Unilever Finds Social-Media Buzz Really Does Drive Sales

Coke, Where Unilever's Top Researcher Once Worked, Found Otherwise

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Positive mentions in social media have been proved to drive sales for Unilever brands, according to Shawn O'Neal, VP-global people data and marketing analytics for the company.

Shawn O'Neal, VP-Global People Data and Marketing Analytics, Unilever
Shawn O'Neal, VP-Global People Data and Marketing Analytics, Unilever

That finding, delivered in a talk at the Association of National Advertisers Masters of Measurement Conference in Miami Beach on Thursday, may seem unsurprising to many people. But it's a particularly interesting finding given some context.

Mr. O'Neal's boss is Stan Sthanunathan, senior VP of consumer and market insights at Unilever, who headed global market research at Coca-Cola in 2013 when a research team from that company reached a very different conclusion. Coke researchers discussed a study at the Advertising Research Foundation Re:Think Conference in 2013 finding online buzz had no measurable impact on short-term sales. One of Coke's top marketers, Wendy Clark, publicly defended the company's use of social media, saying it plays a "crucial role at the heart of our activations."

Mr. O'Neal, who will be speaking at Ad Age's Data Conference in New York on Oct. 8, said he wouldn't get into details for proprietary reasons. He did say the findings were enough to convince Unilever's senior leadership to "give us tens of millions more to continue what we're doing.

"I didn't have to tell them every way I got there," Mr. O'Neal said. "It's not about the data. It's not about the analysis. It's not about the tool. It's about the question they asked: Does social activity represent an increase in my sales, and the answer is yes."

Beyond that, he said, being able to answer the question changed the mindset at Unilever, so managers now expect to continuously monitor social-media sentiment about brands. "And I can do that day in and day out," Mr. O'Neal said. "It doesn't take me six months later."

Among other interesting findings of the Unilever data team: Only one in a thousand TV ad impressions prompts a sale. Mr. O'Neal compared that to data from a study by marketing-tech startup Pixoneye, which tracks digital media performance using photo recognition technology, that an unnamed major pet food brand generated sales from four in a thousand digital ad impressions by targeting pet owners, and from 40 in 1,000 digital impressions by targeting cat and dog owners specifically.

For Ben & Jerry's, he said Unilever has found that ice cream isn't quite the unpredictable impulse category it's sometimes made out to be. People tend to talk about ice cream in social media from Wednesday through Friday night then buy it on Saturday. "So why are we spending money on Mondays and Tuesdays?" Mr. O'Neal asked.

While people have long believed sunny, hot weather spurs ice cream sales, Unilever has actually found rainy days are equally influential, he said. "That banner ad that goes out Thursday night should say, 'Hey, the rain is coming this weekend. Snuggle up with some Ben & Jerry's and watch that movie," Mr. O'Neal said.

To manage all that data, Unilever developed its own data management platform. "I don't know that it's the right decision," he said. "We may get a new one next week."

Mr. O'Neal, who described himself as entirely agnostic on the in-house vs. external question, said Unilever in the past three years hasn't signed a single contract with a new data or systems supplier that lasts longer than a year, because of the rapid pace of technology change.

At Ad Age's Data Conference on Oct. 8 in New York, Mr. O'Neal will take the stage with Ogilvy's Chief Data Officer Todd Cullen to share the data strategies proving to be most valuable and explain how the data they're gathering is informing Unilever's marketing decisions. Register today at adage.com/events/data-conference-2015

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