Big (Social) Data: How You Can Use It Best — Q&A with Safeway Social Manager Paul Albright

SocialTimes recently chatted with Paul Albright, Safeway's senior social marketing manager, about using data intelligently (and not intrusively) in social advertising.

Companies have an incredible amount of data regarding the habits of fans and customers — and we’re not just talking about Google and Facebook.

Increasingly, big brands down to your local coffee shop are offering a rewards card that offers deals and discounts in exchange for your information and purchasing behavior. A lot of this activity ends up back in your life as social ads.

But how can you ensure that the data is used, but not abused? SocialTimes recently chatted with Paul Albright, Safeway’s senior social marketing manager, about using data intelligently (and not intrusively) in social advertising.

Safeway works with Adobe Social to manage its social campaigns. In one case where Safeway produced a series of videos for its Facebook page, this lead to a more-than-11x increase in organic reach and 487 percent higher engagement rates with optimized video content. Albright talked with SocialTimes about how a major part of the supermarket’s social marketing mission is to create a positive emotional bond with customers.

SocialTimes: Can you talk about some ways that data can be used on social to drive sales or key objectives?

FullSizeRenderPaul Albright: The data piece has been a conversation for the last 20 years. As brands and companies have been amassing this amazing and vital information, I think that the knee-jerk reaction that a lot of superficial marketers had was to find a way to extract more dollars from those people.

I think that’s limited. Yes, you want to figure out a way that you’re using that data for insights that help the marketer how to create exchanges with those individuals, but the bigger relationship factor is understanding the composite of that individual: what they make, who they are, their digital footprint, their behaviors — and that you’re not pissing them off.

Honest to God, that’s the number one thing: How do I not piss people off? Social media is not a transactional response tool; it’s a relationship.

As a marketer, if you’re telling me over and over that you’re never going to buy dry goods from my store, it’s too expensive, I go to Target. If I knew that about you intrinsically, I could navigate my communication around it or cajole you into understanding why it’s better.

For data’s sake, I can say look, this is their shopping cart every week — how can I get them deals and promotions? That’s going to get you so far. From a behavioral perspective, I’m trying to understand, look, they never open their email. They go to social media 17 times per day, and it’s between 10 and 4 — I know that about them — so how do I open my conversation and tailor it to what they’re looking for at that given time? That’s where the data is powerful.

ST: Safeway has a lot of data around consumers who are visiting stores, so how does Safeway use this data while toeing the line between effectiveness and creepiness?

PA: That was exposed in great detail when we launched the Just For U campaign. Every store pretty much has a loyalty program, and Safeway is no different. The last 15 years, people have been swiping their club card and that data has gone into the centralized database. It was always forward-looking, as if they didn’t know what to do with it, but they knew they needed it.

That loyalty was all going to this giant database. About 10 years ago, they realized how to configure it so they could market back to individuals. Personalization was becoming so key in marketing — market to me, don’t market to the masses. The only way they could do that was by personalized data and taking all of your purchase history.

It’s not 1-to-1, like “We see that you buy tomatoes every Thursday.” It’s, “there’s tomatoes and they’re 30 cents off.” If you could cross-market this data, you could talk to CPG customers and say, “You could get in front of people who do these things,” and pair these kinds of products to help expand the cart.

When you go in to buy a car, you could buy a car an hour before me and that price that you paid is going to be different from the price I pay. Why? They can do dynamic pricing. You can’t do dynamic pricing on milk. There’s no guy standing there changing the tag every 5 seconds and doesn’t know your price threshold. With Just For U, you can dynamically price and see sensitivities on a mass scale. Long term, there’s not milk sitting on Safeway shelves because it’s too expensive.

The way we’re communicating with them through our digital campaigns, it doesn’t (set off) an “icky meter.” We don’t do the kind of campaign that is so overt. Whereas, if I go to, then I go to Facebook, I’ll see a right-hand rail ad and that’s pedestrian at that point. But my icky meter doesn’t go off. If it said, “You spent 14 minutes on this site and didn’t buy these shoes,” then it depends on the level of data they come back at you with. We haven’t had that because the conversations we’re having are tame enough that it doesn’t set off the icky meter. I want to push that envelope, though. I want to see where it gets weird.

ST: What is Safeway’s video strategy on its social channels? Especially with Facebook and Twitter, social channels are becoming more video-focused than ever before, and I understand that’s a key part of Safeway’s toolbox on social.

PA: Going back to 2010, I think a lot of brands were feeling the pinch from Facebook on organic reach. We were trying so many different content variables — recipes, information, sale information — but it’s too tame. Not only do we need to break the mold of the content we’re providing, we have to add value to this channel. We had a great relationship with our Facebook representatives and they were always talking with us about different content types.

We told them, “We’ve done pictures, we’ve done all of the ad products you can do,” and with a wink, they told us, “You should try video.” This is before they started going head-to-head with YouTube, and I said, “We’ve done video in the past and it hasn’t worked.” They said, “You’ve been putting in commercials on Facebook.” They haven’t been giving me budget to build a whole robust dedicated social content program. This is when Vine launched and I didn’t want to go there because we didn’t have enough Twitter followers. Meanwhile, we’ve got to stop bleeding on this organic reach. We’re dying.

We worked with our agency and we put together a package of a narrative. We did more in terms of quick tips and information … 15 to 20 seconds max and it had to be highly branded. It was easy for them to do something with their iPhone. There’s no SAG involved in this. It was very low-budget and that’s the only reason why we got approved. Safeway’s budget mindset with video was like, $100,000, and anything less than that, why even do it? That’s not what this is.

They finally agreed to do a test. We saw immediately a jump. I know Facebook was giving us favoritism because of the content type, but the organic reach jumped. We played with illustrations for a bit, as those are cute and shareable. … The budget we had was nominal for our brand, but it was a consistent pace that was getting really strong. … (Video) became part of the DNA, but it took us 6 to 8 months to cajole (corporate) into thinking this was something we needed to have.

ST: But something I’ve noticed is that as soon as Facebook tilted the algorithm in favor of photos, everyone went big on photos. Now that Facebook is friendly to videos, do you see a similar critical mass problem coming in the future, as more brands upload video?

PA: You saw the news about the Wall Street Journal and others becoming publishers (Ed: via Instant Articles on Facebook). There’s always going to be something else — GIFs, cinemagraphs. What I really think is important is not the content — the content’s been exhausted — it’s the interplay with the pieces we have. We have images and video and games.

There’s going to be deviations of the artform. Like Meerkat. Meerkat just launched at SXSW, now they have accessibility through GoPro and Cameo. These are deviations of a basic nut or kernel. If we have something on Facebook, you can now livestream through your Facebook. It’s that kind of thinking of how do you deviate the forum in a way that’s event-driven, because I think that’s where Twitter went. We did the video cards first on Twitter and they performed exponentially better, and we’ve also done blogger chats.

I think there’s a huge opportunity with Pinterest and rich pins and much more integration with e-commerce, we can drive business from social. People have repeat purchases, but if you could influence that cart with inspiration, and get people thinking what they can add to the card, I think we could buoy that gross margin.

Readers: When was the last time a social advertisement influenced your purchase decision?

Top image courtesy of Ken Wolter /