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How Whole Foods Handles Social Media

Spredfast's benchmark study of social media management users shows distinctions between those just entering social channels and those, like Whole Foods, whose usage is proliferating rapidly.

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Natanya Anderson is in charge of social media at Whole Foods, but that doesn't mean she is in control of it. Having joined the grocery retailer a little over a year ago as social media and community team leader, she is still in the process of auditing all its social media activities but estimates there are about 600 social media accounts promoting the brand, with approximately 2,000 employees regularly contributing content.

"The joke about Whole Foods and social is, it arose organically," she said.

With more than 330 stores owned by the chain, but operated in a decentralized management style where store managers decide what to items to carry and how to promote them, people from across the organization created social media accounts and have been managing them relatively independently until now. "One of the reasons I was hired was to try to take advantage of the fact that there is this massive social media presence at Whole Foods," Anderson said. The decentralized marketing plan mimics the hyper-local organization of the stores, and that's mostly a good thing, she said. However, she is also looking for ways to optimize and coordinate social media efforts for the benefit of the entire organization, she said.

Whole Foods is an example of what social media management firm Spredfast calls a "proliferating" user of social media for marketing and customer service. Spredfast has just published a benchmark report looking at the activity of the users on its network and dividing them into three broad segments--activating, expanding, and proliferating--to see what those in each category have in common.

Spredfast's selfish interest in this study is to showcase the volume of social media interaction organizations can handle through its product, which is designed to accommodate large numbers of users and multiple geographic or organizational divisions within a business. The proliferating organizations in the study averaged 21 business groups involved in social media, compared with three business groups for the activating companies. The average was 11.

[ Get local: Shoutlet Helps Retailers Track Foursquare Activity.]

The scale of Whole Foods social media outreach places it at the top end of the proliferating user scale, but it got there without the help of Spredfast, whose product it is just in the process of rolling out. "We're maybe a quarter of the way there, but 2,000 people is a lot to train, or even to just identify," Anderson said.

Anderson wants to use Spredfast to help manage social media publishing on a very large scale, combined with the multifaceted nature of social media communications, where there is no clear dividing line between a marketing channel and a customer support one. Marketing users who encounter complaints or questions they don't know how to handle need to be able to coordinate with other specialists, she said. "That's why we picked a tool like Spredfast that has workflow--for the marketing manager to be able to ... shoot that over to someone else in customer information or someone else on the team."

The Spredfast Social Engagement Index benchmark report is available for download or as a SlideShare presentation. The study is not necessarily reflective of the entire business world because it's not a generalized survey. One thing all the included businesses have in common is that they've already selected a relatively high-end social media management tool, which by itself hints at big ambitions. On the other hand, "these are accounts in the system," said Jordan Viator Slabaugh, the director of social media at Spredfast. "This is not a guestimate or estimate or self-reported type of stuff--this is what people are actively doing."

Even those companies in the "activating" category "are not absolute beginners," she said, but there's still a big difference between their activity and that of the "proliferating" companies. For example, the average Spredfast customer published 4,924 messages in the second quarter of 2012, or about 54 each day. However, companies in the proliferating segment averaged 10,583 messages during the quarter (and the most prolific organization published 155,926), while activating firms averaged more like 568 messages in that period.

Measures of engagement--defined as any audience interaction from a "like" to a comment, share, or retweet--show an even bigger split, with the proliferating accounts racking up 5.2 million interactions on average, while organizations that were earlier in the growth of their initiatives recorded 7,000 interactions, on average.

In future reports, Spredfast hopes to dig deeper into what makes organizations with the best engagement statistics more successful, Slabaugh said.

Facebook remains the social media channel with the highest engagement.

The study also shows big differences in the patterns of publishing and interaction across social networks, with companies publishing about four times as many items to Twitter but getting back nearly 10 times the engagement on Facebook. (The study did also find some organizations that enjoyed higher levels of engagement on Twitter, however.)

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User Rank: Apprentice
9/6/2012 | 5:28:25 PM
re: How Whole Foods Handles Social Media
It will be interesting to learn from this report on the future when it becomes more regularly and uniform across the board. I would like to see the most successful business es with a larger social presence and study what techniques makes them uniquely successful growth social media. No doubt that social media will play a role in future business endeavors regardless the business. In addition the chart shows that Facebook is still the number one social media site out to date. I look forward to Whole Foods transitional and the success to follow, Whole Foods has always made a strong community presence which can only lead to good things with social media.

Paul Sprague
InformationWeek Contributor
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