« August 2009 Table of Contents
Online, all the time
Seafood buyers, sellers test the waters of online social networks
By Joanne Friedrick
August 01, 2009
For The Plitt Co., a Chicago seafood wholesaler and
distributor, experiencing receivership and working with its
creditors was difficult enough. So when rumors about the
company's future started surfacing, Plitt turned to Twitter -
one of the many online social media outlets available - to
"The Twitter option seemed to be an easy way to communicate
minute by minute what's going on here in the office," says Mary
Smith, director of marketing, who has "Tweeted" for Plitt for
about four months. "We had the opportunity to get our message
out there instantly and let people know what's really
happening," says Smith.
Twitter, along with Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Web sites
and blogs, provide an avenue to complement or in some cases
replace traditional public relations, marketing and
The lure of social media is instant gratification - it
provides a forum for messages that can be viewed and/or
responded to 24/7. Twitter, the newest social media outlet on
the block, limits users to just 140 characters per message, or
Tweet, but is unlimited in its reach: It has about 12 million
users worldwide since it launched in 2007, with growth
estimated to reach 18 million next year. Facebook, meanwhile,
has 200 million active users globally.
LinkedIn, founded in 2003 in Mountain View, Calif., is an
online tool used by approximately 40 million business
professionals worldwide. The popular business networking site
is set up
differently than social media networks like Facebook
and Twitter. Its mission is not merely social or marketing, but
to "connect the world's professionals to make them more
master bedroom and successful."
For now, social media outlets are free, which has enabled
smaller companies to hit the ground running. Mike Monahan, who
has operated Monahan's Seafood Market in Ann Arbor, Mich.,
since 1979, relies on former employee Wendy Williams, an online
marketing consultant, to guide him in the store's nascent
social media experience.
"I'm a busy fishmonger," says Monahan. By using Twitter, he
says, "I can get out information early and quickly on daily
specials or special fish like striped bass and softshell
While Monahan acknowledges he's not necessarily tech-savvy,
he adds, "I've been very open-minded about it. I think the
possibilities are big."
Monahan's two-minute squid-cleaning video was recorded by
Williams and posted on the company's Facebook page the same
"I like the quickness of this," he says. "We can do it
during a busy day, while I'm still working. When we have more
time, I'll do classes and we'll put that on the Web." The
retailer also has posted the squid-cleaning and other
educational videos on YouTube.
Williams, who also is based in Ann Arbor and does online
promotion for music industry clients in New York as well,
recognizes social media is a good marketing tool for her
"Both music and food people are passionate about what they
do. Their businesses are always fresh and changing," a perfect
fit for the immediacy of Twitter and other online social media,
"Anytime you can get people to think about your business,
it's a victory," says Williams. In the case of Monahan's, "It
gives people a flavor of what makes you different from a
supermarket seafood department."
An online revolution
The commercial use of online tools is still in its infancy,
despite the buzz about Twitter and other social media.
A study of European businesses, released earlier this year
by WebTrends, a Web analytics company with U.S. headquarters in
Portland, Ore., showed just 2 percent of businesses use Twitter
for marketing versus about 45 percent that use more traditional
direct mail. Online advertising was embraced by nearly 35
percent of those surveyed, while viral marketing (such as
YouTube videos), blogs and podcasts were used by only 5 percent
Williams concedes it can be difficult to track the success
of a Twitter message. While users can see the number of
followers and re-tweets, it's hard to know who is walking in
the door of the fish shop because they received a message on
their cell phone or computer. Williams has been able to track
some Twitter users, however, through the store's monthly
seafood haiku contest submissions, which come in via Twitter,
Facebook or at the store.
Online tracking is much simpler with search engine
optimization (SEO), says Williams. She's working with Monahan
to create searches that are unique to the business. For
example, if someone searches online for a whole pompano for
grilling, she explains, Monahan's site will be at the top or
near the top of the Internet search list.
At The Hills Market in Columbus, Ohio, marketing director
Jill Moorhead sees social media as the future of marketing.
"I've seen in Columbus how social networking has helped
promote specific local brands," she explains. Moorhead
registered The Hills for its own Twitter account and convinced
Jordan Moore, seafood department manager, to participate.
"Hillsseafoodguy," Moore typically presents
information on specials, new arrivals to the seafood department
"People seem to like it, and it's good for sale items
Moorhead uses social media to supplement traditional
marketing vehicles like newspapers.
"The local paper is getting smaller, so it's up to us to get
the word out on our events," she explains. "If we want to reach
people to let them know about food events, we have to use
Facebook and Twitter."
To direct people to those social media outlets, The Hills
Market promotes its online presence in its weekly flier and on
the store's Web site. One event Moorhead recently promoted on
Facebook was the store's 15th annual Salmon Roast, a Memorial
Day weekend fund-raiser.
While social media marketing has worked for The Hills
Market, it may not be the right solution for big
"There's a certain size of company that this works for," she
says. "If you have to run every Tweet by the legal department,
it won't work."
For a new business, such as North Shore Seafood in
Lafayette, Ind., Twitter is a means to keep potential customers
aware of how the business is proceeding, from finding a site
and securing suppliers to scheduling opening day.
Lenny Patterson, owner of North Shore, says his wife, who is
a software engineer at Purdue University, pushed social media
marketing for his new venture.
The store's Web site has a link to its Twitter account,
which features daily specials, some of which are
"People who aren't even following me, they show up with
friends when I put a special on Twitter," says Patterson.
He also found shrimp and scallop suppliers by making a
request via Twitter.
Blogging, e-mail, Tweets, Facebook and event marketing are
all part of engaging the customer, says Lynnelle Wilson,
founder and president of Bold Vision Consulting, a social media
consulting firm in South Portland, Maine.
"You just allocate your resources differently," says
Every seafood company looking to use social media for
business building needs to find what works for them, she says.
A store on the waterfront that deals in fish fresh off the boat
might want to post YouTube videos showing fishermen dropping
off their catch and how to cook it, while a higher-end store
may do a piece pairing wines with seafood.
The goal is to "be the resource, so you drive them to your
Web site, your Facebook page or your store," says Wilson.
Consistency and frequency are important as companies engage
their potential customers. "You can't just drop in and out,"
says Wilson. "It has to be part of a strategic marketing
Wilson agrees that measurement of social media's
effectiveness can be difficult. "You can't correlate a click on
Facebook to a paying customer," she says, adding, at this
point, it's more of a branding issue.
"I think it's important for any business to understand the
evolution of what is going on," she says. "Everyone should have
a presence. [Social media] has changed the way we do
Restaurants are also embracing social media. Casey Clinch,
manager of Madfish Grill in Sarasota, Fla., began Tweeting over
the past couple of months, listing lunch and dinner specials
and events such as Lobster
The Tweets supplement information provided through monthly
e-mails and local newspaper advertising, he says.
Clinch writes a blog as well, but spends less than one hour
a day on social media, which he says is likely to attract a
younger clientele to the family-owned, casual-seafood
Jeremy Ashby, executive chef and partner in Azur Restaurant
& Patio in Lexington, Ky., says communicating with
customers via Twitter and Facebook fits with the restaurant's
idea of being cutting edge with food, technology and
"I think our customers will be Internet-based," says Ashby,
who is one of the primary Tweeters for Azur. "This is direct
and personal. We want our efforts targeted. This is a voluntary
opportunity to follow what we do."
Like Clinch at Madfish, Ashby posts information on the
restaurant's menu changes, events and daily specials.
"I'm trying to get everyone on board," he says, noting that
the manager and servers Tweet about specials or to let their
friends and customers know what's new.
Through the restaurant's newsletter and Web site, Ashby says
he's able to follow up on the brief subjects of his Tweets. He
also has a personal Facebook page as well as one for the
restaurant. Ashby uses his phone to take pictures of new dishes
and posts them on the pages, which flow into the Web site and
Twitter, "so all three are linked together."
With minimal set-up time and just a few minutes a day spent
on Tweets, Ashby finds social media useful. "We like to think
that it's working," he says. "We all feel this is the direction
in which marketing is going, and we want to be on the cutting
The immediacy of Twitter is perfect for moving perishable
items such as seafood. Azur brings in fish from all over
country and customers like the idea of knowing what the fresh
catch of the day will be, adds Ashby.
Suppliers also have a need to let customers know about
what's fresh and what's limited, which is one reason why Plitt
uses Twitter, says Smith.
Plitt also uses Twitter to remind customers to place orders.
"I've seen a little bit of movement because of this," she
And there's the indirect message sent by using Twitter,
which is, "We're hip and we're on top of things. The value of
doing it now is you're considered groundbreaking in your
marketing, not copycatting," she says.
The seafood distributor has Twitter, Facebook and YouTube
accounts that feature video as well as text. Smith, who
recently spent three weeks in Alaska, sent Tweets about her
travels and plans to post videos of the fishermen and places
"I shot a ton of video in Alaska," she says. "It's not a
Martin Scorsese flick, but it's fine. I think people worry too
much about production value."
Like any marketing tool, Smith says social media requires
maintenance. "Once you start, you can't stop. It's just like a
Web site, you have to maintain it."
For now, she says, social media "is just another weapon in
our arsenal. Because it doesn't cost anything, and doesn't take
much time. It's not important to impact the bottom line." That
could change, of course, if social media becomes a paid
service. Then, says Smith, she'd have to think about getting a
return on the investment.
Meanwhile, companies that enter the social media marketing
realm can go forth and Tweet, post or blog their seafood
offerings, knowing that their customers - and potential
customers - will be online as well, hungry for seafood and
Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in South
EDITOR'S NOTE: Start a Twitter dialog with the editorial
staff, follow us @SeaFoodBusiness and @SeafoodSource.