Blog - Written by on Tuesday, August 25, 2009 12:19

Five Social Media Lessons Learned from Whole Foods

By Soren Gordhamer

As a company, Whole Foods has impressively embraced social media more than most, gathering over 1.2 million followers on Twitter and 123,000 fans on Facebook in the process. While it is easy to understand why a relatively young company or one started by a tech-savvy founder would so completely embrace social media communication tools, it is quite a bit more remarkable for an almost 30 year old established brick and mortar company with roughly 50,000 employees and over 270 stores worldwide to have done so.

I recently visited the Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, Texas to meet with members of their new media team, including Bill Tolany, the company’s Senior Coordinator of Integrated Media, and Winnie Hsia, who oversees the @wholefoods account. I wanted to know how Whole Foods integrated social media tools into their communications strategy, and what lessons had they learned from doing so. Below are five of the lessons that Whole Foods shared with me during our chat.

1. Make Content Increasingly Relevant
Whole Foods started initially with just the @wholefoods account but as it gathered followers, they realized it had limitations: while it was useful for news with national appeal, it was less so for sharing local information or addressing specific interests of customers. A percentage of their followers, for example, might be interested in an event happening at their New York City store or reviews of certain food items, but many others would not be interested.

To address this, they encouraged all their stores to start their own accounts and tweet about events at their store and news related to that local area. They also created separate accounts for specific issues, such as one for wine and one for cheese, where the head of those departments post and interact with customers. In fact, with over 150 company Twitter accounts and new ones added regularly, they likely have one of the largest corporate presences on Twitter. The goal with so many different accounts is to create increasingly relevant, and often local content.

2. Go Where Your Customers Are
When asked how they initially decided to use Twitter as a platform, which was pre-Oprah and before most other companies their size had done so, they emphasized that their goal has always been to interact with their customers no matter where those customers are. As Twitter gained momentum, they realized that a presence on it made sense, though they never foresaw that they would get over a million followers and how much staff time it would take to manage.

The conversation with customers, however, is essential to the company, whether it happens in person at a store or on a social network. Whole Foods, in fact, is active on numerous social media communication channels, not just Facebook and Twitter: they also have a Flickr page, an actively updated blog with videos on cooking healthy meals, and have employees responding on the customer feedback site Get Satisfaction. The goal is not just to pick one place and force customers to come to them, but to meet customers “on their home court,” wherever that may be.

3. Loosen Control from the Top
Likely the most difficult task for any large company when embracing social media is learning to let go of control. On one hand, most companies will want millions of followers on sites like Twitter, yet on the other hand, large corporations also tend to be cautious when taking risks. They’re unsure how much control they are willing to relinquish when it comes to governing how social media is used.

Whole Foods seems to really understand that such a top-down approach does not work in the age of social media. In fact, I was initially surprised that several people I interviewed while at the company headquarters that managed different corporate Whole Foods Twitter accounts used them quite differently from each other. Some, for example, shared personal information while others kept posts strictly to business. When I asked Tolany, who oversees the department, about it, he said that it did not surprise him at all. While they encourage some basic guidelines, Whole Foods has learned that for social media to work well, whoever is managing an account needs to be authentic, allow his or her personality to come through, and have fun in the process. If management tries to exercise too much control, the account will be less likely to succeed at engaging people.

4. Decide What Channel to Use for What Purpose
With a presence on so many social networks, Whole Foods tries to figure out how best to use each service. For example, they have found that for customer service, Twitter is much more effective than Facebook. On Twitter people can easily @reply a question and they can quickly respond. On the other hand, for “rich media,” including embedding videos or longer posts or responses, Facebook tends to be better. Likewise, for posting original content, their blog serves as the hub, allowing staff from various departments to share material. The company also created a nifty iPhone application with 2,000 searchable recipes and a store locator, which is a great platform for disseminating static information.

5. Let the Conversation Happen
My visit to the Whole Foods headquarter came at an interesting time. The previous week, Facebook, Twitter, and various blogs were ablaze with (mostly negative) comments in response to Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey’s, Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare.” We did not dive too much into the Mackey Op-Ed issue, but we did talk about whether having such a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter has allowed people to more easily express anger at them. During our conversation it became clear that Whole Foods realizes that people are going to talk about the company, both positively and negatively, whether they are have a presence on social networks or not. It is helpful, though, to know what people are saying and to be able to respond if necessary.

In fact, when Mackey responded to some of the criticism on his company blog, rather than turn off comments to the post, they encouraged people to express their feedback, and greater than 3,000 people did.

The central take away I got from my visit was the importance of engaging with one’s customers no matter where they spend time. When I asked Tolany and Hsia what advice they would give to companies thinking of using social media channels like Twitter, they seemed to both agree that the first task is to know if your customers (or the potential customers you want to engage) are present there. Then and only then does it make sense to invest time on a site.

I also got that part of what has motivated Whole Foods’ efforts in social media — and what can account for much of their success — is a willingness to be bold and take risks. Such boldness can of course have its dangers (such as when writing Op-Ed articles about delicate social issues) yet this has also helped them plow ahead in social media while other businesses their size waited cautiously in the background to see if it was “safe” or if these sites would gain in popularity.

Of course, any time a company opens up and has a presence on a communication channel like Facebook or Twitter, users can use those sites to criticize as much as to praise. Dealing with negative feedback, however, is better than not having a presence at all. I think Whole Foods is showing that the companies who keep such channels open, and listen to the unpleasant along with the pleasant feedback, will better know what matters to their customers and what company policies may need to change, which is likely to win them support in the end.

Whole Foods, like many other companies, is still finding its way in this age of social media, but they are showing that a non-technology company of their size can engage and innovate in this area.


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