CEO Glenn Engler, host of the Market Edge podcast, talks about “Social Media for Food Retailers” with Natanya Anderson, Senior Social Media Program Manager at Whole Foods Market, the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods.
Listen to Glenn’s discussion with Natanya Anderson, first aired on WebmasterRadio.fm on July 24, 2012.
Connect with Natanya Anderson on Twitter @natanyap or check out her blogs: Natanya writes about cooking and entertaining at Fete & Feast (feteandfeast.com) and the joy of being an epicurean in Austin at the Austin Food Lovers’ Companion (austinfoodlovers.com).
Transcription of Complete Interview:
Please note: the below text is a transcript of a live feed so it may not be perfect word-for-word. As an alternative to the text, you can tune in to the audio version of Glenn’s discussion with Natanya Anderson!
Glenn E: Hi and welcome to Market Edge. I’m your host Glenn Engler, CEO of Digital Influence Group a full service digital marketing agency that helps companies unlock the social potential of their brands and amplify its impact to drive business results.
Today I’ll be talking about social media for food retailers with Natanya Anderson senior social media program manager at Whole Foods Market the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods. Natanya has been working with social and new media for over a decade with a focus on both strategy and execution helping organizations across a wide spectrum change the way they engage and communicate with their customers and other constituents. She has also built a focused practice in the development and delivery of social content programs. In addition to heading up social media for Whole Foods Natanya is also the president of the Austin Food Bloggers Alliance a non-profit organization established to promote blogger philanthropy and education.
An avid food blogger Natanya blends her passion for food and entertaining with her intense interest in social media and as a result is able to provide an in-the-trenches view of social to help the Whole Foods social media strategy and operations. Natanya writes about cooking and entertaining at FeteAndFeast.com and the joy of being an epicurean in Austin at the Austin Food Lover’s companion at AustinFoodLover.com. You can connect with Natanya at Twitter at Twitter.com/NatanyaP.
It’s great to have you on Market Edge Natanya. Welcome.
Natanya A: Thank you for having me.
Glenn E: Let’s start for those that are not familiar with Whole Foods or may only know a part of the story, can you give a real quick background of Whole Foods Market?
Natanya A: Sure, Whole Foods Market started here in Austin Texas where I am based in a very small single store that suddenly today is a record store, a used record store. Its fans drive by it on a regular basis, seeing where we are just a few blocks down the street and has grown into as you said the largest retailer of natural foods and we have presence all over the United States and Canada as well as in the UK. We’re really here just to serve those that want to have natural and organic foods in a way that’s easy and also focused on their food passions and their life-style passions.
Glenn E: So who knew? A used record store. What a great story. One of the things that’s great about Whole Foods Market is the brand personality. Can you talk a little bit about that personality and how it comes to life in the channels that you’re running?
Natanya A: The key to brand personality here at Whole Food is the team members. Everything about the organization is centered around the team members and our engagement with customers. We are passionate about food and passionate about our communities here. That’s really what we try to manifest in social media. We try to say what are the things that our customers are looking to us for when they enter the store and that’s typically being helpful and passionate and knowledgeable and being customer centric. We try to emulate that in social because it’s what’s made the organization successful in the first place. Our goal is just to take what we know works with our customers in the stores and have it manifest itself online.
Glenn E: So given everything that you’re doing and involved in which is an incredible amount describe to listeners what’s the day in the life of the head of social media for Whole Foods Market if there is such a thing.
Natanya A: It changes on an almost daily basis but much like other folks who are working on social media in enterprise organizations it is a mixed bag. We look not only at what’s happening with strategy and overall program execution but then at the same time we have to look at how are we going to scale social in our organization from a customer service perspective and an engagement perspective.
I have to deal daily with things like we lost our Twitter credentials or we’ve had a customer interaction that we’re not really sure how we’re going to answer. Of course because we have so many folks creating social media on behalf of our organization at the stores all around the country a big piece of my job is supporting them in their success because once again it comes back to being all about the team members and how they engage with customers. So it’s kind of all over the map but that makes it fun.
Glenn E: You occasionally sleep I assume.
Natanya A: Ahh sometimes.
Glenn E: Overrated I’m told.
Natanya A: Absolutely.
Glenn E: You have a really neat interesting background prior to coming to Whole Foods. You worked at Doctor’s Group and Empowered and Dell; just curious you had an experience, what was it like, how do you integrate into your experiences and executive creative director and head of community and content strategy, how do you pull those skills together if you will to employ them on behalf of Whole Foods?
Natanya A: The thing about social is that it’s really a multi-disciplinary job right now because it’s not like it’s just marketing. Social works across the enterprise and all of the players so because I have a little bit of a jack of all trades background I have a diverse set of skills that I can bring to the table. So when I am reviewing creative from an agency for a Facebook execution my experience as a creative director plays well for me there. Once upon a time I was a middle school teacher and I’m actually a certified educator so when I’m thinking about how I’m going to…
Natanya A: Yeah I know, in Latin. I have a degree in a dead language yet I work in social media. But because I was a, have a liberal arts degree and as a teacher those things come into bear when I’m thinking about how are we going to train up all of the people who are creating social on behalf of our brand. Then certainly the experience that I have in content and community I think is the most critical because for us social is about content, so I’m able to bring some of those skills to bear as well as the community management and engagement piece. I think I’m lucky that I’ve sort of had a little bit of a meandering path because it serves me very well right now in social. It helps me as social evolves. I can just say okay what skill do I have that I can bring to this particular evolution.
Glenn E: So if you could be a middle school teacher of if I would call it 12 to 14 year olds in that wonderfully awkward time you can not only manage people but manage senior executives as well with phenomenal skills, but we’ll leave it at that.
You just keyed up the whole area of content. Talk a little bit about Whole Foods thinks about content and other types of you know what types of content pop that seems to be most effective?
Natanya A: Given that we are a food retailer it’s probably not surprising to hear that things like recipes and guides are some of our best content. But we also have a very amazing blog that we post to several times a day where we can really provide information not only about the food but our local partners who create the food, who create the food. The folks who are really behind the food.
One of the things about Whole Foods and our customers is it’s not just about here let me pick up a tomato but I want to understand who grew the tomato, I want to understand the circumstances under which the tomato was grown so we have a lot of content that provides transparency for our customers and they really appreciate it because it’s a value alignment for us where we all say it’s important that we all understand where our food came from and how it was created. So in addition to the very practical how to content that comes about this really great food, now what or I want to expand my food horizons who do I do that, there is that let’s learn more about the food and the providers of the food.
It’s really sort of an across the spectrum for us but we’re very focused on, once again it’s that customer service piece. What do our customers need to know to be comfortable either shopping in our stores or going home and preparing and enjoying what it is that they bought in our stores. We really try to serve that need primarily.
Glenn E: Makes perfect sense given that they are coming to you for natural and organic foods that they’re going to want to know the story behind the food as opposed to as you said, okay cool I’ve got to go get three or four tomatoes. That obviously is a very important reason why they’re coming into the stores.
Given that it’s food what are some of the challenges around content that you have faced given that you’re in a food retail business?
Natanya A: I think there’s a couple of things. Food is a very high passion point for people and in some ways food has become sadly a polarizing topic in our world these days. Oftentimes if we post about a particular kind of food if people have polarized opinions about the food sometimes our content will generate conversations that devolves a little bit, so we have to be smart about how we post food. Even when we post about our five step meat that is some of the best meat that you can buy with animals in some of the absolute best situations; there are people who feel very strongly about the consumption of meat in general regardless of how the meat was raised. What happens we post something about here’s a really great steak recipe and it can bring out some dissenting opinion, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop posting about that.
It just becomes how do we understand where those polarization points are and how do you manage that. That’s one of the biggest challenges is just understanding the passion that comes with food and responding to it. Additionally there’s just a lot of competition in the food space.
Glenn E: It’s really interesting about the polarizing point I hadn’t really thought about it that way but it makes sense. One, people are passionate especially from very extreme points of view that will certainly fuel that back and forth debate, some of which I am sure is healthy and some of which is not so much.
The other part and we’ve certainly seen this in food and beverage and other regulated industries or parts of regulation if you will nutritional value, how does your legal group engage with your world?
Natanya A: We’re really lucky here because we have some incredible partners in legal who are very forward thinking and are really seeking to be our partners. They are not seeking to control and manage but they come to the table and say how can we best meet the needs of our customers. I think it’s once again that everyone here is so hyper focused on the customer; like how can we meet the needs of the customer while still doing what we need to do to mitigate risk and take care of the organization. They are really proactive in here’s an issue that might be coming up, how can we work together to address it. I think that they do a really fantastic job of picking their battles, because quite frankly the conversation’s going to happen whether we want it to or not. I think they’ve come to understand that by joining the conversation and being part of it it actually sets us up better for success than maybe being so risk adverse that we let the conversation go on without us.
Having talked to others of my peers I’ve come to really appreciate how lucky I am in the partners that I have in our legal teams.
Glenn E: That’s really interesting the fact that you’ve got undoubtedly while they’re sitting in legal, they’re also undoubtedly foodies or passionate about the content and that’s probably gets a little more balance, perspective.
Natanya A: Absolutely.
Glenn E: The other thing I would have to expect they’ve done, our experience with different companies is that the whole idea of joining the conversation starts at the very top of the executive levels. Is that right in terms of your watching senior executives thinking and understanding the conversations and that customer interaction as being critical?
Natanya A: Absolutely. We, at our highest levels they understand that social is what’s happening, and it’s not just social but that media and conversation is evolving and so because they get it it gives us a little bit of running room to say okay you get it now let’s find a way to worry about the details. That’s really my job. They get to get it; I get to figure out what that means.
We’re lucky because also at the regional level where so much happens in our organization the leadership gets it there as well. So by having that top down support it definitely makes my job a lot easier when it comes to even justifying why we’re doing this in the first place.
Glenn E: That’s great and to your point earlier that is, that is unique based on some other experiences that we’ve certainly heard. So I want to follow up with another question but we’re going to take a really short commercial break right now. Please stand by and I’ll be right back with Natanya Anderson and more of the conversation.
Glenn E: Welcome back to Market Edge. This is your host Glen Engler and I’m here today with Natanya Anderson senior social media program manager at Whole Foods Market talking about social media for food retailers.
One of the things we were just talking about was you mentioned a couple of times the connection to the stores and the regions. I think from what I can tell you have a pretty unique model about how the individual stores and regions are encouraged to create and engage their own social media presences if you will and respond to local customer comments. Can you talk a little bit about how that is structured, how it works, just give a little more color commentary if you would.
Natanya A: Absolutely and I sort of joke a little bit that Whole Foods social media presence grew organically. This wasn’t something that we planned but …
Glenn E: Ba da bum.
Natanya A: Yeah, exactly, but it’s true. I’ve tried to find other words and just decided that I would go with other words, because it fits right. It’s a reflection of the organization because here at Whole Foods it’s an exceptionally entrepreneurial organization but also ultimately the customer experience happens at the local store level and that’s where the empowerment to make the store successful lives. These stores have marketers that are responsible for how do we market our store and its uniqueness. The company celebrates that uniqueness.
At some point when I had first started with the organization I visited four stores in Dallas that could not have been more different even though it’s the same brand in the same city, because they were essentially reflecting what was happening at the market level. In many ways Whole Foods’ approach to a hyper local transparent and authentic social presence is just a reflection of the brand. In fact it’s one of the reasons why I took the job because that’s the hard part is to get local and get real and Whole Foods is local and real. We have about, give or take a few, 600 social media presences on behalf of Whole Foods and our estimate today is that there are about 2000 people creating social media content on behalf of the brand every day. That is with that goal in mind of reflecting the local feel of the organization, and it’s working.
Glenn E: So how do you or do you … are there guidelines, is there a training session that goes on. How do you allow that incredibly powerful local flavor to come to life but at the same time make sure that it ladders up to a Whole Foods value proposition?
Natanya A: We piggyback off of the training and the tools that the folks how are creating social media already have in place because they are the same people who are working with local media and promoting their store locally. From a brand communication perspective that’s part of their job already.
Glenn E: Yes. Absolutely.
Natanya A: I don’t have to teach them that because that’s what they do every day. My focus instead is how can I empower them with best practices in social media and overall helping them understand how to make the most of the channels. I will say that this has been a recent focus since I got here and something that we work on almost every day. Training at scale of the likes of which you see at places like Dell is a resource and dollar intensive activity, so we continue to roll it out in baby steps. We recently started a bi-weekly webinar series where people can come and we talk about everything from social medial 101 to best practices in content and crisis management. We record all of that so it’s available. We have a roadmap of tools that we’re going to be crating and then the other thing that we are going to be doing is we just go out to the regions and spend time with the people who are feet on the street.
I went to Chicago a couple of weeks ago and met with the entire Midwest region. I gave them my cell phone number and I said if you have an issue you should call or you should text me. Because there is just that what are they running into every day? What are their needs, that then ladder back up to how can I address this at a global level? It’s definitely a work in progress for us and a key focus of my team is just that internal customer support because that’s what turned into external customer support and customer engagement.
Glenn E: Continuing on that line, it’s really interesting. There was a recent article that I think mentioned something like Whole Foods community managers estimating that about 10% of the posts are content based, 5% promotions and 85% are responsive to customer comments. I don’t know if that’s the right balance but clearly given everything that you said the incredible level of engagement with the customers. Without giving away trade secrets, how do you monitor and listen and engage with customers and how do you know when to sense and respond to participate or not or handle it in different areas?
Natanya A: We have dedicated community managers at the national level which I think is very important that we recognize that this is not a part of somebody’s job, particularly at the national level. If you look at them the majority of these customer service requests a lot of them come to at Whole Foods on our national Whole Foods Facebook page because that’s where we have critical mass. So there’s an understanding that this is somebody’s job and it’s not an intern. It’s folks who have extensive experience with the brand. My lead community manager previously worked in the stores. He was a store marketer so he has all of that training of how you work with customers. We rely on that experience to really help guide, when do you respond, how do you respond, when do you kick it to the customer support team.
All of that being said, we are looking at a social media at scale model and it’s a focus for me right now because he has to sleep sometimes although he and I sort of together agree that it’s kind of overrated.
Glenn E: I sense a pattern here that on here.
Natanya A: And occasionally he wants to go on vacation and I’m like wait, what?
Glenn E: Shocking.
Natanya A: We’re … I’m like … but so we have to … we are looking at scale in terms of how do you begin to tier, what are frequently asked questions and how do we address those in a way that’s still personalized but at the same time can be scaled a little bit more and then quite frankly we have experts all over this organization who can talk with detailed expertise about some things so what I … my approach is that my team doesn’t have to know the answer to every question they just know how to get the answer to every question.
Glenn E: Interesting.
Natanya A: So that’s kind of the approach that we’re also taking is when do you go to an expert to get the answer because we have them.
Glenn E: Any good examples come to mind where there’s been a change in a store or a practice that has surfaced from a customer feedback?
Natanya A: I think we see those in little ways every day. Oftentimes we will hear from customers, I wish that you carried this specific product. We will send that to that store and say hey you might want to get in touch with this customer because this is someone who you know is going to buy this product. People are often more willing to say something to us in social than to actually say something to the store. I think we see it a lot in impacting or at least informing what it is that the stores choose to carry. Certainly it impacts the kind of engagement and content that we serve up every day. When we say to our customers what do you want to know more about it actually impacts what we publish in our social channels? So we see it in big and small ways particularly as we are able to rely information to the stores.
Glenn E: Right, right, really interesting. So as we’re coming close towards the end a couple of last questions. One is you’ve been doing this social media thing for a while and are clearly a leader in the space. Any tips, what tips could you give brands or listeners about they’re trying to find new ways to connect with their customers via social media?
Natanya A: I know this is going to sound almost antiquated but just based on what I see in social media every day I always feel compelled to say it which is it’s not about you. Some of the best ways to find new ways to engage with your customers is to find out what they want first and make it about them. I think a really good example of the need to change the attitude is Pinterest.
We have a really significant Pinterest presence right now and we have internal rules about for about every one Pin of our own content or our own information we try to pin between five and seven other pins of other people’s information. Because our customers just don’t to hear about us all of the time. They’re trusting us to be a curator. Then I look and see all these brands that have jumped into Pinterest and all they’re doing is pinning their own information, like it just continues to be the brand saying me, me, me. So the best ways to find new ways is to ask your customers, what do you need. I would love to just see more of that because the answers they give you are fascinating, and you’re sometimes surprised by what they want to know more of. So I think that that’s the best way to find new ways is to ask your customers what they want and to actually take it seriously and to actually be able to act on it.
Glenn E: You know it’s really … first of all not only refreshing to hear you say that, could not agree more but we’re certainly seeing a lot as we spend time with our client CMOs or other CMOs that it’s a pretty gnarly sandbox out there of the world of social media and it’s confusing. Sometimes a lot of people are in all of the weeds and the details. Kind of like you’re pointing at is look there’s a lot of different tools and tactics and other stuff. It really starts with the customer. This is not a channel to slap your 30 second TV spot on and say oh cool we’ve got a Facebook presence. It’s just really interesting to keep coming back to it’s not about you. I love that.
Natanya A: Yes, yes. It’s a philosophy that I think if people would stop and take a step back and say do we need to shift our overarching philosophy and sometimes that’s about corporate culture right? I think that sometimes people want to do that but they’re faced with other pressures inside of the organization so I know it’s not as simple as making that change but it’s something I would love to see more people work towards.
Glenn E: I think you’re exactly right. All right so just before I let you go one of the things I like to do at the end of these interviews is we do a quick like speed round where I throw out a technology or something going on there and just ask you for a quick off the top of your head short word or answer your impression of this. No right or wrong answer, just see where it is.
So actually I’m going to start with one that you just mentioned which you hit a little bit but, Pinterest.
Natanya A: Great opportunity for curation. Maybe overrun by brands before it gets aplics.
Glenn E: That’s really interesting. How about Groupon or Daily Deals like a living social.
Natanya A: Potentially detrimental to small businesses treat them with care.
Glenn E: Yeah there’s a real theme popping around that one. Interesting. Last one just for giggles. QR Codes
Natanya A: When Smartphones have a QR Code reader built in we can revisit them.
Glenn E: Really, really interesting. There is something about oop download, oop stop this, oop do stuff. It’s a when … also location, there was a huge bus going by with the QR code on the side so if I wanted to scan that I would potentially die in traffic.
Natanya A: Those are my favorite, it’s like please scan this billboard, and I’m like um…
Glenn E: Yes, how do I get there? Absolutely. All right I want to thank you Natanya so much for being guest today and thanks to everyone in the audience for listening go today’s conversation.
If you have any questions or would like to talk further about the topic of today’s show feel free to connect with me on Twitter at Twitter.com/GlennEngler or on my blog at www.glennengler.com. Visit www.WebMasterRadio.fm at 12:00 noon Eastern time on Tuesdays to tune in to episodes of Market Edge. For Market Edge this is Glenn Engler. Until next time I’m out.