While Jennifer Hill might be a recent college graduate, she has an expert-level knack for social media marketing. When tasked with managing the Twitter account for Corn Nuts, a snack food brand under Kraft Heinz, Hill saw an opportunity to grow the brand beyond the small older audience it had at the time of her start date.
Through what she refers to as a few "scrappy strategic moves," Hill brought a younger audience to Corn Nuts, growing the Twitter account's follower base from 650 to 21,000 people. Oh, and she boosted repeat millennial purchases by 12%, all without paid media. That's right, she achieved this much success on social for the steep price of zero dollars.
After reading a recent Marketing Dive article about Hill, we knew she'd have a lot of great social media marketing advice for our readers. And boy, were we right. In this Q&A, Hill tells us how she accomplished the rebrand that's brought a tired snack food to new heights of success.
Social Media Today: How (and when) did you start working in social media marketing?
Jennifer Hill: I graduated from the University of Michigan in May 2018 with a business degree in corporate strategy and a minor in digital studies. I've always been a brand junkie with a semi-irrational, emotional pull towards consumer goods and the behavioral psychology behind why consumers buy. I interned at Kraft Heinz two summers ago on the Jell-O brand building team, and returned full-time last summer into the company’s Corporate Management Trainee program. This led to the role working on Corn Nuts.
SMT: What's the history of Corn Nuts' social presence?
JH: Corn Nuts is one of the smallest brands in the Kraft Heinz portfolio. For years it’s been low-maintenance and low-touch but with stable profits. Upon joining the snacking team, the running narrative and sales story was that the pricing and flavor profile of Corn Nuts drove it to index well on the West Coast and in the South skewing towards an older audience. All the historical data was there. As a marketer in 2019, I’m constantly told data is king, follow the data.
I've always been a brand junkie, which is what led me to Kraft Heinz in the first place, and at that time I had this gut-instinct, not that the data was wrong, but that it wasn’t capturing the full picture. With a little scrappiness, the brand could be much more. So I went online to see what people were saying about Corn Nuts, which at the time wasn’t much. However, the few that spoke about the brand were very passionate about it. After a little digging, and clicking on profile after profile trying to learn more about our super-fans I realized two key things. One, they were a lot younger than we have been scoping them to be. And two, every time they tweeted, tagged, or messaged us, no one from our end was answering.
That’s when it all clicked. I reached out to Twitter to get the account information, got the account verified, and logged on with my phone. I’ve run with it since. We’ve put zero dollars in marketing spend or promotion, and we’ve seen a lift in sales up to 12% for repeat purchase.
SMT: As social media and brand managers for Corn Nuts, what does your day-to-day work schedule look like?
JH: Honestly, every day is a new adventure, and an opportunity to wake up the food and beverage space. There’s so much disruption happening in the grocery aisles, especially in the snacking category, so Alec Imaizumi [the Corn Nuts Brand Manager] and I like to bring that same disruptive excitement and energy to the office, making our day-to-day schedules intentionally never the same, so that we’re always learning and adapting.
SMT: Social listening obviously plays a key role in what you do - what listening methods do you have in place that work well for the brand?
JH: A social listening strategy varies from brand to brand - it could be understanding positive or negative sentiment towards a new product launch, or figuring out what platform consumers are spending the majority of their time on to target optimum ad placement.
For us, we try to create a quick feedback loop, and shape our content and conversation around our super-fans.
For example, many underestimate the power of using direct messages [and] use them only to answer or address complaints with formulaic planned responses. [Direct messaging] should really be viewed as another opportunity for building one on one relationships. I pop in and out of group chats I’m added to, looking to join in on the conversations and topics that they're having, never with the intent to make the conversation about me.
This is also the least self-serving medium because it’s not meant for the mass public eye - it’s unique to each fan.
SMT: You’ve been able to capture the attention of a much younger audience for the brand on Twitter. Being that the brand has traditionally appealed to an older audience, what did you change to target a younger demographic successfully?
JH: It was all about re-imagining the "Corn Nut snacker". Compared to our previous assumption, our new consumer was much younger - likely a high school/college student, snack adventurous, who spends a lot of time online interacting with digital communities. When you think about this age group, they are content guzzlers, their experience with brands has always been through the lens that they steal your time, with commercial interruptions, and are always trying to sell you something. The last thing they want to do is interact with a “brand.”
That got me thinking - what if instead of championing the brand or the product, I led with conversation and content which empathetically captures what it’s like to be a hungry, twenty-something year old, just looking to de-stress online?
All our tweets are in the moment, not scripted, and sent from my phone at all hours of the day from wherever I am, answering DMs, responding to one hundred plus comments/tags daily. All of the tweets are crafted as a text, not a sales pitch. Simply put, if I don’t think it’s funny or relevant to text the joke, meme, emoji, etc. to one of my friends or my younger brother, I wouldn’t tweet it. Again, it's interaction first, brand awareness second, and product last.
We’re also building a community of super-fans who can co-create content with me - and if you think about this age group, the last thing they want to do is spend extra time and energy on things that they're not passionate about. So when they take their time to make elaborate memes and fan accounts, I always try to showcase them. I’m at the point where the majority of my page/Twitter feed is retweets from the Corn Nut gang, rather than my own pushed content. These super-fans are honestly funnier than me, and I’d rather give them a shout out and troll the comments than make it all about me.
SMT: You've mentioned previously that Corn Nuts is looking to emerging trends such as gaming. What do you think this will look like in practice?
JH: We want to support what our consumer is interested in. Gaming is something we’ve seen interest in, along with things like music or merch drops. We’re willing to explore any extended communities if there’s enough of a passion for it and if it’s something we can authentically play in.
SMT: What are the biggest social media marketing lessons that you’ve learned in this role?
JH: When it comes to the sales/target audience, gut-check your data. Just because data has been validated as historically true, that doesn’t mean that it captures what can be true. Brands can grow, extend, and pivot in the mind of the consumer, but this only happens if you, as a marketer, are also willing to bend and challenge your own thinking.
Lead with the interaction first, brand awareness second, then product last. The management of our Twitter account was always first about answering and connecting with our fans, and then second about driving brand awareness. It was never about sales. Although of course sales are great, but that was never the number one goal.
Stay true to the brand: At the end of the day, I’d rather have a loyal community of fans who are willing to hunt around town for our product, because we’re not at every store. The brand has always been scrappy, and not "show-pony" like in nature. We never want to lose that rawness inherent in the brand. It’s important to take risks and to also understand that traditional marketing wins in some cases. That’s why I’ve been so fortunate to be at Kraft Heinz. Early on in my career I’ve been given the opportunity to own major brand decisions, and have been supported by amazing managers every step of the way.
SMT: Now that you’ve been working in social media for some time, what advice would you give to someone just starting out in the social media marketing industry?
JH: Similar to the way having a high IQ or EQ [emotional intelligence] makes candidates desirable, more and more companies and brands will need to seek out individuals with “digital intelligence.” This really comes down to your ability to read and respond to signals from consumers in the digital space, depending on the medium and the message. It’s knowing the cultural norms embedded in each platform and playing along with them and with your brand.
Some great notes and lessons to take away from the success of Corn Nuts and their approach to social interactions. If you're looking to maximize your strategy, there are some great gems within these responses from Jennifer Hill.