WORCESTER – When Katrina Shabo of Wormtown Brewery caught sight of a customer in the beer maker’s taproom who frequently posted about Wormtown on social media, she made her way over to introduce herself.
Wormtown has more than 17,000 followers on Facebook, plus nearly 13,000 on Twitter and nearly 19,000 on Instagram. That’s a lot of people. But this one customer she recognized from his posts, and she thanked him and gave him a Wormtown hat, she said.
“It’s really hard to get loyal fans nowadays,” she said. “People have so many options … We take all our fans to heart.”
The gesture may not have cost much, but it signals the attention that Central Massachusetts food and beverage producers pay to their customers who flock to social media to post, like and chat about their favorite brands.
Tree House Brewing Co. of Charlton has more than 140,000 followers on Instagram, while a Facebook group shares updates about lines at the popular brewery.
Fans of Polar Beverages share photos of the Worcester bottler’s seltzers, sometimes displaying shopping carts full of new releases or small cans upcycled to hold plants.
Worcester doughnut startup GlazySusan even started posting on social media last year before it had sold a single pastry, reasoning that it needed to show people the early treats it was working on. The young business still has few followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but it uses those channels to to reveal new concoctions and announce pop-up sites, including a recent night at the Greater Good Imperial Brewing Co. taproom in Worcester.
“From the get-go, we knew we would want to build a social media presence,” said Joe Skrzek of Worcester, who owns GlazySusan with his wife, Susan, and prepares the doughnuts at a Worcester Regional Food Hub incubator kitchen. “The bottom line is our customers are on social media, our customers are using social media, just as we do in our personal lives.”
Social media is certainly no new marketing channel for food and beverage makers. Many have been at it for more than a decade. Worcester area food and beverage makers routinely post photos of new products and announcements of sales or events.
That doesn’t mean all have mapped out and are executing a coherent strategy.
Jake Messier, founder and chief executive of the Worcester marketing and communications agency HEARD Strategy & Storytelling, said he recommends clients devote one-third of their social media to direct selling, one-third to showcasing their corporate cultures and the final third to showing how they fit into their industries.
A key point is to interact with people on social media, according to Mr. Messier.
“You stick to it and see what works,” he said. “Maybe people really respond to one element over another. Social media is not just about advertising. You can pay for advertising. It’s about engaging with people.”
Craft beer enthusaist Erika Johnson of Wilmington has built up a following of more than 3,300 on Instagram, where she posts under the bostonbeergirl_ej. That following has earned her invitations to brewery events and recently brought one brewer to her home with samples in hopes she could generate some hype about the product.
Brewery staff have told her that customers order drinks based on her posts.
“They throw around that word ‘influencer,’ ” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s a silly word, but it does have meaning.”
She only posts positive comments and emphasizes she is not a beer reviewer. When she visited Stone Cow Brewery in Barre during December, she posted a picture of the beer maker’s Oatmeal Stout, wrote that she was sipping the Ginger Snap Amber Ale and described the vibe as fun.
“I only post what I like,” Ms. Johnson said. “I think it’s really important to be genuine and just give genuine recommendations.”
With so many social media channels – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Untappd for beer lovers, LinkedIn, Pinterest, SnapChat and so on – keeping up with posts and influencers can challenge small businesses.
Melissa Roiter, owner of Yummy Mummy Bakery in Westboro, described herself as “slowly learning” about social media as she juggles her business, family, dog, orders coming in on multiple channels and the work of monitoring reviews on online sites. The business has its biggest following, nearly 3,000 followers, on Facebook but also uses Twitter and Instagram.
Yummy Mummy sells baked goods through retailers in the region, at farmers’ markets, at its own bakery and sends orders far and wide for corporate customers. Ms. Roiter tries to post once or twice daily, often pictures of gooey baked goods.
“I am realizing how important it is, and not only how important, but how prevalent social media is,” Ms. Roiter said. “Those pictures of delicious baked goods (are) having an impact on my business.”
When a customer arrives at her bakery, asking for a cookie that was photographed and posted on social media, “to me, I literally jump up and down,” Mrs. Roiter said.
An estimated 70 percent of people use social media daily in North America, according to Hootsuite, a social media management platform. Those users want information and entertainment, Hootsuite said in a report on 2018 trends, and they want to see users posting about brands.
Still, social media has encountered challenges recently, ranging from data breaches to charges of bias and infiltration by foreign political meddlers. Some users have boasted about deleting their accounts.
Luke Vaillancourt, publisher of Mass Foodies, a group with a strong online and social media presence, said he thinks big “social media influencers” with inflated follower counts are being replaced by individuals with smaller but more “real” followings.
“I believe that the businesses that are consistently creating content, as opposed to simply resharing others’ content, will be the ones to survive the next iteration of social media,” Mr. Vaillancourt said in an email. “Some great examples are The Queen’s Cups (bakery), deadhorse hill (restaurant) and Wormtown. They are always producing content (not fielding it through an agency or ‘social media expert’) that is timely, showcases their products, and offers a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes world — all important factors in the success of social media today.”
In fact, just by virtue of producing a perishable product, smaller food and beverage businesses may find themselves unable to develop far-reaching social media strategies that map out tweets and posts weeks in advance.
JT Ethier, beer and brand evangelist for Greater Good, recounted the story of a Maine beer brewery that promoted a new brew on social media, only to find itself unable to release the beer after a power outage ruined the batch.
“In the food and beer industry, you can’t do that because you don’t know what’s coming six or eight weeks down the pike,” he said.
Greater Good, which has been open in Worcester less than a year, has more than 6,200 Facebook followers, more than 1,100 Twitter followers and more than 8,600 Instagram followers. The brewery features posts about its beers, food available at the taproom on Millbrook Street, events and cans for sale.
Polar Beverages has nearly 12,800 followers on Facebook, another 8,000 on Twitter and nearly 23,000 on Instagram. But it also has devoted online fans who fashion hashtags such as #polarseltzeraddict. Plug that into Instagram and you’ll find photos of an expectant father in sterile garb with a Raspberry Rose in his hand, a man showing off his seltzer bar, pets near seltzer cans, and cases of Unicorn Kisses, Minotaur Mayhem and Yeti Mischief seltzer stacked in homes.
Cathy Harris of North Providence, Rhode Island, is one of those fans. She posts on Instagram under the handle “mswoofwoof” and has displayed cartons of seltzer, cans floating in a pool, bottles lined up on a counter …
“I don’t really have a strategy,” she said. “I usually post when new flavors come out, because they’re hard to find sometimes.”
She credits Polar Seltzer with breaking her soda-drinking habit and loves Polar Seltzer so much that when she finds a sale, she stocks up. Ms. Harris said she was recently preparing to mail Polar Seltzer to a friend outside Massachusetts.
With about 480 followers on Instagram, her social media reach is modest. That’s probably not enough to make a difference for Polar’s business, she said. Her posts, she said, are as much for her friends as anyone.
“I think it’s funny, and everyone thinks I’m obsessed with it, because I am,” Ms. Harris said.