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For those wondering whether anyone reads Twitter posts about their dog’s birthday, one of the world’s largest pet food companies, Nestlé Purina Pet Care, has its eyes and ears wide open.

Nestlé Purina Pet Care, like many companies grappling with how best to use online social networking sites to boost their brands, is taking a highly personal approach with its latest effort, called The Feed.

The Nestlé subsidiary, which is based in St. Louis, has had a presence on social media for several years, with multiple Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and LinkedIn sites offering information about the company and its products. It’s invested heavily in social media, including hiring a cat food “correspondent” for its Purina Cat Chow brand and signing an endorsement deal in September with the owner of Grumpy Cat, a feline with a pouting face who has a large Internet following.

But Nestlé Purina, whose brands include Beneful, Friskies and Mighty Dog, is ramping up its efforts to make a more personal, direct connection with dog and cat owners on Twitter. San Francisco-based Twitter, the microblog site that has grown to more than 232 million users globally, allows anyone to set up an account for free and post messages of 140 characters or less.

Nestlé Purina developed The Feed this summer in partnership with Deep Focus, a New York-based digital marketing agency.

The Feed’s employees — which number about a half dozen — reply to Twitter posts people make about their pets. Huddled in a room with more than a dozen computer monitors, a Feed staffer responds to a person’s tweet about their dog or cat with a personalized message using the Twitter handle Purina, which has more than 18,000 followers.

Since The Feed launched, Purina has sent more than 20,000 messages on Twitter to pet owners, and many of those messages are then shared again on other sites, including Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube.

For those birthday photos pet owners tweet? Nestlé Purina copies the pet’s photo and writes a personal birthday message before replying to the original poster.

Joel Lunenfeld, Twitter’s vice president of global strategy, said Nestlé Purina’s proactive, one-on-one approach resonated with Twitter users.

“Anything that’s really personal to people, really works well on Twitter,” Lunenfeld said. “A lot of brands are learning how to reply to people with customer service-based tweets. (The Feed) points to an evolution, and Purina is one of the leaders right now. They are pointing to not just an evolution on Twitter, but where marketing is going.”

A challenge that companies face on social media is how to avoid making their messages too promotional or invading too far into people’s personal spaces.

“You don’t want to be overly promotional, because that’s not going to work,” said Perry Drake, an assistant professor of digital and social media marketing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ College of Business Administration. “I think there is a risk if brands don’t do this artfully, it could come across as a little invasive. Purina is doing it playfully and being careful with how they’re doing it.”

After a Twitter user posted a message about studying with their pet this week that included a photo of their dog, a Nestlé Purina Feed team member copied the photo and wrote the message “It’s time for a study break” on the photo, with a link to games the pet owner could play on a break with their dog. Within minutes, the Twitter user retweeted Purina’s message to her more than 500 followers.

The Feed also responds with links to information on caring for newly adopted pets, pet nutrition and other topics. Its response time to a tweet is typically within two hours after the original tweet was posted. That gives its photographers and videographers time to take photos and videos of employees and pets at Nestlé Purina’s campus south of downtown that can be tweeted.

That immediacy is important, said Lunenfeld, especially when 76 percent of Twitter users are accessing their accounts on their mobile devices. “It’s about what’s happening right now,” Lunenfeld said.

This summer, thousands of pet owners went to Twitter to post messages about their dog’s or cat’s fear of fireworks, and Purina seized on the opportunity to provide links to those tweets with information about ways to calm their animals.

“As we started to see all these comments, we knew that it was an issue that people were having and Purina could help,” said Nestlé Purina’s senior brand manager Michael Kotick.

The Feed is a more effective approach than merely tweeting generic corporate messages, Kotick said.

“Companies can find themselves isolated within their four walls, and Purina is not interested in doing that,” he said. “Real-time social media allows us the opportunity to understand what people are thinking.”

Purina’s approach is a more advanced use of social media than many companies’, UMSL’s Drake said.

“Some companies are using Twitter more for customer servicing,” such as airlines’ replying to complaints about late flights and lost luggage, he said. “Purina is on the cutting edge, and this is the progression of where things are definitely heading today.”

Each month, Twitter estimates there are about 1.7 million tweets related to pets. Through its software that identifies relevant tweets, The Feed’s team members read 5,000 tweets a day and respond to about 1,000 a week.

Most companies have a response rate on social media of less than 10 percent for their brands — which are the messages they produce that are retweeted or commented on, Kotick said. Purina’s response rate using The Feed is more than 80 percent.

The company has found that its engagement scores — a gauge of how often tweets are retweeted or designated as a “favorite” by Twitter users — are improving, and it’s evaluating ways it can expand The Feed for specific brands.

“We are currently evaluating ways we can grow The Feed and integrate it with our pet food brands,” said Nestlé Purina chief marketing officer Steve Crimmins. “The Feed is a unique and innovative approach for us, and one that we are very excited about. This approach enables us to connect with pet owners in a personal and meaningful way centered on our shared passion for pets, life with pets and all the great moments that come along with them.”

The picture shows Associate manager of social media communications Rex Oberle, left, with Nestlé Purina Pet Care's social media effort The Feed, and senior manager of social media communications Patricia Lee monitor Twitter on Dec. 11 in St. Louis. (Stephanie S. Cordle/MCT)

By Lisa Brown, McClatchy-Tribune