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Natanya Anderson is the Director of Social Media, CRM, and Customer Care at Whole Foods Market. Today’s post is the transcript of an interview in which Mark Traphagen and I spoke with her to learn about all the cool stuff Whole Foods is doing in social.
Eric: Can you discuss the objectives for Whole Foods in social media?
Natanya: For us, there are three components. First, we have an extensive social media footprint as a brand. We have about 850 social media accounts, with the majority of those being local.
Local stores, or often a group of stores in a specific city, have and manage their own profiles. We’re really interested in the idea of storytelling, and we want to reflect the storytelling we do in the stores in social. In contrast, at the brand level, we talk about quality standards, shared values and a lifestyle that we know our customers are interested in.
At the local level, we have a great opportunity to tell stories about a team member, a product picked by the team, or local events. We are able to tell such unique stories because our stores are so unique.
Our approach is also a reflection of the fact that in every store we have a store marketing position, someone whose job it is to promote the store in the community. We’re able to piggyback off of that, to have someone who is already thinking as a marketer, to help manage those social channels. This combination of brand and local storytelling is a real differentiator for us, and it’s made possible because that’s how we already approach our stores. No two Whole Foods stores are exactly alike, and as a function of that we’re able to create these really interesting local presences.
[Tweet “Whole Foods’ social media is both brand-wide and local. Find out how they do it!”]
In addition to brand storytelling and local storytelling, the other piece for us in social is customer care. We have evolved a robust customer care experience on Twitter. We do a lot of care through Facebook too, but Twitter is really the heavy duty channel for us. As a result, we’ve built out a team designed to handle care in social media channels. I’m a big believer in the idea of “care out loud,” and allowing customers, friends, and families in social networks to see the care that we’re providing, so that it helps establish a point of differentiation for us as a brand.
More importantly, though, it extends the approach of customer care in the stores to the digital spaces. Our customers are our highest priority and we have a high touch, one-on-one approach to the way that we treat our customers in stores. We have found that social allows us to extend that in a way that feels fun and authentic, and on demand, which is an extension of the exact same service in the stores. And our customers have responded well to it. It’s become a place for us to care for cases in a different way and for cases that might never have come to us.
Some people simply aren’t interested in making a phone call or sending emails. By opening up the social care channel for these really quick interactions, we’re able to address customer questions and concerns that probably never would have come our way. This not only helps solve customer problems, but also helps us with core business objectives: customer retention, customer lifespan growth, and then, of course, word-of-mouth and advocacy marketing.
The avenues that we get with social care–and really our social interactions holistically–have a real impact to the business. Another thing worth noting is we approach social in a very community-centered way. My background personally is in community, and so we spend a lot of time thinking about our customer channels, and all of our engagements, as the building of a community, which is once again reflective of our brick-and-mortar philosophy, because we see our stores as community hubs.
Every time we open up a new store, one of our biggest areas of focus is, “How do we fit into the community? How do we enrich the community? How do we make it better than it was before we got there?” And you see that manifest at local stores through things like 5 Percent Days, where 5 percent of store profit goes back into the community. We have brought that philosophy online; we think about nurturing physical and online communities in the same way.
We have a real opportunity to take all the things that work so beautifully for Whole Foods in the retail space and bring them into social. So we bring the experiences commensurate with brick-and-mortar to digital, while still also leveraging the uniqueness and the opportunities that are created in digital.
Eric: So the idea is to bring the store experience into the digital world. I can tell you from my experience with Whole Foods, if you ask the store associate where something is, they immediately stop what they’re doing and walk you over to where it is.
But there’s this notion of going to where the customers are because there are many customers who will be more comfortable interacting on Twitter than they will be via phone or going into a store to discuss their concerns. I think that’s great that you’re seeing that that way.
As for the notion of being community-centric, you talked about the 5 Percent Days, and 5 percent of the profit being invested into the community. Are there other aspects of what you’re doing that you can expand upon, that relate to this notion of being community-centric?
Natanya: Absolutely! I think it starts with our content philosophy and how we approach our channels. First and foremost, we want to know how we can be of service to our customers in our social spaces, because I believe that the foundation of community is giving. Our philosophy around content is “Give before you get.” So we try to produce content and conversation opportunities that are very much focused on customer needs first, and where those needs overlap with the products, services, and philosophy that Whole Foods has.
[Tweet “The Whole Foods content strategy is give before you get. Learn why at”]
For example, we have a supplement sale coming up next week. And while we do have the opportunity to really talk about the fact that it’s a great sale, we also have the opportunity to educate the community on healthy eating. We have some great infographics and content around building smoothies, and how you can power those up with supplements that you find in our Whole Body department.
We highlight the fact that smoothies are popular among our audience. They’re great for busy parents to get nutrients fast or for athletes to replenish after a workout. This way we are able to serve the community, while still tying it back to our business objectives.
We like to have fun with our customers too because we believe that’s a big part of the community. We like to post fun things such as a dancing goat that says, “Hey, it’s Friday.” Just as a way to celebrate the day with our customers. We also like to celebrate the various food holidays.
So for us it is about saying to the members of our community, “We see you. We know who you are, and here’s our offer to you and a reason to engage with our brand.” So that when we have very specific brand stories to tell, we’ve opened up the door to, “You can trust us to tell you a story that’s going to be relevant.” And we always try to tell those stories in a way that’s beneficial to the customer.
Very rarely will you see direct product pushes in our social content because that’s not how we think about the needs of those communities. We always want to talk about, “Why would members of the community be interested in this product in the first place?” And we’re lucky because that’s the philosophy that Whole Foods is built on holistically.
For example, we have a role in our business called “The Forager,” which is someone who goes out and finds great regional and local products with the idea of, “What do we want to bring to our customers that either they’re asking for, or that might be trendy that they want to learn about, or that’s something that they might want to discover?”
We’re lucky in that our philosophy about community-building from a content-offering perspective really mirrors the way that we push products in our business. It’s also important to us that we make our communities a safe place to have conversations. As you might imagine, we have a lot of very passionate customers about certain areas of the business.
For example, we have a really passionate vegan contingent, but at the same time we have a really passionate meat-eating and culinary contingent. We have the folks who really feel like grains are maybe not the best things for us anymore, versus those people who are really interested in a very broad-based food perspective. We have those who are thinking that raw is the best way to go. And lots of people are very passionate about other particular ways of eating and sourcing.
So as you might imagine, it creates a lot of opportunity for spirited discussion, which we like to support. But the conversations can also turn, unfortunately as a function of the Internet, contentious and ugly. And so we believe that our role as the host of the community in these digital spaces is to be really clear about what it means to participate in our community, and allowing people to give voice to their opinions. But really drawing a line at, “You don’t get to attack other people.”
We do a lot of active community management work to make our community a safe space. And when we make a choice to remove content, or ask someone to no longer be a part of the community by blocking them, it’s never because they are saying negative things about Whole Foods Market. Because we can take it. It’s instead because their behavior is detrimental to the community as a whole.
Mark: How do you find or figure out what the community needs/wants?
Natanya: It’s a multifaceted process. First, we look to traditional data sources that the business has about our customers: customer segments, what those personas look like, and typically what the motivations are for when people come shopping in the store.
One of the things we know is that people come to our business often around specific life events: pregnancy, newly diagnosed with a particular health issue – someone who is a diabetic or someone who is celiac, or making a substantial change in their life like training for a marathon or deciding to become vegetarian. We ask ourselves, “OK, how can we best be of service to those folks?”
[Tweet “The social/content strategy of Whole Foods centers around customers’ life events.”]
We also ask our segmentation data to tell us, “What do people want out of our store?” If you have a Whole Foods near you with a big prepared food, section – which is where the hot bars, and the salad bars, and the to-go food is – there are a lot of people who come into our business just for that. That is where they eat lunch every day and that’s their primary relationship with us.
There are also people who are instead interested in shopping with us every week because they’re feeding their family. Just understanding what we call a “trip mission,” which is, “Why is somebody shopping with us?” is key to our communications with them. We take all of that into account and then we try to say, “How can we serve those conversations?”
We have opportunities to help people with conversation-starters like, “Here’s 10 great ways to go sugar-free.” “Here are some of our favorite products if you’re having to go gluten-free.” “Here’s vegan protein powder.” So you’re training for a marathon, but you really want the cleanest possible sports supplements that you can have.
Or, if you’re a new mom, “Here’s fast ways to help you get healthy food on the table. Here are some ideas for a stir fry. Get it all from the salad bar. Get all the vegetables precut from the salad bar and have the meat department cut up your meat. Did you know they can do that for you?” And all of it just goes back to what we know about the customer.
Another way that we assess our strategy is by looking at content performance. We’ll intentionally say, “Let’s test this.” And we’ll see if we put something out with a very specific end in mind, does it work? Does it not? How do we tweak it? Sometimes we’re surprised by the results that we get.
We also listen to the voice of the customer, and we do that in a couple of different ways. The first is through traditional listening and monitoring, looking at the conversation around our brand and around our industry. Seeing what’s trending, seeing what people are interested in.
But then also we continue to find that good old SEO research is a real indicator for us about the information that people want. For example, we know that at Thanksgiving people are going to be interested in turkey. While there are a lot of ways that you can go down the turkey path, but it turns out that, for the most part, people are only interested in how to brine a turkey and how long the turkey takes to cook.
We make sure we provide that content, and then thinking about it through the lens of our segments. We have the folks who are really interested in convenience, but they want great food. Then we talk to them about, “Here’s our pre-brined turkey.” Or, “Did you know we’ll cook your turkey for you? And you come and pick it up, so you get the quality meal that you want but it’s convenient.”
Then there are the folks who are very interested in sustainability and sourcing, so we have heritage and organic birds. We know that people care a lot about turkey, but then if you look at the segments, there are some people who are really interested in the convenience of the turkey versus the sourcing of the turkey.
The other place that we get a lot of really valuable information, particularly as it pertains to trends, is from our procurement partners and those foragers. They’re the ones going out talking to producers and understanding what’s interesting. So that we can come back and say, “Hey, you may be hearing about quinoa,” which is old news now, but back in the day was not. “Here’s how you cook it. Here’s what you do with it. Here’s what it is.”
As we see these food trends emerging and people are really interested, we want to know how can we, A, get ahead of those trends? And, B, provide some really great content around them? So I feel our team is constantly seeking to understand our customers, both holistically as a customer, and in their behavior in digital channels. And figuring out then, “How do we bring all that together to figure out what content we provide to them?”
Eric: Are you leveraging any social media listening tools? Such as Brandwatch?
Natanya: We are, and Brandwatch is our partner currently. I’ve learned a couple of lessons about that, which is the tools can be really great, but you have to have someone who has time to unpack the data.
It’s an entirely different activity to decide that you’re going to start to mine the data, industry data, for key trends and understand how those apply to your business. Because the tools can surface the data for you, but at some point, you need a human to derive the insights. And I think for all of us, that’s often the challenge because most of us are doing it as an adjunct to their day jobs.
But the other thing that we’ve grown increasingly interested in is location-based listening. We did a pilot about a year ago with a company called Geofeedia through our analytics partner, WCG, where we did geo-based listening around 15 different stores in a variety of different markets. And one of the biggest takeaways that we discovered was that when people are in a Whole Foods talking about Whole Foods, they don’t use the words, “Whole Foods.”
If you’re doing keyword-based listening only, then you most likely don’t pick up on any of those mentions because the discussion is driven by the keywords, “Whole Foods.” It’s the location of Whole Foods. The new third dimension is visual listening. “How are we starting to understand the photos that are being posted related to our brand, whether we’re mentioned or not?”
[Tweet “Whole Foods uses both location- and visual-listening in social media. Learn more:”]
I think the other thing for us is starting to expand on the idea of what listening means to us, to move beyond keywords, and I think that particularly geo-listening and visual-listening are still in their infancy, in terms of making those things as systematized as keyword-based listening.
Eric: Yes, it’s very challenging, any time you deal with a big data exercise like that, particularly if you’re trying to recognize a new trend. It’s one thing to monitor a dialog about GMOs, because you can just search for “GMOs.”
It’s another to notice that now there’s a surge of some new trend that you haven’t really got in your prepackaged list of keywords, and that’s a big job, for sure.
When you talk about “community,” are you talking about how you interact with them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etcetera? Or is there another element to how that is organized? Then as a follow-up, how do you manage all the different conversation threads?
Natanya: I think for us the idea of “community” is different at the brand and the local level. At the local level, the digital communities are an extension of a physical community and we’re really working hard to bring people in and out of those two communities in a really specific way.
I work above the Lamar store, which is our big flagship in downtown Austin. When the Austin social channels are engaging, it’s with people that are then going to walk into a store. So there’s this opportunity to really have the digital and the physical blend in beautiful ways that are very locale-specific.
When it’s my brand team having conversations with customers all over the country, who shop at lots of different stores, we have to focus more on just this idea of maintaining a conversation between transactions and keeping people engaged with our brand. So that when they’re thinking about, “Oh, I need to stop and get dinner tonight,” that what comes to mind for them is, “I should stop at Whole Foods because they gave me this really cool swordfish recipe and I want to go buy some swordfish.”
At the local level, it’s about, “I just found out that Whole Foods is doing this cool Hatch Chili event and I just want to go in for that.” So the local accounts have this opportunity to really connect their work to the local store. We’re not quite as able to do that with that level of specificity at the brand level, just because we represent a brand covering 400-plus stores.
Eric: So when you talk about “community” that really works at the local store level and may manifest itself through face-to-face interactions or on various local social accounts.
Natanya: The important thing for us is finding out, “How do we make it as easy as possible for those local stores to understand which channels bring them the most value?” I have a dedicated team, and so it’s a lot easier for me to speak across multiple channels. One of the things we really try to understand at the local level is, “Where is the best focus for your time and energy?” At the local level, it’s only a portion of the work that the local stores do.
We’re constantly trying to hone this idea of, “Which channel should we be on when new channels come up?” We don’t necessarily want all 400 stores to pop up a Periscope account.
A huge component of what my team does is regional enablement. One of the things we try to help them understand is, “What’s the long-term commitment?” Somebody asked me why we haven’t done anything with Snapchat yet. I said, “One of the big issues for us is that I believe once you open the door to a community, the door is open and you’ve made a commitment to community and conversation. So I have to be sure that, even if we’re testing, that we understand long-term how we’re going to support that channel.”
[Tweet “Don’t open the door to a new online community until you’re ready to fully commit – Natanya Anderson of Whole Foods “]
Any new channel is a potential care channel. So you have to think about that you’re adding one more place where people can come to you with customer needs and how does that impact your overall care point of view. I’m lucky in that both social and customer care are on my team, so I can think about those things together.
Because the global customer care team also reports to me, I realize that I’m a little bit of an anomaly. In a lot of businesses if you decide that you’re going to open up a new channel, then I feel like you should really be in partnership with your care partner, saying, “OK, we’re adding one more place that people can come to ask those questions.”
You also have to think about the operations of care. In Snapchat you can’t create a case and just kick it over into your care workstream, not just because the platform doesn’t work that way, because people really want to be served in the channel in which they originally contacted you. Our philosophy is that you stay with them for as long as it makes sense and then you can invite them into a new channel, but you don’t move them into a channel just because it’s convenient for you.
I think the other thing for us is just helping the local stores understand how much social makes sense to them, and I feel that way about the brand as well.
You were asking about how we manage all of these complicated conversations. The answer is that we have really good relationships inside the business. Like I said, it helps that the care team is on my team, because this is the same breadth of questions that they have to answer every day. Being able to have access to the answer templates and information they need to answer customer questions, really benefits my team.
But we also have a really strong relationship with our PR department. In addition, the person who leads up my Moderation and Social Customer Care team has been at Whole Foods for a long time. So she
knows, “Here’s this person that I can call and they’ll pick up, and they’ll help me answer this question.”
I think for our team to be successful across such a broad discipline of conversation with a brand that’s as complicated as ours, internal relationships are really key to our success and we can’t work in a silo. Because there’s no way we can know all that we would need to in order to manage the conversation, grow the community, and serve the customer.
Eric: Let’s use a practical example. There’s a Whole Foods here in Framingham, Massachusetts, a couple of miles away from where I am now, and actually where I’m going to go get my lunch today. Let’s say somebody hops on their local Twitter account and starts asking questions about the Paleo diet. So that’s a pretty specific question. How does that get managed? Are you doing some things to make sure you have a consistent response to that?
Natanya: I think the important thing to remember is that these questions are being asked of our team members, live in store, everyday too.
It’s no different in social media. What we really try to teach our local stores to do, much like my team does here, is to utilize the same resources. So if someone asks us a question on Twitter about the Paleo diet, we would most likely go to our Healthy Eating Specialist, if the store has one, or the Customer Information Team. We would send them there.
We would take them over there and say, “Meet this person who can answer your question.” And if that person doesn’t exist in the store, then the protocol is, “Let me redirect you to someone at the regional or the global office who can answer that question.”
What we do is encourage the same behavior in social. So if they have those local resources, for example, maybe they do Paleo tours of the store. Then they’re going to say, “Hey, here’s a couple of pieces of advice, and here’s a tour that we’re doing that might give you some more information.”
The other thing is we’re not afraid to say to our customers that we don’t know the answer, but that we will get someone who will.
If someone is not comfortable answering a question at the local level, they’ll say, “Hey, we feel like @WholeFoods can really help you with this.” And they’ll just kick it into my team, and we do it in a really public way to help customers understand that they have both local and brand accounts. Then my team may say, “OK, here’s four blog posts that we wrote on it that might get you started. Let us know if you have more questions.” Then if we get incremental questions, we can always go into our Healthy Eating Team here and get answers. We really try to utilize those same mechanisms and not reinvent the wheel, because it’s just a lot more efficient.
Eric: That makes a lot of sense. It’s fascinating that you actually have a store marketing position. Is the person in the store marketing position responsible for creating the community for each individual store?
Natanya: I was going to say, as a function of our model at Whole Foods we’re divided into 12 regions, and every region has its own regionalized marketing function. So then we also have a digital specialist in every region who helps with social. And we also do some local emails, because my team would really struggle to support 400+ stores at scale.
Then we work with those folks as subject matter experts, and they work with the stores. So that’s the other function that we’ve put into place in the business to really create the enablement and the support network for all these folks, is that we have peers. The stores can always reach out to us if they need to, but quite frankly, they have a much better relationship with their regional teams.
Their regional teams visit them all the time. They have ongoing, regular, regional meetings, so their regional specialists have a contextual view of the store situation that is impossible, really practically, for my team to have. I try to take a lot of lessons that I learned from watching some of my clients, back in my agency days, do sales enablement. Because we have a lot of those same needs, in terms of creating scale and layers of enablement in order to support the social conversation.
Mark: From a social media side, what do you have in place to deal with controversy or negative publicity? What are the processes and procedures to deal with those issues?
Natanya: Once again, we find that these things don’t typically happen in a vacuum, and social gets more volume these days than just about any channel. We’re certainly going to get more questions in social, and the story is going to spread more broadly in social, just because of the nature of the medium. But there are people calling our Customer Care team, about those questions. There are media reporters calling our PR team about whatever the issue is.
It continues to be about not reinventing the wheel, but about layering on top of existing processes. We have a really great relationship with our PR team, and what we try to do is have a two-way dialog with them. We work to be open about what we’re hearing, because we do believe that social allows us to get to the nuance of the conversation very quickly, because quite frankly, the social conversation comes fast and furious early. Whereas in more traditional care channels it takes a little while to get some momentum.
What we’re able to say to our PR partners is, “This is what the volume looks like but here’s the nuance: what we’re really seeing is this one story that people are just sharing over, and over, and over again. There’s not a lot of variety.” What I’ve learned is the more words that there are in my Brandwatch word cloud, the worse things are. Because that represents the diversification of the conversation and the nuance that we really need to be addressing.
We then feed that into our PR team, who is responsible holistically for messaging around a particular situation. We take what they provide and create social-friendly messaging. We’re really lucky that our PR partners get the tone and voice that we use. They understand that in most cases we don’t want to sound “corporate,” we want to sound “friendly,” so they allow us to overlay our social tone and voice. Then we just have ongoing conversations throughout the situation until it’s over, where we’re constantly a source of information.
My moderation lead typically works with our PR team on the messaging. I’m typically doing the listening.
One of the things that we have decided now that my team is a little bit bigger, and our care partner is right with us, is we’re going to slightly refine our approach and have specific crisis roles and responsibilities within our own teams, based on the level of crisis. So if something is just a low level issue, like I’m sure you know about our asparagus water situation right now, that’s really a Level 1 for us because it’s not a complex story. It is what it is. It’s people making fun of us. So my moderation partner is able to work with PR on the messaging and I am on duty for listening.
But then as they start to get a lot more complex, the needs increase. If the regions are now getting questioned we have to ask, “Who is going to be our regional liaison?” And if we’re starting to see a lot of questions in traditional care, how are we liaising there? Which is more of a Level 2.
A while back we had the issue in Baltimore. I consider that a Level 2. More people are involved, more folks we have to communicate with. And then looking at a Level 3, thus far we’ve never had one, knock on wood. But if we did, how could we have extreme clarity around who is doing what? So that we can communicate with our internal partners and say, “Hey, PR, the only person you talk to about messaging is this person. This person in leadership will be giving you updates on social listening and they will be feeding into the crisis team. Hey, regional partners, you only talk to this person.”
So we’re going to do some work there, and I consider it a little bit of a luxury just because my team has grown a little bit. But really in the end, it’s still that same philosophy of piggy-back, don’t reinvent the wheel.
Eric: There are a lot of interesting inter-organizational relationships. Are you part of the PR team? Or do you report separately? How does that structure work?
Natanya: Whole Foods has one team called “Global Communications,” which is inclusive of PR and Marketing, Digital, Creative, and I’m on a team called “Customer Connection.” We are essentially responsible for all of the direct customer-facing communication in the business, so my team that I have responsibility for includes social, CRM, and customer care. Then my peer teams are pilot affinity programs that right now is out in the Philadelphia market only. And then we also have something called “Payments Marketing,” which is gift cards, and cart-linked offers, and things like that.
So those of us who are all responsible for interfacing with the customer and bringing the voice of the customer back to the business are all in one place, and then there’s the PR team and the Marketing team.
With our marketing partners, we’re working with them on, “What are our marketing priorities? And how do those get reflected in the channels?” And also, “If you really want this campaign to have a big life in social, here’s how we need to craft it from the beginning. If we want to have a significant CRM component, here’s how we need to think about this campaign and the role that CRM plays.”
Then, of course, there’s the content team, working with them because they help craft a lot of the content that we use. So we’re really in a lot of ways the downstream recipient of the work from the rest of the organization. But at the same time, we have the best opportunity to then feed the voice of the customer back in. That’s how we line up.
Eric: It sounds like you put a lot of effort to make sure that the various marketing initiatives have a consistent set of goals and voice to them.
Natanya: That is always the goal. Honestly, I think we all struggle. I think every business struggles to get out of its silos, especially when you’re moving fast and furiously. Then when you add the fact that we have these 12 regions and they all have their own versions of the channels, there’s an extra layer of complexity. But I think one of the things we really try to do is utilize data to help show why it’s beneficial for us to be involved early on.
How can we be good partners? How can we make it easy to interact with our team? We want people to say, “Oh, you really need to get social and CRM involved in that because they have value to bring.” Then similarly, the other thing I’m working really hard on is to get people to think about the customer experience and the potential care ramifications for anything that they do. Because I think in today’s world, especially because care is effectively the new marketing, we really want them to think about, “If we make this comment, if we take this approach, if we put this program out, what is the possible impact to the customer experience? What does that say about our brand as a whole?”
Then also operationally for my team, “How are we equipped with the information that we need?” so that we can answer the customer questions in a timely manner. I think that’s actually been one of my biggest pushes, is to have customer care be considered another viable marketing channel, just like social, or CRM, or any other.
[Tweet “Customer care is a marketing channel, too – Natanya Anderson of Whole Foods”]
Eric: I don’t think we’ve talked to anyone yet who had Customer Care and Social Media reporting up to the same person.
Natanya: I’ve spent a lot of time talking to other organizations about their configurations, especially around social customer care. Typically what you see is one of two models. You see the social care team as an adjunct to social, living on the social team and tightly tied into the care team. Or you see social care being handled out of the customer care team, with social as a stakeholder and a subject matter expert.
One of the things that I’ve found is the bigger, and more complex, and more real-time the care model is – so think about hotels, eCommerce, things like that – the more that probably having social and care in the same team doesn’t really make a lot of sense, because the disciplines of managing a social team versus the disciplines of operating call centers are very different. Because so much care for us happens at the local level we don’t have a big call center here.
I don’t know that social and care will continue to live together forever, but because I was able to operationalize social care in a really particular way, I think that’s one of the reasons that this team alignment exists today. I believe over time, if I do my job right, care won’t live on my team anymore and the business will recognize it as a substantial need, and as its own piece of the organization.
Eric: That makes sense, but for the time being, you’re going to get a lot of leverage out of that. Because you can be fairly comfortable that you can have some influence about keeping those organizations aligned.
Natanya: Yes, that’s right.
Eric: You mentioned SEO earlier, SEO research, and I assume you mean digging up keyword volume data and using that as a proxy for what people are demanding. Can you expand upon any other things that you get involved in that relate to SEO?
Natanya: In addition to using the research, we are always keeping track of how the search engines are evaluating the traffic from social media. We try to think about how we balance out the demands of specific tone and voice in social, and the way that we manage our communities, with the potential opportunities to positively impact SEO. We know now that Google looks at Facebook and Pinterest. The more that we start to see the social channels be considered a source of fodder for SEO, the more we have to think about, “What’s the SEO strategy for the channel that we have?”
The other piece for us is also, “How are we making our content as shareable as possible?” Like in Pinterest, one of the things that we discovered is that our pins have an amazing lifespan! So much more than any other social channel.
We actually made an intentional decision to move away from campaign-based content in Pinterest. Because the campaign would be over and we would see the related Pinterest content reemerge after a year, it created a really questionable SEO experience because it could lead to a broken link or to a not immediately relevant page.
When we’re linking through Pinterest to other pages, we think about the long term to make sure the integrity of the link and value the search engines give to them remain. We discovered that when you apply SEO keyword research principles at Pinterest, you win. And conversely, to think about Pinterest as a source of SEO juice, as Google starts to take it more seriously. And then also, quite frankly, the more that Pinterest itself is used as a search engine, understanding how behaviors in Google are different from behaviors in Pinterest, if at all.
I think there’s some nuance that we’ve been exploring there around understanding the way that we post content, the language that we use on different channels, and the way it potentially impacts SEO. We have a new focus on SEO here at Whole Foods, and I’m really excited to get to work even more closely with the person who is running that team. Because I think there are some real opportunities there and I’m not sure that everybody realizes the power of SEO that you can get on social if you’re just understanding the data and running tests. I think we’ve really just scratched the surface on it.
Eric: We’ve done a lot of testing around social and SEO here, and we are fairly well convinced that the primary impact is an indirect impact, and the links and the self-filled shares themselves don’t really bring direct value. Among other things, they have no follow tags on them. The notion of an easily shareable link can lead to things which nobody would debate as being SEO-signals, such as people writing about it and doing stuff.
There’s an enormous amount of power there that we leverage all the time with the people that we work with here.
Natanya: Yes, I just feel like there’s so much opportunity for discovery, to your point, that leads to the creation of experimental, SEO-friendly content. And who knows? At any point, Google could say, “Oh! All of a sudden we value this thing!” And everybody scrambles to try to feed the Google what it wants!
Eric: The really clear thing is that if you have strong social engagement with someone, they’re probably going to spend longer reading that article than somebody who came in from some other channel. Because you’ve been engaging with them regularly. “Oh, these are my friends at Whole Foods,” and they’re going to read that article about some vegan soup that’s rich in protein. And they’re going to spend four minutes on the article, and the average visitor might be there for a minute and a half. That’s just another one of those angles where I think social clearly interacts heavily with SEO, because the relationships are built. And no question that relationships, in one means or another, bring SEO benefit. Because it’s the same thing.
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About Natanya Anderson
Natanya Anderson is the Director of Social Media, CRM, and Customer Care at Whole Foods Market. She has over 15 years of experience in digital communications strategy and execution grounded in a relentless focus on the customer. At Whole Foods Market, she is concentrating on how an extensive local digital footprint merges with a strong brand presence to create a unique customer experience that differentiates a brand, drives loyalty, and supports the retail experience.
Ms. Anderson blogs about loving food, drink, and living in Austin, Texas at the Austin Food Lovers’ Companion. Follow her on twitter at @natanyap.