February 09, 2012
Case Study

Social Media Marketing: GNC's strategy for courting online influencers and adding 383,000 Facebook fans

SUMMARY: Your products likely serve an array of micro-niches in the market. Since the Web gives every obscure interest group a place to meet, you can find these groups online, engage the most influential members, and get them interested in your products.

GNC is taking that approach. The retailer's director of social media finds influencers in a variety of niches and earns their support through conversation and free samples. See how his team uses influencer feedback to improve products and marketing, and how it estimates their impact on sales.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter

Changing brand perception can be difficult. You can do it through advertising. You can do it through PR. But, Chris James, Director, Social Media, GNC, takes a direct approach. His team finds small groups of nutritionally minded consumers and shows them how GNC's products can help them.

The team focuses on small niche groups in social media. With yoga enthusiasts, for example, the team:
  • Finds where they discuss nutritional products online

  • Identifies the most influential people among them

  • Engages them in conversations

  • Sends them product samples

  • Encourages them to share product reviews with the community

"Not only are we tapping into influencers who are really passionate and excited about what they do, but they talk to people who have already made the decision to [achieve a fitness goal] and who are on the cusp of starting," James says. "We are tapping into conversations and doing so in a way that represents all of these little facets of our business that we have to cover."

The team does this to promote products in a variety of niches and plans to expand its work in 2012. Last year, the team's work:
  • Increased sales in target products

  • Helped add more than 383,000 Facebook fans

  • Helped add about 60,000 Twitter followers

  • Contributed to "significantly higher" traffic from social media networks

Below, we outline the steps James' team takes to find influencers in a variety of niches and get them to recommend GNC's products.

Step #1. Identify groups of potential customers

GNC serves a variety of niche audiences, including people who are into yoga, heart health, super foods, Pilates and other interests.

These nutritionally minded consumers tend to research products online. Most of these topics have dedicated websites that include a forum or other social media outlet. A handful of people often do most of the talking on these sites, or manage a site themselves, and has a lot of pull in the community. These people are "influencers."

In December, the team ran a campaign to show a variety of health-related niche groups that GNC is not just a bodybuilder's retailer. By sending products and information to influencers in gluten-free foods, yoga and other topics, the team was able to garner user-generated blog posts, videos, and thousands of tweets using the campaign's #LiveWellNow hashtag.

"We've seen anecdotal evidence that young, fit-minded women on Twitter especially are engaging in that discussion, which is a key objective of ours," James says.

Focusing on specific products

When James' team wants to increase sales in a particular product category, it starts by finding niche audiences that do not use the product but for whom the product is a good fit. For example, when promoting the GNC's Beyond Raw brand of weight gainers, the team found an online group of bodybuilders who routinely recommended competing brands.

The team identifies such groups through paid social media monitoring solutions and rigorous research into the online market (see the useful links section below for more resources).

Step #2. Focus on supporting, not promoting

Once the team identifies a group, it does not simply hand out coupons and samples. The team first reaches out to understand why the group doesn't buy GNC products and how GNC could help them.

For example, when starting the Beyond Raw campaign, James introduced himself to the bodybuilders via Twitter and sparked up a conversation via email. He told the group the complexity and jargon in the market made it difficult for newcomers to know where to start. Since influencers typically want to encourage more people to join their passions, James had a feeling this message would resonate.

"There is almost this duty to help people get started," he says.

James explained there are thousands of men who shop at GNC who would be interested in bodybuilding, but they feel intimidated by the amount of conflicting and confusing information they find online.

"I said, 'Look, you guys are the experts. You are the folks who have been doing this for years … What can we do to soften this and make this a really accessible sport?'"

He noted that GNC offered good products in a market loaded with poor ones. If the group wanted more people to join the sport, why not suggest GNC's Beyond Raw products to people starting out? Newcomers can visit a nearby store, buy a safe product, and get started in a matter of hours. They don't have to do a ton of research. They don't have to use a poor product. And, they don't have to buy something online that they are unsure of.

"They said, 'wow, we didn't even think about it that way,'" James says.

Know what you're talking about

The Internet is a soapbox for every super-niche expert. When you step into a forum or comment page, you should know exactly what you're talking about. The last thing you want to do is inject yourself into a conversation and be laughed off the site.

GNC has a thorough understanding of its products and collects research and content to back up its claims. James' team familiarizes itself with this information to prevent missteps in online discussions.

Step #3. Send products, encourage feedback

Chia seeds are a fast-growing health food in major cities, James says, and when GNC wanted to expand its penetration into this market, the team sent product samples to influencers in related online communities. At least one blogger received enough samples to host a giveaway promotion on her site.

For other efforts, such as the Beyond Raw campaign, the team sends influencers samples and encourages them to publish feedback in a forum and Twitter using a campaign hashtag (#BeyondRaw).

Disclose your relationship

The Federal Trade Commission updated its guidelines for testimonials and endorsements in 2009. The guidelines set rules for sending product samples to bloggers or other online media outlets. Under the guidelines, anything that might affect the credibility of a product review has to be disclosed.

Since James' team sent free products to influencers in hopes of getting reviews, he had to make sure the influencers disclosed the relationship. He did this by engaging with influencers who had already made similar disclosures for other products or by asking them to start. (We're not lawyers, so please talk to your legal department and check with the FTC for more information. See the "useful links" section below.)

"I don't even want to take anybody who is willing to take a product without disclosing it. I'm not even interested in taking that risk. It's not worth it," James says.

Let the reviewers speak

It can be hard for marketers to surrender control over how their products are discussed online. To make this strategy work, though, you have to release some control.

James' team found that releasing control was beneficial in several ways. First, James was comfortable that GNC's products would earn positive reviews. Second, because GNC operates in the supplement market, it is prevented from making certain product claims even if the company feels those claims are justified. Consumers, however, can speak freely in reviews, which means they can discuss benefits that GNC cannot, James says.

Step #4. Continue the conversation

The team does not consider this effort a one-off campaign. After sending samples, the team monitors for online mentions of its products and periodically sends content or asks the audience for feedback and opinions.

The niche groups have also been a valuable source of product and marketing information. The team sends samples of new products and flavors to get the influencer's feedback before release. It also monitors conversations to understand the factors that prevent people from accomplishing their health and fitness goals.

"The community is a functional part of the marketing from the time the first bit of product rolls off the line. That is a pretty big shift," James says. "We can go to the teams internally and say 'look, we have people online talking about these pain points. This is a challenge. We need to address this. Here's what we think we should do.'"

"This is the influencer loop that a lot of brands know is out there and are trying really hard to tap into whether through their PR agencies or some other means. It took a couple of weeks and we were plugged in, and it was a great back-and-forth."

Steer the latest trends

GNC has catered to some niches for years, but new groups are always emerging. For example, chia seeds are a fast-growing health food in major cities, James says, and online communities are starting to pop up around the topic.

"We are rapidly responding with our merchandizing to provide several options for that, but how do you communicate that to your customers?"

Rather than waiting for online communities to develop, the team uses social listening tools to find:
  • Relevant conversations

  • Types of people talking about chia seeds online

  • Ways they're using them and why

  • What they're saying about preferences, etc.

Years ago, the team's strategy might have been to spend three months using this information to create a big-budget campaign with print and television ads. But James' team works faster.

"We reach out to these people. We can send them samples and get our name out. We can get some brand recognition within that micro-community and make sure they are not going to a mass outlet or grocery store to find this; that they are going to GNC, and oh, by the way, there are vitamins and supplements here as well."

Step #5. Track impact on sales

The team began this strategy in 2011 and results are still coming in, James says. Here are several ways the team monitors and tests the strategy's impact on sales:


Some trends emerge in specific regions. Chia seeds, for example, are primarily gaining traction in major cities, James says. By sending geo-targeted discounts to members of GNC's Facebook audience in these cities, and monitoring sales of chia-related products, the team is able to estimate a return on its efforts.

Product-group monitoring

By monitoring the sales figures for products promoted by the team, it can attribute some sales lifts to its efforts. Sometimes this is done for a specific product, other times it is for a small sub-category of products.


The team also sends coupon codes to some influencers to pass to their audiences. Although the codes always run the risk of going viral and undermining margins, this tactic helps the team track sales it has influenced through its work.

Useful links related to this article

  1. Blog review

  2. Video review

  3. Blog giveaway

  4. Forum review

  5. Twitter review

FTC's Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising - PDF document

Social Media Marketing: Analytics are free and plentiful, so use them - Discusses free social media measurement tools

Social Media Marketing: 4 tactics for finding and winning hyper-social consumers

Social Media Marketing: Cleveland Indians cater to influencers to increase sales 174%

Social Media Marketing: 8 tactics to measure and improve Facebook results

11 Most-Tweeted Posts of 2011: Social media marketing, copywriting, email testing and more

Radian6 - the team's social media measurement tool


Improve Your Marketing

Join our thousands of weekly case study readers.

Enter your email below to receive MarketingSherpa news, updates, and promotions:

Note: Already a subscriber? Want to add a subscription?
Click Here to Manage Subscriptions