The explosion of social media over the past 10 years is so well documented that it’s old news from a technology and marketing perspective. As a major food company whose products are in 99 percent of American households, ConAgra Foods has been evolving in the social space along with the competition, with one major differentiator: ConAgra Foods implemented a social media model that not only leveraged marketing to and engaged consumers in conversation about their brands, but also implemented a critical process for mitigating risk for the company. By fully embracing the power of social media to apply closed-loop corrective and preventive action processes to consumer feedback via social channels, ConAgra Foods has gotten ahead of what regulators may very well hold as a future expectation of all companies. These actions demonstrate that ConAgra Foods is firmly committed to building trust and transparency with consumers, and that social media is an ideal platform to facilitate this.

Social Media Engagement: Food Safety Is a Top Priority
With more than $17 billion in sales, ConAgra Foods is one of North America’s leading food companies. It has a product portfolio of familiar brand names that includes frozen lines such as Banquet, Healthy Choice and Marie Callender’s; snack brands including Orville Redenbacher’s, Slim Jim and Swiss Miss; grocery brands such as Chef Boyardee, Hunt’s and Peter Pan; as well as a variety of private label and commercial foods.

ConAgra Foods has been recognized as a company that takes pride in its food safety culture and practices. Its commitment to food safety is always top of mind in consumer affairs, where every day, serving as the voice of the consumer, it handles thousands of e-mails, phone calls and, since 2010, social media contacts, with feedback ranging from compliments to serious claims.

As a regulated food company, ConAgra Foods faces certain local and federal guidelines and expectations around the handling and resolution of consumer feedback, which all companies must comply with. The guidelines today specifically pertain to contacts from consumers who are actively reaching out to the manufacturer to share their feedback. For example, if a company has a contact from a consumer on what is deemed a critical issue, such as a potential foreign material in the product (stem, seed, rock, bone, etc.), it is accountable for investigating the issue to determine if there may have been a breach in its food safety programs on the day in question. Efforts to prevent and control the foreign material from entering the product must be investigated and proven to have been effective, with documentation of controls being an important validation point. Consumer contact handling guidelines and expectations, as dictated by local and federal agencies, and as outlined as best practices in food safety audit criteria, require that these formal processes exist. Why? Because food makers are responsible for delivering safe food. And ConAgra Foods, in alignment with its commitment to food safety as a top priority, went above and beyond the industry expectations and adopted the practice of applying these same standards to social media contacts in 2010, and has been evolving and improving it ever since.

As in many other major corporations, prior to 2010, social media at ConAgra Foods was “owned” by the marketing, public relations and communications and external relations departments. The consumer affairs team had not been actively involved in managing social media interactions on a day-to-day basis, but rather it was called upon as needed to handle consumer inquiries or respond to issues. ConAgra Foods recognized that left unaddressed on social media, a single negative experience with a product had the potential to reach and make an impression on millions of people in a matter of days, or even hours, negatively impacting the brand. More importantly, the company commitment to food safety dictated that social media be treated no differently than traditional consumer feedback channels. Ensuring all social consumer feedback was reviewed, analyzed, documented and acted upon following a closed-loop process became the norm.

One may ask, “How is this possible?” considering the scope is hundreds of thousands of relevant social conversations happening each month. This is not easy to accomplish, and many companies continue to struggle with the “how.” ConAgra Foods solved this by utilizing social media monitoring software that directly links to its CRM (customer/consumer response management system) and allows all contacts to be equally considered when reviewing the data for emerging trends. In addition, it implemented certain triggers that send immediate notification via e-mail based on keywords that can alert the team 24/7 to a critical issue or emerging trend.

The result? A thoughtful, intentional consumer contact strategy that would:

•    Emphasize food safety

•    Mitigate the company’s risk

•    Integrate social media into a closed-loop corrective and preventive action process

•    Leverage social media interactions to educate consumers on food safety topics

•    Build trust and demonstrate transparency

Clearly, social media monitoring software is central to achieving these goals, enabling the triage of social feedback and taking on the burden of analyzing hundreds of thousands of social conversations in an efficient, meaningful way.

ConAgra Foods developed its approach with a cross-functional team. The consumer affairs team leveraged its existing CRM software provider to partner in building out the technical strategy. Capitalizing on existing CRM and knowledge management capabilities, they were able to take advantage of desirable features that could be integrated into the total consumer content architecture, handling all types of consumer feedback in one process.

One of the most important features of a robust social media monitoring process is the ability to provide and manage automated alerts. Triggered by more than 100 “threat” keywords used in search taxonomies, monitoring a large portfolio of ConAgra Foods brands, alerts are deemed to be “potential threats” or “unintended behavior” comments and conversations about brands on social media platforms. Not only does the CRM software provider detect such posts on a 24/7 basis, it enables the consumer affairs team to set up a triage system that prioritizes threats by type, and e-mails them to the appropriate employee for immediate review and action—whether he or she is in or out of the office. Consumer affairs employees are equipped with the latest mobile technology, and the software enables a timely, if not immediate, response to social media.

A vitally important feature in ConAgra Foods’ social media monitoring solution is the ability to change the search taxonomies as needed, so that any new topics that might emerge in conversations can be immediately tracked and engaged if necessary. The tool also facilitates a daily “Emerging Trends Report” to document all activity.

A “Closed-Loop Process” That Includes Social Media
Food makers, and other regulated verticals, should consider getting in front of anticipated regulatory guidance and turn such processes into a best practice. The executive leadership at ConAgra Foods has fully supported the adoption of a closed-loop process that requires incorporating the voice of customer feedback from social media channels.

Here are the six steps to the process:

1.    A social media contact is added to the CRM database

2.    A consumer affairs analyst reviews social media data and trends for relevance

3.    Actionable insights are delivered within ConAgra Foods to the appropriate cross-functional team member

4.    A corrective and preventive action (CAPA) cycle is initiated

5.    Outputs from CAPA are documented and retained

6.    Multiple levels of customized reporting are shared throughout the organization on a daily, weekly or monthly basis

By integrating social media feedback into the closed-loop process, ConAgra Foods has established a best practice that can benefit the entire industry. It recognizes that food safety is not a competitive advantage but rather views it as a way to collaborate and, from a consumer affairs perspective, share best practices with professional and industry associations—as well as with competitors. That’s why ConAgra Foods also monitors consumer feedback on any news or trending topics that may have an impact on the industry, such as following comments regarding genetically modified organisms, bisphenol A or the use of trans fats.

Since the adoption of the closed-loop process for social media relationship management, the positive impacts speak for themselves. Since refining the process in 2010, ConAgra Foods has had zero high-profile escalations of food safety issues, consumer claims have been dramatically reduced and it is building positive word of mouth in social media circles as a result of the trust-building activities in these channels.

Is monitoring and, more importantly, developing a closed-loop strategy that embraces social media feedback a “must-do” for companies looking to provide the best possible customer service? Those at ConAgra Foods can’t imagine a consumer affairs organization planning for a future without it.

Our thanks to CRM software provider Astute Solutions from Columbus, OH, for their partnership in this successful process.

Jeanne Jones, M.A., serves as the director, consumer affairs for ConAgra Foods. In this role, she reports to the chief global quality officer and has responsibility for all aspects of the consumer experience, including driving actionable insights, ensuring early notification of trends impacting food safety and quality and delivering the voice of the consumer. Her diverse background includes over 20 years in operations management.