Let Them Eat Gluten-Free Cake: Social Media Listening Allows General Mills to Tap Into a Niche Market

vanessa.parks    October 23, 2013

Internet-savvy consumers have come to expect the opportunity to share their opinions, and companies are using this to their advantage.

With the growing use of social media, product development is no longer reliant on traditional focus groups and customer surveys. Stephanie Gehman points out that companies “can use social media-based conversations, feedback, comments, complaints and more as a source of research and development.” Social media is making it easier than ever for companies to listen to consumers.

Social listening, or social media monitoring, gives companies direct access to consumer feedback. As Leslie Nuccio suggests, “let the wisdom of crowds guide your business efforts: after all, social listening is the new focus group.”

Let’s talk about cake …

ows_137955685513889General Mills was listening when it developed its Betty Crocker gluten-free baking product line. According to Ann Simonds, General Mills’ president, baking, gluten-free products had become the most consumer-requested item – a fact gleaned from social media, explains Emily Bryson York in her General Mills case study.

According to York, only 2 per cent of the population is celiac – a disease characterized by the inability to tolerate gluten. Even with an additional 10 per cent interested in avoiding gluten, this hardly seems like a large enough market to attract the attention of a major company like General Mills. So why develop such a specialized product line?

The celiac community is a highly connected group. Once diagnosed as celiac, “the first thing [a person does] is turn on the search engine to figure out what they can eat,” points out Kelli Ask, interactive marketing manager at General Mills. This means that, as York explains, “consumers who require gluten-free foods are, of necessity, savvy social networkers.”

Social listening alerted General Mills to the demand for gluten-free products – a niche market that would likely have gone unnoticed in a world without social media.  “The fact that it happens to be a niche or smaller group of people than we traditionally serve didn’t faze us,” explains Simonds, “because we have this vehicle in the internet that allows us to reach those folks.”

… and eat it, too

Once the product was developed and launched, social media helped with marketing, too. According to Dena Larson, General Mills’ marketing manager, baking products, “rumors that [we were] developing gluten-free baking products spread across Twitter like wildfire.” Monitoring social media to glean the idea for this new product line and then using that same online network to market it was a recipe for success for General Mills.

GF_Images_BeautyShot_BrowniesKeep in mind, though, that this success was also due in large part to the quality of the product, as Steve Lawson points out. The final piece of advice he offers is to “make sure your product is good before you throw it into the Social Media Mix. Remember, the customer is now in control.”

Consumer opinions matter more than ever before, and the results are delicious.

Lessons learned

Social media facilitates a more transparent connection between companies and their consumers. Consumers are making their wants and needs clear rather than waiting to be asked, decreasing the need for more conventional modes of soliciting feedback for product development. General Mills used this transparency to tap into a niche market it may have otherwise overlooked, but it’s important to note that this can work the other way as well. If products don’t meet customer expectations, social media makes that transparent, too.

Web resources

Stephanie Gehman, 3 Ways to Use Social Media for Product Research and Development
Steve Lawson, Gluten-Free Fans Carry Torch for Betty Crocker
Leslie Nuccio, 3 Things to Know About Social Listening
Emily Bryson York, Social Media Allows Giants to Exploit Niche Markets

Submitted by: Vanessa Parks, University of Waterloo, SMBP student. To contact the author of this post, email vparks25@gmail.com.

If you have concerns as to the accuracy of anything posted on this site please send your concerns to Peter Carr, Program Director, Social Media for Business Performance.