Understanding emerging technology and the way people communicate with one another is more important than ever before for food manufacturers. New digital devices provide almost unlimited access to information about world cuisines and culture, recipes and trendy food products.

Interaction with their smartphones and use of social media reconfigure how consumers eat today and has shifted food culture, according to the Hartman Group’s Digital Food Life report. Seventy percent of consumers use digital food resources at least weekly to research different types of cuisines, collect recipes and photos, or learn how to assemble ingredients and prepare foods.

“There is a robust conversation happening around food across social channels that create truly unique opportunities to engage directly with consumers — which wholesale bakers don’t often get to do,” said Christine Cochran, executive director, Grain Foods Foundation (GFF).

Dave’s Killer Bread (DKB), Milwaukie, OR, has fully embraced the use of social media to cultivate a fan base of more than 500,000 followers.

 “Since the day we started our social channels, Dave’s Killer Bread has drawn a passionate, engaged fan base,” said Michelle Hunt, vice-president of marketing for the bakery. “Our talented in-house brand team combines close engagement with fun, beautiful digital content like graphics or videos that our fans can use and enjoy.”

ACE Bakery, Toronto, has experienced success among all social media platforms. However, Facebook has yielded the highest interaction and engagement among the company’s targeted demographic.  

“Food has taken over the social media world, and we are fortunate to be able to partake in this phenomenon. Everyone loves good food, and thankfully, that’s what ACE is all about,” said Sophia Rouleau, the company’s marketing and communications manager.

Knowledge about what people are actually doing with food and how they share it with their own social media connections is essential for food manufacturers to be successful in an increasing digital world.

“While these platforms can be scary for those who have not engaged, it can also be incredibly rewarding giving wholesalers the opportunity to showcase how their products are made and make their products appeal to consumers,” Ms. Cochran said.

Brands meet consumers online

Consumers collect recipes and food photographs on their smartphones and tablets assembled from a multitude of digital sources. One in three cooking enthusiasts get their recipes from social media, and 77% of internet users, 18 and over, used Facebook as a recipe source followed by Pinterest and YouTube, according to Mintel. Digital inspiration for recipes was found to be as important as recommendations from friends.

“Our digital content is curated to inspire fans visually with product, food, lifestyle and behind-the-scenes shots,” Ms. Hunt said. “Our Breadheads share their love of the brand, favorite varieties and recipes daily.”

DKB incorporated a unifying communication theme — “Made for Greatness” — to position bread that elevates your sandwich with nutrition that powers your day and inspires the greatness in all of us. The company’s social channels reflect this theme in a consistent way.

Consumers desire new conveniences, integration of everyday life with their mobile devices and a more intimate participation with food manufacturers, according to the Hartman Group. DKB noticed the increased use of mobile phones by their followers.  In response, the company’s brand team creates digestible, mobile-friendly content and short videos to engage with their community of fans daily.

Consumers often rely on digital technologies to interact directly with food providers. Recently, a customer shared a story on ACE Bakery’s Facebook that the company’s Bake Your Own Butter Croissants were the only food her sister, who was undergoing chemotherapy, could keep down. Ms. Rouleau noticed this post and immediately arranged for 20 cases of the frozen croissants to be sent to her.

“We receive so many heart-warming stories from consumers sharing their love for and experience with our breads,” Ms. Rouleau noted. “We like to express our gratitude for this loyal following by coordinating surprise and delightful gifts to our fans.”

Inquiring minds want to know

Consumers — foodies in particular — have been interested in the “story” behind the foods they eat, according to Food Technology’s Top 10 Predictions for 2016. Recent technologies and social media platforms have facilitated a “packaging connection,” making it possible for manufacturers to bring this kind of information to the everyday consumer.

“The story behind the bread is equally important to the fans, and they enjoy getting to know the people and the values behind DKB,” Ms. Hunt said. “For example, we always launch new breads with a signature behind-the-scenes video so fans can see how our bread is made, meet our bakers and learn about the incredible ingredients.”

Make no mistake, consumers may enjoy the “story” of the product origin, ingredients and inspiration for creation, but they also want the facts. According to Mintel’s Global Food and Drink Trends of 2016, the proliferation of product claims that turn out to be incorrect have consumers and regulators demanding legitimate verification.

“In addition to generating brand awareness among consumers, wholesalers can provide information and transparency, something consumers appreciate,” Ms. Cochran said. “By tagging consumers in their posts, wholesalers can continue to cement their business relationships and to promote one another.”

Consumers’ level of engagement in the supply chain for their foods is increasing. They are more apt to think bakers are hiding something if every ingredient and manufacturing method is not clearly reported on labels and in marketing materials.

“Dave’s Killer Bread’s new and existing fans want to know about the ingredients in our bread, read more about our organic and non-GMO certifications, and want to be able to learn where to find Dave’s in their market,” Ms. Hunt said.

Consumers use technology to investigate and discover before they choose products, including their baked goods. According to information from the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA), they want to know not only general product information but also specifics about the health benefits of ingredients and transparency about where those ingredients come from and how they were sourced.

Changing consumer perceptions

Online and social media outlets can be used to provide product details, respond personally to consumer inquiries or educate consumers. In the past several years, the baking industry witnessed numerous dietary trends that have either encouraged or discouraged bread consumption, and that has been confusing for consumers.

Aunt Millie’s Bakery, Fort Wayne, IN, acknowledged increasing consumer interest in where their food comes from and how it contributes to their overall health. The company recently launched a new digital media campaign called Breadsense, providing consumers with research-based information to educate them about the health benefits of bread and whole grains and to empower confident purchasing decisions.

“More and more, our consumers seem to prefer to communicate with us via social media, so it is the perfect medium for us to launch this campaign,” said Melissa Dunning, senior director of marketing, Aunt Millie’s Bakeries. She also encouraged other commercial bakeries to join Aunt Millie’s in this campaign. They can do so by contacting hello@breadsense.com.

GFF has joined the industry to better educate the public. About a year ago, the GFF Marketing Committee decided the foundation should make a concerted effort to build a stronger social media presence. GFF markets information, not branded products, and it recognized it had a distinct role to play.

“Social channels create opportunities to not only contribute to conversations but also listen and learn,” Ms. Cochran said. “We’ve worked to establish and create a clear presence across channels and position GFF as a trusted source of information on grains.”

The GFF provides educational content to their audience, highlighting recipes, infographics and news that showcase the health benefits of grains, which helps elevate the profile of the entire industry. It has also created a dedicated content series, which can be shared across social channels.

Campaigns for wholesale

Hosting contests and other campaigns that reward fans in some way can breed goodwill and promote loyalty. Dave’s Killer Bread rewards their BreadHeads by crowd-sourcing their content. The bakery taps into existing conversations and shares fan posts with larger communities.

For ACE Bakery, contests have been very successful, such as Canada’s Best Sandwich I and II, Canada’s Ultimate Burger and the ACE Bakery Artisan Incubator contest held to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary in 2013.

“Our Artisan Incubator was designed to help artisans across Canada by bringing attention to their products, offering them advice from high-level tastemakers on how to expand their businesses,” Ms. Rouleau said.

ACE Bakery’s smaller scale contests resonate well with its social media fans. The company launched a #24DaysofGiving Twitter contest last December posing a question once a day for 24 days. Fans were directed to ACE’s webpage to find answers.

“The feedback was tremendous. We established a routine and taught our fans some new information,” Ms. Rouleau said. “We seek to ‘Bread-ucate’ at every opportunity while offering prizes.”

In the fall of 2015, GFF launched two specific social campaigns that helped expand reach and increase engagement across social media channels, as well as promote excitement in the industry. The foundation created a dedicated Twitter social content series, “#BarbSays,” starring GFF’s newest champion: Barb. Although she’s a fictional character, #BarbSays posts engage audiences in a conversational tone while defending the pro-grain lifestyle. The #BarbSays series increased engagement by 1,000% and generated nearly 600,000 impressions, 11,000 engagements and more than 400 new fans and followers for GFF across platforms.

In another successful Twitter campaign, #BakedWithLove, GFF members were asked to showcase how grains bring people together. Fourteen posts highlighted the human element of baking and provided a behind-the-scenes look at the individuals that help make the products. The #BakedWithLove series generated more than 25,000 impressions and nearly 5,000 engagements.

“This effort is particularly incredible because it was completely organic — there was no paid or earned support,” Ms. Cochran said. “Posting images submitted by different GFF investors, we were able to tag participating companies and engage our audiences with a chance to show their appreciation for those who bake their bread.”

Join the revolution

Wholesale bakers can use social media platforms to help promote brand awareness, increase loyalty, provide product information and impact product sales. To begin, it helps to know the target audience: partners in business or your customers. Determining your audience sets the tone and guides the approach to choosing what content to post, where to post it and how to develop successful social media campaigns.

“To build a following for your company, begin by ‘liking’ business partners, organizations to which you belong and vendors to whom you sell your products,” Ms. Cochran said.

A successful social media plan relies on content that is authentic to the brand and on active engagement with followers.

“Being active on social media is a low-cost, extraordinary way to promote brands and companies and listen to the market,” Ms. Rouleau said. “Simply ensure there are interesting things to talk about and tie into your brand and value proposition.”

While great content is vital, it’s also important to respond to followers and establish a conversation. Having the ability to connect with fans, listen to them and engage with them creates loyalty.

“By being active every day, we remind our followers of who we are and what our brand represents,” Ms. Rouleau explained. “Furthermore, we quickly learn of themes and trends and then strategize internally about how ACE can take part.”

To maximize success, stay ahead of the trends. Ensure that your marketing, sales and communications teams are always looking toward the future — the newest technology, the hottest consumer trend, the next big product.

“Remain engaged and post content on all channels to build your presence on social media sites, including your original content and shared content from partners and publications,” Ms. Cochran noted. “And always remember  … do not let ‘perfect’ stand in the way of ‘good.’ Get out there and engage.”