Social Strategies for a Changing Customer


By Tara Smith, SCAA

Social media, a major element of the new digital landscape, changes nearly every day. Some changes are small, some are large, but change is a constant in the social media world. I believe that what coffee companies should actually be most tuned into is not what is changing on social media platforms, but rather the change that’s occurring within the social media user community. We are on the heels of a major generational transition, one that is beginning to redefine how audiences interact with social media, with brands, and with each other. The Millennial generation (those born between 1982 and 2004) is primed to overtake the Boomer generation as the largest living generation. These teens and young adults are your current coffee customers and the people you are likely trying to engage with through your social media channels. But what should coffee companies wanting to engage their online communities be thinking about for 2016, in terms of the shifting expectations of a Millennial customer base?

To gather some input from social media and community engagement specialists who work in the coffee industry, I reached out to two of my peers: Akaash Saini, Community Engagement Manager at Equator Coffee & Teas, and Maria Hill, founder of the digital marketing company Nimble Media. I’ve discovered that if you say the word “Millennial” to a social media specialist, it almost always triggers a lively and passionate conversation around how best to engage this new customer segment. After speaking with Akaash and Maria, a few key areas began to emerge as trends, changes, and opportunities that specialty coffee companies should be paying attention to if they want to evolve their social media presence to be relevant to Millennials.

Micro-Content and New Platforms

“This year you really saw everyone step up their game on social media. We saw the industry grow up a little in how they portray themselves,” said Akaash. I had to agree whole-heartedly; as someone who pays close attention to industry social media activity, I had seen the same increase in emphasis in social media marketing, particularly on Facebook and Twitter, and to some degree Instagram. But younger customers are often not on Facebook at all. They gravitate towards “in the moment” platforms like Vine, Instagram, Periscope, and Snapchat. As Akaash said to me quite plainly and accurately when we spoke, “Your Millennial customer probably isn’t on Facebook.”

“Millennials take company values into account when making purchasing decisions and these types of micro-content platforms offer the opportunity to showcase corporate culture,” Maria noted. “Content strategies like ‘behind the scenes’ access, live Q & A interviews, or general coffee knowledge discussions are great ways to engage with your audience. Periscope is unique because fans can give instant feedback through the chat feature; brands can leverage this as a way to literally put a face to the company name and connect with fans. It is also important to note that successful social media content should provide some sort of value to the audience, so don’t just post for posting sake. Identify a few core topics or projects to highlight and build a content plan around them.” One thing to remember, as Akaash pointed out, is not to use these channels strictly as selling tools. “Instagram in particular, a more curated feed-lifestyle brand, is not a place to sell anything.”

The most important part of reaching Millennials through these platforms is being authentic and not trying to script your engagement too much. As a marketer, I can fully understand how this approach might feel terrifying! What if I make a mistake, or say the wrong thing? But at the end of the day, this demographic is really only fully engaged with a brand if they feel like the brand is being a “real person,” as opposed to a marketing mouthpiece. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a strategy for these platforms before launching a presence, but it’s best to resist trying to schedule or share any posts that don’t feel like they were spontaneous.

Social Media Advertising

Another way to reach a younger customer base is through targeted social media advertising. With some studies showing that Millennials spend up to 8 hours per day consuming online media, this should be part of any coffee company’s advertising strategy. “You have to pay when it comes to Facebook, it’s just the way their algorithms work.” Says Akaash. “It doesn’t have to be a lot; we pay 10-20 dollars for the larger posts.”

We’ve been testing social media advertising at SCAA for several months now and the success rate has been really encouraging. We have been using Facebook and Twitter ad platforms primarily to promote upcoming educational courses, to ensure that as many specialty coffee professionals know about these opportunities as possible. Not only do these platforms allow you to reach people outside of your networks directly, they allow you to target based on everything you can think of from page likes, to demographics, to geo-targeting (and a lot more). When it comes to Millennials, and quite frankly even their older counterparts, people generally have a negative knee-jerk reaction to seeing ads in their personally curated news feeds. There is a real sense that your feed should be private and yours alone to create, so if you’re going to insert your brand into the feeds of hundreds or thousands of people who didn’t choose to see it, you better make that ad engaging and valuable to them. As Maria pointed out, “For marketing to Millennials, it is all about presenting a lifestyle versus selling a product. If you don’t know what I mean by ‘lifestyle,’ take a peek at the Instagram accounts of Starbucks, Stumptown, or Verve Coffee. It is about curating a moment that the customer wants to experience or learn more about, this is the way to the Millennials’ disposable income.”

Engaging Content Creators

Most people on the younger end of the Millennial spectrum, including teenagers, no longer seek out their celebrities on TV; they find them on You Tube, Vine, Instagram and other social channels. This has spawned a new advertising opportunity for brands to connect with these influential content creators to promote their products. How can coffee companies connect with these influencers, and what is the best way to develop those relationships?

“Influencer marketing is a great way to deliver your brand messaging to a larger audience,” pointed out Maria. “The social media universe is so crowded it can be difficult to decide where to start looking for these partnerships. When it comes to selecting an influencer to work with, bigger is not always better—follower count means nothing if their audience is not engaging with the content. Make sure that the influencer you are working with aligns with brand demographics, values, and voice.”

I began to really appreciate how much influence these content creators held when my 15-year-old daughter began to take note. She is an avid coffee drinker on her own, but I guarantee if one of her favorite YouTubers suddenly developed a favorite coffee brand, she’d be begging me to buy it for her. This is exactly why large brands regularly develop partnerships with these online celebrities to promote their products and services; not only do they have an audience, they have influence. If you don’t have a big PR agency at your disposal to make connections for you, there are other ways to go about getting connected. While there are many networks designed to connect bloggers and brands, you could always go about it the old-fashioned way by reaching out directly to bloggers, Viners and YouTubers to offer to send them a product sample.

“We discovered recently that a Jason Mraz video featured him wearing an Equator Bengal Tiger hat,” shared Akaash. “Of course we were really excited to find out that a celebrity like Jason was a fan of our coffee! Not only was this a great opportunity to share this endorsement with our fans, I also reached out to his management team directly to see if we could send him any coffee or other Equator apparel.”

Cause-Driven Campaigns

Millennials are known to be more attracted to companies who engage in socially responsible activities and are not strictly profit driven. In fact, in a recent study on Millennial consumer preferences by Forbes it was stated that “75% said that it’s either fairly or very important that a company gives back to society instead of just making a profit. They are sick and tired of corporate greed and are still recovering in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Millennials love brands that support their local communities and would rather purchase from them than competitors.” This is also a core value of the specialty coffee community – how can coffee companies raise awareness on their cause-driven efforts through these channels?

Specialty coffee companies seem to be uniquely positioned to create cause-driven narratives that will resonate with Millennials. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last five years at SCAA, it’s that the specialty coffee community cares deeply about issues affecting our industry and the people in it. If you’re doing something to improve the livelihood of the producers you source your coffee from, to reduce your carbon footprint, or to give back to your local community, you should be sharing these stories with your customers online. Millennials in particular are thoughtful about aligning their purchase behavior with companies who share their values, so coffee companies should be focusing on communicating their efforts in 2016.

“If you have a company blog, write about important initiatives or projects and share the links across social media platforms,” said Maria. Akaash went on to say, “Our founders, Helen and Brooke, have always based Equator’s company values around transparency and doing social and environmental good. It’s not just about buying good coffee. Being a B-Corporation, one of the first roasters in the Bay Area, making sure that our employee development programs and socially conscious work we are doing at Equator is being shared with our audience is incredibly important to us.”

While you don’t want to approach your Millennial customer online from a one-size-fits-all perspective, it is important to recognize the incredible importance this customer demographic puts on how brands communicate with them through social media. According to the Forbes study, 62 percent of Millennials say that if a brand engages with them on social networks, they are more likely to become a loyal customer. It could be argued that it has never been more important to put an emphasis on social media as a branding tool, particularly if you want to ensure that your brand is resonant with consumers under 35.

Harvard PhotographyAs Director of Marketing & Communications for SCAA, Tara leads the promotional and outreach efforts for all SCAA events and programs. Nicknamed the “Techie” by staff, Smith designed and launched SCAA’s first social media strategy in 2009, growing its digital community to over 250,000 by 2016. As a life-long coffee lover, Smith credits working with and learning from the professionals in the specialty coffee industry as an exciting and rewarding opportunity that continues to motivate and inspire her work.