In the rough-and-tumble of consumer marketing, companies need every advantage they can get. New digital tools point the way to enhanced reach for essential messaging. Baking & Snack consulted the experts at SolutionSet, San Francisco, and Catapult Marketing, Westport, CT, for advice bakers and snack food manufacturers can use now.

The two companies are the digital and consumer promotions arms of Irving, TX-based Epsilon, one of the country’s leading data and technology marketing firms. Drawing on the digital expertise of SolutionSet, the deep consumer insights of Catapult and its own proprietary data and analytics, Epsilon creates cutting-edge digital campaigns for consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies such as the Kellogg Company, Battle Creek, MI. Epsilon recently brought its various consumer experts together to concentrate on what marketing looks like for CPG companies in the next several years, resulting in CPG-focused services and the eBook “Beyond the Aisle,” a Top 10 seller in the Amazon Kindle store.

Paul Kramer, CEO, Catapult Marketing, has worked with some of the world’s greatest communication companies, including Grey Advertising, Bates Worldwide, Saatchi & Saatchi and D.L. Ryan Companies. His clients have included several top global companies, including Johnson & Johnson, M&M Mars, Cadbury Schweppes, Wal-Mart, Alcoa Consumer Products, Novartis and more.

Tim Ross, CEO, SolutionSet, leads the company’s efforts to leverage digital technologies to engage customers, partners and employees. He helps define the strategic impact of converging Web, social and mobile initiatives. Mr. Ross has more than 12 years experience leading consulting and implementation services on enterprise digital programs that blend Internet-focused strategy, user experience and technology.

Joanie Spencer: What roles do Web, social media and word-of-mouth marketing play in brand building for baked foods and snacks?

Paul Kramer: You’re looking for opportunities to reach shoppers as they’re building their shopping lists. That’s what starts the process. It might be occasion-based, either a cultural event like the Super Bowl or the 4th of July, or a personal occasion such as a birthday or anniversary.

We did a campaign for the Super Bowl last year for Keebler using football player LaDainian Tomlinson and his wife, Torsha, to disseminate Keebler snacking recipes. Video became a key part of the sharing, because we could show actual cooking demonstrations. Also, think about third-party and aggregator sites as channels for recipe distribution. For the Keebler campaign we used Rachel Ray, for instance. Mr. Tomlinson and his wife appeared in a video on Ms. Ray’s website, where people go for recipes, occasion ideas and so forth.

Store websites are extremely important. Research shows that consumers don’t tend to go to brand websites; they frequently visit their store websites — Wal-Mart, Publix, Target, Kroger, etc. There are a number of ways to launch occasion ideas into those sites as well, using banners, targeting direct emails through frequent shopper cards with seasonally appropriate snacking ideas and so forth. Baking and snack companies can use that channel as a way to market to consumers during the “pre-shop” period. Companies need to get their brands on consumers’ shopping lists by being where those consumers look for ideas.

Traffic to store sites vs. brand sites — even a big brand like Kraft — is more than 10-to-1. In addition to recipes and food info, the store sites feature assorted coupons and deals, so they draw a lot of people looking for those things as well.

Tim Ross: From a social standpoint, there are two things to think about. First, there’s personal sharing — what consumers are buying, how they’re using it and then sharing among friends. Then, there’s the contest/promotion side of things, where companies get users to contribute and vote on things like recipes and ideas. We’ve seen success with these contests and brag books people have around the execution of recipes or creative use of baked foods or snacks.

How can wholesale bakeries better use digital and social media while maintaining brand integrity?

Mr. Ross: I think that’s always a question companies have when there are activities that involve user-generated content. As long as brands enable crowd voting and commenting, along with moderating tools, they can usually mitigate risk without worrying too much. If you have moderators reviewing items or comments before they publish and/or have the crowd flagging negative comments or voting up and down, people generally understand that when you provide a platform for users, they’re partially responsible for maintaining its integrity.

Mr. Kramer: Maintaining brand equity gets a little into search marketing and search engine optimization as well. There are a plethora of food sites out there, and brands need to identify how people search for their foods and who the audience is. Often, people are looking for just general terms like “lunch” or “dinner” or “fast and easy” or maybe “grilling” or even by cuisine. It’s important to build into your marketing those keywords that bring your products to the top of the shopper’s list.

How can branding and the Web work together to create useful dialogue with ­consumers?

Mr. Kramer: Digital has changed how consumers think about their food purchases. Before the digital evolution, people thought about one item at a time: “I need eggs, milk, toast, etc.” Today, they think in terms of solutions for all their needs, like, “I need everything for Christmas Eve from the main meal down to the cookies we’ll leave for Santa Claus.”

Tailoring media buys is important, too. Brands need to think about whether they want to be marketing to the 4th of July barbecue crowd or to foodies.

So, it’s search, making sure your content and marketing have the right keywords, buying space on relevant websites and then also partnering with bloggers who are aligned with the brand.

And now there’s a whole ­other area you can’t miss — social sites such as Pinterest, Tumblr or Facebook, where you can build your own food portal. That’s a new ­approach we’re using.

What is the ideal percentage of a company’s marketing plan that should be dedicated to digital media?

Mr. Kramer: The latest research from Group M, a St. Louis-based media-buying company, said in 2012, 16.2% of all global ad expense was digital. I’d say if this was the average in 2012, then baking and snack companies should start there and probably aim higher. Both of the baking and snack categories pertain to meal components, so you want to make sure you’re putting your products in context and that necessitates spending a higher percentage of your budget on digital.

How do you measure success of digital campaigns?

Mr. Ross: There are standard ways in terms of page views, likes and click-through — but then there are also ways to measure the impact of digital campaigns on brand loyalty and brand perception. You can either look at it simply, like how many user-generated ideas were received. Or you can be a bit cleverer about it.

One thing we’ve done with user-generated content is look at how many organic SEO results come from people searching for specific items or recipes, for example, and then clicking through. Look at how much it would have cost to buy that traffic through paid search engine marketing such as buying Google Ad Words.

Mr. Kramer: The programs available through some stores’ frequent shopper cards are great for measurement, too. In some cases, you can do a direct email campaign to all frequent shopper cardholders, and then you can track the success of that campaign. So, if you use that channel to push certain products, for example, you’ll know which shoppers received that messaging, and then you can look at who went out and bought those products within a certain period of time.

How can digital outlets segment audiences or customize offers?

Mr. Ross: Audience segmentation is one of the things digital actually does better than other types of marketing. A website can tell you exactly where all your traffic is coming from, and you can use that information to both target certain sites and social networks and to see how your campaigns are faring.

Using online content management tools, you can also easily tailor specific messages to different audiences. If you’ve got a Facebook campaign running, for example, and you want to make sure the people who are coming to your site through that campaign are getting a slightly more youthful experience, you can serve up a specific version of your homepage that’s tailored to that ­audience. You can do that across various platforms and really measure your success and fine-tune your messaging.

That’s true in terms of customizing offers as well, and then you’ve also got all the mobile features that enable pretty amazing customization. Rather than relying on an end-cap display, for example, you can build what’s called a “geofence” and basically send anyone who is within 200 yards of these stores a text about this snack item being on sale this week.

Google just acquired a bunch of mapping apps and locater services to improve geofencing within its search and mapping apps, as well. Companies can even push coupons to mobile users as they’re shopping.

How do you interact with consumers outside of the store and then lead them back to purchase?

Mr. Ross: One of the changes we've talked a lot about is thinking about the product you sell not as the physical product but rather the end experience you're trying to deliver. The product is just a part of that, and so for companies, branding and marketing, in general, and digital branding and marketing, more specifically, are really about thinking more broadly about providing value in consumers’ lives. It's about enhancing their satisfaction with the end experience and not just focusing on sales transactions and moving product. Mobile, social — all these things we talk about — are all ways to push content, services and tools that make that experience better and more successful.

Mr. Kramer: There's been another change since the recession in 2008, and that is that the path-to-purchase has really shifted. You used to have the pre-shopping, then the shopping, then the word-of-mouth and loyalty phases. We went from 70 to 75% of decisions being made during the shopping phase pre-2008 to these choices now happening in the pre-shopping phase.

Really, the majority of purchasing decisions are made before someone enters a store because people have become much more sensitive to pricing and to buying exactly what they need, so that pre-shopping phase has become exponentially more important. During that time, people are looking for ideas from all sorts of different sources. They're putting together a shopping list, and they're being more particular about where they go. So, it's during that pre-shop phase that you're looking to capture buyers. Before they go shopping, they will go to websites and social sites, they'll talk to friends, and they'll look for ways to enhance that at-home experience. That's where you really want to focus on digital.

That said, we've also been seeing more digital popping up in the retail environment. You're seeing more kiosks, more use of digital screens, in general, and even video screens on store shelves. Wal-Mart has Wal-Mart TV in stores now. Target has Channel Red. At Costco, they're using all those TVs you see when you first walk in the door to advertise snack foods you can try elsewhere in the store.