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Digital Download

By AICC Staff

March 22, 2021

While the COVID-19 pandemic affected some industries more than others, one profession in particular had to quickly pivot to seek new ways of connecting with customers and prospects—salespeople. No longer able to connect in person or network via traditional events such as trade shows and conventions, golf outings, etc., salespeople and business development professionals had to look for new ways to connect. The past year has been one of exploration, trial and error, and—in some cases—significant success for organizations that were able to quickly pivot to the “new normal.”

Reacting to a Changing Communication Environment

One major area of focus for those striving to stay connected during the pandemic was social media. Some had already established a presence; others quickly jumped into the fray. The good news: Social media had already proven to be an effective way of connecting with consumers. A blog by social media software company Sprout Social, titled “5 Stats to Improve Your 2021 Marketing Strategy,” points out:

  • While many may view social media engagement to be driven primarily by a search for humor or inspiration, 57% of consumers use social media to learn about new products and services.
  • Effective social engagement requires top-notch customer service in the real world—49% of consumers say they’ll unfollow brands with poor customer service.
  • Images and videos are a must for effective engagement—68% of consumers say they want to engage with images, 50% with video content.

According to Social Media Today, top trends that emerged in 2020 related to social media content include:

  • The use of interactive content.
  • Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
  • “New-breed” SEO—the tendency of search engines, particularly Google, to continually change algorithms to require associated shifts in strategy among marketers.
  • Social commerce.
  • Smart bidding in Google ads—the use of machine learning to optimize bidding.

Boxmakers are embracing many of these trends and the opportunities that social media and other digital marketing tactics can provide in an environment in which they’ve been denied in-person interaction with both prospects and customers.

A Quick Shift to Virtual Meetings

One of the first major impacts experienced by boxmakers was a sudden shutdown that limited—or eliminated—their ability to physically interact with customers, notes Todd M. Zielinski, managing director and CEO of Athena SWC, a firm serving boxmakers that offers inbound and outbound marketing best practice services.

When much of the country moved to remote-service operations in the spring, tools such as Zoom and Webex suddenly became go-to options for connecting with customers, says Zielinski. Most customers were no longer allowing vendors on-site in their plants. “What we started to see was a great amount of demand from the packaging industry on how to connect with prospects and customers outside of traditional sales methods,” he says.

What he was hearing from his contacts in the industry, he says, was “I can’t go to a trade show; I can’t network at a golf outing; but I still have the demand—how do I make this happen?”

Demand varied significantly around the country, with places such as New York being hit hardest and box manufacturers serving that market most challenged to stay in contact with customers in meaningful ways. The demand for information on how to connect virtually began to grow.

Before reaching out, though, some firms took advantage of the opportunity to be introspective first.

Determining a Desired Brand Identity

Zac Surprenant is the marketing director at Bennett Packaging and is in charge of the company’s website and social media. Surprenant’s background is in the film-editing and music video space in Los Angeles, but he moved his family recently due to COVID-19, taking advantage of an opportunity to work with Bennett, where his father is general manager. Upon arriving, he took the opportunity to do a brand refresh, redoing the brand colors, the website, and all social media profiles (the company is on seven social media channels). The main thing he wanted to do, he says, is engage with people—not companies.

Social media is the perfect place to do that, although he says he sees a lot of other companies, including box companies, “just putting out pamphlets.” Instead, he says, his goal is to engage designers and business owners to give them design tips for displays and packaging and to educate them about the various options available to them.

Surprenant says he’s learned a lot over the last seven months and will be applying that learning to marketing strategy in 2021. That strategy, he says, is likely to include social media and other paid advertising. “We’ve put our ad budget in places where I think we’ll find more customers,” he says.

In the past, Surprenant says, much of the digital advertising focus was with Google pay-per-click. Moving forward, he plans to transition to social media ads focusing on designers and marketers. E-commerce is an area of fast growth in which he plans to place much of his effort. “That’s where most of the dollars are going to be,” he says.

His advice to other boxmakers: Take a close and critical look at their brands with an eye toward refreshing to ensure that the brand reflects their desired position in the space. In Bennett’s case, he says, “When I came in, I was told that they were one of the largest independent manufacturers in North America.” The brand has to reflect that, he says.

Joan Sahlgren, senior director of public relations with the Paper and Packaging Board, agrees. “Boxmakers, like all brands, should start with the audience in mind,” she says. “Who do they need to communicate with?”

Are they selling to and consulting with small startup businesses, or do they need to show bigger brands what they can do? In either case, social media offers a wide range of channels that allow connections to be made easily and cost-effectively. Not all channels are the same, however, and they don’t all reach the same audiences.

Social Media Is Critical

For those hoping to connect with professionals in a B2B environment, LinkedIn is the go-to tool, says Zielinski. “That doesn’t mean that Facebook or Twitter or others aren’t good places to be,” he says. “It’s just that the platform for LinkedIn was really created around the premise of business connections.”

Sahlgren agrees and says that, although LinkedIn “is always a good bet” for business communications, “business audiences also reside on platforms like Facebook.” The Paper and Packaging Board’s own “How Life Unfolds” campaign has earned millions of impressions across several social platforms and a website.

width=293With so many people connected to their smartphones 24/7 and the ability to download a LinkedIn app to their phones, it’s easy to text or send messages through the app to make connections. “It’s just become an extension of how you connect with people in the business environment,” says Zielinski.

Despite LinkedIn’s prevalence, though, even prior to the pandemic, Zielinski says, he was surprised by how many people weren’t aware of, or using, the channel.

Erin Robinson, social media director for the Paper and Packaging Board, points out that there’s much to be learned by watching what others are doing. “Take a look at the trends, posts from people and competitors, and follow influencers, podcasts, and news sources,” she says. “What are they talking about? Is there a relevant topic that you can post about, a conversation you can join?”

Social strategies will vary across the different channels, says Robinson, because the different channels have different audiences. “A Facebook or LinkedIn post might be text and a link to more information, but a Pinterest and Instagram post would include a photo or art,” she says. “I recommend thinking about the visuals you make, no matter what audience you reach. Video is likely more disruptive and more interesting than still images, and a social media post that is text-only is likely less engaging in general to the user.”

Beyond the posts themselves, Robinson recommends monitoring the time of day when posts get the most traffic and what days are most successful. “More is not better,” she cautions. “Make sure each of your posts has a purpose, even if that means posting once a week or less. Optimize your posts to go up when your audience is online and engaged. And be sure to use relevant hashtags to get more eyes on your post.”

One of the big benefits of social media, aside from its relatively low cost (primarily the cost of creating and managing posts and engagement) is the ability to readily test strategies and tactics and adjust accordingly. Consider basic A/B testing, Robinson suggests. “Try the same image with two different sets of copy, or the same copy with a different image, and see what your audience engages with the most.”

In addition, don’t be afraid to reuse posts that have worked well, she says. “You may need only a handful of resonant pieces of content to make a big impression—but discovering what performs best may be a mix of analytics and art.”

Through it all, both Sahlgren and Robinson agree with Zielinski on the importance of staying true to the brand. “Be genuine to your brand, and a real part of the platform,” says Sahlgren.

The Future of Digital Connections

While 2020 was a unique year and it’s not yet clear what 2021 will bring, it is certain that the future of connections in the packaging industry will be different.

Moving forward, says Sahlgren, “the shop-at-home trend and takeout food delivery behaviors seem here to stay as convenience and safety are still in play for the coming year.”

The pandemic experience is likely to change how boxmakers approach sales even after the threat from the virus is over, Zielinski predicts. “I saw a lot of packaging customers say this has kind of forced their hand to look at how they structure the sales model,” he says. “Do we just keep hiring more people, or do we take a step back and recognize that we haven’t kept pace with virtual methods to connect with people?” It’s an opportunity, he says, for packagers to improve their websites and their messaging.

Zielinski says that his customers tend to be in two camps—those whose sales have been negatively impacted by the effects of the pandemic on demand for packaging materials (the hospitality industry, for instance) and those who have seen a significant uptick in demand (those that supply grocery store chains, for example) and wonder how long this uptick will last.

For himself, Zielinski says it’s been his best year ever. “When this happened, we were very nervous,” he admits, but customer retention and the ability to add new accounts has never been higher, he says. He, like others experiencing the positive impacts of the virus in certain industry segments, will “ride this wave” as long as he can.

There is opportunity for everyone, though he says, “Here’s an opportunity for us to do things a little bit differently than we’ve traditionally done. Different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. This is a way to streamline, to improve, and to add something to our efforts that can help bolster us and position us for growth in the future.”

In the packaging industry, say Zielinski and others, there is a new understanding and acceptance of connecting and selling virtually and the recognition that you don’t have to be physically present and face-to-face to be successful.

PortraitLin Grensing-Pophal is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer and a frequent BoxScore contributor.