Whole Foods’ Local Social Media: ‘It’s Not the Mini Me Version of Corporate Social’

Overseeing social media across multiple retail locations for a popular, sometimes controversial food retailer is a complicated proposition. But at least customers’ comments related to crises are usually directed at the corporate, not the local level, according to Natanya Anderson, Whole Foods’ director of social media and digital marketing. She spoke at Ad Age’s Digital Conference in New York on Tuesday.

To make a close connection to the local community, Whole Foods’ local social media encompasses four areas: brand social, city social, functional social (i.e. healthy eating) and store social, Anderson explained. Overall, she said the company has a “big eco-system of 604 social media presences.”

“We have different expectations for local social”, Anderson noted, and they follow a plan:

  • The brand acts as the local authority and connects to residents’ lives by featuring local products.
  • They focus on creating and curating content. Their new Detroit store will feature different offerings than their east coast stores.
  • Local employees are dedicated to customer service. For example, they can snap photos of products that customers request.
  • Local staff members often email Anderson before posting on their local social platforms. “We’re adding a local crisis management element”, she said. (Perhaps Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey should have checked in first before his controversial comments on President Obama’s healthcare program earlier this year.)
  • They have dedicated mailing lists to disseminate information to local customers.

Whole Foods has devoted many resources and a large infrastructure to make local social media work, and Anderson claims it has been worthwhile from a number of perspectives:

  • The brand becomes aware of quality issues and other problems sooner and responds faster.
  • Local social media allows for customers who are fans to help the brand locally through peer recommendations. In some areas, Whole Foods enthusiasts come to the store’s defense.
  • Local social media brings the conversations to local stores, which helps spur product trials.
  • Having a local social media presence bridges the gap between store visits to keep the brand top of mind.

Local social media is an evolving process, Anderson acknowledged. “We’re still testing and discovering what local social means.” Overall she sees it as a valuable undertaking that leads to cost savings and higher customer retention. She added, “The local store culture is critical to our business.”