Reaching Millions With Twitter: The Whole Foods Story

social media interviews

Have you ever wondered how a business handles more than a million Twitter fans? Want the inside scoop from the largest retailer on Twitter?

Even if you’re a small business, there’s some great insight to be gained from Marla Erwin, Interactive Art Director for Whole Foods Market. Marla was instrumental in creating Whole Foods’ acclaimed social media program and the results have been phenomenal! For example, in the first year, Twitter.com/Wholefoods gained a million Twitter followers. It has now surpassed 1.75 million people.

If you’re not familiar with Whole Foods, it’s the leading natural and organic food store in the world with nearly 300 locations in North America and the United Kingdom.

Whole Foods Market is the most popular retailer on Twitter and is a leading example of Twitter’s power to build millions of relationships a single customer at a time.  Here are key excerpts from our interview (you can listen to the entire exchange at the end of this article).

Marla Erwin, Whole Foods Market

Mike: Marla, what was the tipping point that got Whole Foods to say, “We need to get involved with the social media thing?

Marla: As far as timing, mainly it was there. Twitter was getting big. It hadn’t really broken out into the mainstream – full of celebrities and a lot of new sources just yet.

But when we hooked up with it about a year and a half ago, it was clearly going to break out and we thought, “We had better get on this. It’s where people are.”

As someone said at a conference I recently attended, “You want to fish where the fish are.” We realized this is where our customers were going to be.

Mike: What were you hoping to achieve in the beginning?

Marla: We wanted to just connect with people. It’s very easy for people on the outside of a company or an organization to see you as a monolith. You’re a corporate entity or you’re a building or you’re a logo or you’re this giant chain of stores, when really we’re a whole bunch of laid-back people with pretty idealistic visions of what we want to do.

It was a good way for us to communicate that and also to let people know some things about us that maybe they didn’t realize; for example, the philanthropic mission of Whole Foods in terms of our Whole Trade programs and our Local Producer Loan programs and so on.

I feel like social media is falling into buckets right now where people are using it for sales and marketing, people are using it for customer service, or people are using it to establish a corporate personality and corporate culture. We’re trying to do a lot of these things, and depending on the venue, one medium might have a greater percentage of one of those than the other, but they all balance out in the end.

The first thing that we did, even before we got on Twitter or Facebook, was just to incorporate some user-generated content on our website – recipe reviews, product ratings and so on, and comments on our blog.

Mike: How do people get to your blog?

Marla: It’s Blog.WholeFoodsMarket.com. Or if you’re on our main website, just look for links to our blog, which is called “Whole Story.”

The blog has a lot of editorial content, everything from articles on how to conserve and recycle to cooking tips and profiles of some of our local producers.

After the website and the blog, we started with Facebook and Twitter. Facebook is very similar to our blog in that we have a lot of editorial content. It’s a little bit more conversational. We invite engagement more. We ask people, “What do you think?” or “What are some of your ideas?” We try to get more of a conversation going.

On Facebook, unlike Twitter, everyone can see each other’s comments, so it becomes much more of a group conversation.

Twitter we use primarily as a customer service tool. We do promote our blog content and we may mention, “We’re having specials for the holidays,” and that sort of thing. But our number-one focus on Twitter is customer service.

Probably 90% of our output on Twitter, if you go to Twitter.com/wholefoods, is directly responding to people who have questions. They’ll ask us, “Can I get this at my local store?” or “What are your holiday hours going to be?” or “Can you tell me a gluten-free alternative to cornbread stuffing?”

Whole Foods has more than 1.7 million followers on Twitter.

Mike: I understand that you have over 150 different Twitter accounts. Can you give me the rationale for having so many different accounts and maybe how you use the different Twitter accounts?

Marla: We started out first with our global account Twitter.com/wholefoods. For about a year, that was all we had.

Then we thought, “It might be neat to niche a couple of accounts.” So we have an account for cheese. It’s called Twitter.com/WFMcheese. That’s our cheese expert who has a quadruple PhD in cheese. She’s one of the world’s leading cheese experts. It’s a terrific niche account.

We also have a wine account and an automated account for recipes.  So that’s four accounts. The rest, the 150 plus, are our local stores.

Mike: For businesses that might have stores or chains, what kind of oversight do you have or recommend? Is it typically done by an employee, a manager of the store, or a cashier? Or is it somebody special who’s not actually working at the store?

Marla: The first thing we found is that not every store has someone who’s really familiar with social media or with Twitter specifically. So we did provide some guidance to these folks in the form of a very, very casual document that was part tutorial: “What’s the difference between an @reply and a direct message?” It was also part guidelines: “Here are some things you shouldn’t do and here are some things you should do.”

For the most part, we’ve pretty much let them run with it. A tight control from a corporate level would be exactly the opposite of what we were trying to achieve, which was to decentralize the responses.

I definitely think that people who tweet on behalf of an organization need to be in it. If you can find the wonderful combination of someone who really knows your business and really knows social media, then that’s the person to use, even if they’re in the meat department or they’re a cashier.

Mike: I want to talk about your master account, your main Twitter.com/wholefoods account.  A lot of the social media pundits out there say that you need to have a physical face behind a brand. I know Whole Foods has not done that. Why did you choose not to put a face behind the Whole Foods Twitter account? What are your feelings and rationale about whether you should have a face behind the brand?

Marla: That was a conscious decision, definitely. We considered both sides of that question and I do see both perspectives. When I was trying to articulate our thinking on this, it fell into a natural ABC thing, which is “authority, boundaries and continuity.”

Authority, to me, just means that it is very clearly a corporate account. With the verified accounts now, this is less of an issue. But we wanted to make sure that it was very clearly the official voice of the company and not one person’s opinion.

Boundaries just means that if you keep your personal account and your professional account separate, go ahead and talk about whatever you want in your personal account. Talk about your favorite football team and talk about where you took the kids for dinner.

Then there’s continuity. When we first started our Twitter account, there were three people in on the account. We would all sort of jump in and tweet or take turns or handle different areas of it.

Now we’ve got one person, Winnie Hsai, who has really stepped up to the plate to manage our social media presence. She does most of our tweeting. If she were to win the lottery tomorrow and leave us, we wouldn’t have to worry about introducing a new person. It would still be the Whole Foods account. There wouldn’t be that sort of jarring disconnect.

Finally, another one that is important to me because I’m a designer is a distinctiveness to having a logo in your account. For example, Frank Eliason at comcastcares is definitely one of the trailblazers of customer service on Twitter. Yet when I’m scanning my Twitter feed, he looks like 10 other guys that I follow.

But when I see Starbucks, instead of seeing Brad Nelson’s face, I see the Starbucks logo and that jumps out at me. I like that distinctiveness of having our branding there.

Mike: Do you think if you were a smaller retailer that you might give the same advice to your peers who are really small?

Marla: That’s a very good question. I’m glad you asked that because I do see a lot of benefit in small businesses having a more personal face.

There is a local dog grooming place that I follow. I’m going to take my dog there because I like the individual I’m corresponding with. I feel that personal connection and I think, “Yes, I’m going to bring my business to you because we’ve talked.”

I think for a small business the rules would probably be quite different than for a large company.

Mike: Let’s talk about Facebook a little bit. How are you using Facebook? How are you using it differently than Twitter? If Twitter is predominantly for support, what is Facebook for?

Marla: Facebook is a really good extension of what we’re trying to do with our blog, which is to promote more of our editorial content. Because so many of our stores have Facebook accounts as well, it allows us to do more local promotions.

But on our global account, we exploit its strengths and weaknesses as opposed to Twitter’s immediacy in one-to-one. We are able to expand a little bit more in Facebook. We can have longer posts, we can post photos, and we can post videos.

The tradeoff is that Facebook is somewhat more passive. People come to you. People will subscribe to your feed on Facebook, but it tends to get lost more, I think, than on Twitter. That’s just my personal experience.

There is also that community aspect where people can respond, not only to us, but to each other, which, because of the way @replies work on Twitter now, has fallen off quite a lot, but is still quite strong in Facebook.

Whole Foods has more than 175,000 Facebook fans.

Mike: Have most of the folks who have discovered you on Facebook and Twitter discovered you through the good old-fashioned viral nature of the two networks?

Marla: I believe so and I think there’s an awful lot of dissemination from the global account.

On our website, wherever we had a link saying we’re on Twitter, we used to send people out to Twitter.com/wholefoods. We realized we were doing that wrong. What we needed to do and what we have done is built out a page at WholeFoods.com/twitter. On that page, we list all the different accounts we have so people can see, “Oh look. There’s not just this global account. There’s also an account for wine, which I would be interested in, and there’s also an account for my local store, which I would be interested in.”

Because Whole Foods has 150 Twitter accounts, it created a page on its main website to help customers determine which accounts to follow.

Mike: I understand that you also have an iPhone app. Can you tell me a little bit about what it does and how it has helped you?

Marla: It’s called Whole Foods Market Recipe and it’s primarily a recipe search app. We have a database of recipes and the iPhone app lets you search those recipes and then not only search by ingredients, but also filter by special diets such as ” vegan recipes” or “gluten-free recipes.”

It also has a store locater. When you find the store nearest you, which you can do either by the automatic GPS location or by typing in a zip code, it takes you out to the page for that store. From there, that page links out to the Facebook account if they have one and the Twitter account if they have one as well.

Mike: Let’s talk a little bit about the future. What do you see happening from a social media perspective down the road?

Marla: I think the same thing will happen with social media that has happened with everything else. They will begin to consolidate and to align quite a bit more than they are now.

Social media has taught companies an enormous lesson about breaking down walls. But the applications themselves don’t seem to have learned that. They’re going to have to learn to be more open and transparent.

Twitter is especially interesting to me right now in that it’s being driven in two directions simultaneously. The individual users are driving it from the bottom up and Twitter, working very hard on its business model, is trying to drive it from the top down in some directions that will be more attractive to businesses.

Mike: What is on the horizon for Whole Foods as far as social media? Is there anything that you are working on that you could share with us?

Marla: We actually, for the size that we are, have a really tiny social media program right now and I would love to see that expand.

As new apps come along, for example, we’re looking at some of these location apps and trying to figure out how we can participate in some of those. We’ll definitely expand our presence as much as we can.

Mike: Thank you so much, Marla. If folks want to learn more about what you’re doing or more about Whole Foods, what sites would you recommend they go to?

Marla: WholeFoodsMarket.com is our primary website. On the top of every page, you will find links to our Twitter and Facebook pages as well as to our blog. Those are WholeFoodsMarket.com/Twitter, WholeFoodsMarket.com/Facebook, and also our blog at Blog.WholeFoodsMarket.com.

Mike: Thank you so much for all this great information. It was very, very insightful.

Marla: Thank you, Mike. I really appreciate it.

Listen to the rest of this interview (below) and learn a lot more about how Whole Foods sets up and manages its social media efforts.

What do you think about Whole Foods’ social media programs? Do you shop Whole Foods and have you engaged them online?  Leave your comments below.

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About the Author, Michael Stelzner

Michael Stelzner is the founder and CEO of Social Media Examiner, founder of My Kids' Adventures and author of the books Launch and Writing White Papers. He's also the host of the Social Media Marketing podcast. Other posts by »




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  • http://warrenwhitlock.com/social-media-expert Warren Whitlock

    Excellent example of “Listen and Love” from Whole Foods

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/ Michael A. Stelzner

    Thanks Warren!

  • http://richardmclaughlin.biz/ McLaughlin

    It’s good to see recent examples of how a company uses Twitter. I read a lot of comments on LinkedIn that “Twitter is not right for me” from people that have never tried using the tool. Makes me think about someone who does not like Green Eggs and Ham.

  • http://dlvr.it/ Bill Flitter

    I recently had a discussion with @directv on scalability of twitter customer care. How will it scale internally when you have millions of customers using it as a customer service channel? Do you add more bodies? Michael, what’s your opinion?

  • http://richardmclaughlin.biz/ McLaughlin

    I built call centers for some fortune 500 companies Bill, and as long as there is a way to track each open request (easy in Twitter) you just need to have warm bodies to reply. Like Whole Foods it is a good idea to segment the market into your biggest sections (wine and cheese) but other than that the question is only about fielding the support requests and sending them to one area and purchase request to another (or whatever your categories are).

  • http://dlvr.it/ Bill Flitter

    Thanks for the information. Does Twitter change the volume of customer service help – one because it is so easy to do, I don’t have to wait on hold. Especially if I have a complaint. I can just pop-off on Twitter. How do you distinguish signal from noise? Or don’t you?

  • CityFitted

    Great stuff, I love Whole Foods. Another thing that helps them is all the Oprah products that have gone to Whole Foods, and the Media coverage of Whole Foods I think. -Gary, http://www.CityFitted.com

  • http://www.healthymarketingideas.com/ Sarah Clachar

    Great interview and very timely. As a copywriter who represents people and their businesses in many formats, including twitter, I’ve been pondering this a bit. How transparent does the writer have to be? Will people take offense if they find that the tweets were created by a copywriter. For example, if many of your customers are women, would it be a problem if you tweeted with a distinctively female perspective even if the business owner is a man? You can see some of my musings at my blog post at http://www.healthymarketingideas.com/lies!

    It’s good to see examples where corporate accounts work – but clearly small businesses have advantage in the personal touch. Question is – do you undermine this by having someone post for you?

    And thank you for the ideas on segmentation!

  • jannc01

    I go to Whole Foods all the time. Even when on business or on vacation. I have been to their website primarily to find locations where I’m going or have traveled to and need something. I’m excited about the iPhone app because it means I don’t have to go to a computer to find a Whole Foods.

  • JohnBergdoll

    Thanks for the interview. I recently discovered Whole Foods on Twitter and I think they are great example.
    Twitter @JohnBergdoll

  • http://richardmclaughlin.biz/ McLaughlin

    Any new way of contacting support changes the volume of customer touches. When email contact came into one call center we had people that would scan emails and reply with a link or a PDF, and the sig line said if the reply did not answer the question then the client should call. A lot of simple things were answered by email, but not all.
    Add in the ability to press a button and someone calls you back or uses an instant messenger and you increase volume and again you only remove the easy questions.
    When I was working on one call center and IBM was a third party I needed to replicate their SQL database across untrusted domains. At the time it could not be done and a question like that could not be handled by Twitter. (Readers, raise your hand if you even know what “replicate SQL database across untrusted domains” means).
    If you are dealing with a complaint you just have to make sure that there is a process in place to deal with it. If you get a tweet ‘your company sucks’ it is a complaint, but maybe not worth following up with the client. On the other hand, who am I to judge if the client has a legit complaint or not, maybe your company does suck and they have the solution for you. (not your company Bill, the company that receives the Tweet).
    A process for everything, that is the only way to answer your question. Someone has to have the authority to ignore the noise, which you would have, or decide that the client is a paying customer that deserves and immediate reply.
    I would make a list of known clients and support those request first. When a client fills in details at purchase time, include a line to get their Twitter ID and tell everyone else that it is first come first server and that after a certain amount of time any unanswered question gets dropped from the queue. This may seem unfair, but if you are always overloaded you have to make a cut somewhere.

  • Janette

    Kudoes to Whole Foods. Great article – nice and simple to understand. I do think it’s important to prioritize what you want to achieve when delving into Social Media. Sounds like Whole Foods has it “down”!

  • scromergarcia

    Fabulous article which clearly shows many great reasons why businesses need to be using social media. As a consultant, I find many business owners still don’t “get” the importance of establishing their social media platform. I’ll use this article to show them a business that really “got it”. Thanks for a well-rounded example! See you @susancromer

  • http://cueworkshops.com/CUEBlog/ Captus

    Whole Foods has always been a forward looking company. Embracing social media is the sign of the times but what impresses me the most is how they execute. It’s not just empty marketing messages, there is a real 2 way convo between the customer and the retailer. I suspect that eventually, customers will use Twitter exlusively to communicate with retailers when it comes to customer service issues and inquiries.

  • http://www.ahaingroup.com/ Niall Devitt

    Wow! what a success story and it so clearly demonstrates the power of twitter for business. Inspiring story, thanks for sharing, Niall

  • mikescheiner

    Great interview Mike, thank you. What’s great about this is how initially Marla and her team @wholefoods stepped into the SM channels, and gradually shaped and evolved strategies based on their consumer. The multiple twitter account was a really smart way of leveraging key interests of their shopper. Their effort is a great case study of how and why companies should fully embrace SM, and that there are gradual entry points for any brand with even the most limited of resources.

  • hareesh

    Interesting sharing. The idea about having decentralised twitter and Facebook pages (being operated at a store level) is a neat idea. Social Media customers will definitely connect with something that is more local than something that looks like a “global entity”

  • http://www.socialtailor.com/ colingilchrist

    It’s a great case study – I wish them continued success – these guys: http://www.ethicsgirls.co.uk/ friends of mine, could do with a push in that direction.

  • Sane

    Great interview. I love whole foods

  • http://www.virtualsocialmedia.com/ Chennai Social Media

    very interesting story.

  • http://twitter.com/SuchetaRawal sucheta rawal

    Its great what Whole Foods has done in regards to engaging their customer through social media. What I would be interested in learning is how has it impacted their business? Have they measured any direct outcomes attributed to this?

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