they want to hear from the friend, not us.’’