[Marla Erwin. Whole Foods Mystery Tweeter. Photo from her file]
Who wants to chat with a Coke Bottle?
It's a question I've been asking for years. It's an outgrowth of my previous book, Naked Conversations that argued with some passion that social media gives businesses, particularly large ones, a chance to restore their humanization.
So it has been a bit of a surprise to me, to see the issue being debated, sometimes heatedly and for a prolonged period, in Twitterville. Further, a significant handful of companies you probably know--Starbucks, Duncan Donuts, Carl's Jr., Trader Joe's, Popeye's Chicken, Evernote, even the Mayo Clinic have ignored my counsel and have started iconic Twitter accounts, without identifying who the names or faces of their assigned tweeters. And most are doing quite well.
So I've inserted a new chapter into the book, called--you guessed it--Who wants to chat with a Coke Bottle. I'm talking with a few people who apparently do and I've sent some questions to companies, who have Logo Twitter accounts. Almost all have been happy to respond and to reveal who is actually tweeting on their company's behalf.
The first is Marla Erwin, one of two Whole Foods tweeters. While I disagree with her viewpoint, I think she does a good job of arguing her case. And the important thing for Twitterville is that readers will get to decide what is right for them and their business strategies.
1. Why did Whole Foods Market decide to start Tweeting?
When we decided in early 2008 to redo Whole Foods Market's online presence, our goals were to project a better sense of who we are and to communicate directly with our customers at both the store level and also at a more global, philosophical level. At present we're using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and some white label community tools on wholefoodsmarket.com to help us move toward those goals. Twitter is vital for us as it gives a clear and immediate picture of what our customers are thinking, and gives us a chance to respond more directly than any other venue. Its immediacy is also ideal for quick promotions such as walk-in specials and our "Tweet of the Day."
2. Are you the only one who tweets at the @wholefoods account? Are there other Whole Foods tweeters?
Currently @wholefoods consists of tweets from me and Winnie Hsia, who is also a WholeFoods blogger. There's also @WholeFoodsLA, and we hope to get other cities or specific stores tweeting in the near future.
3. As Interactive Art Director, how did you come to tweet for Whole Foods? What percentage of your time is dedicated to Tweeting?
Although my official duties have more to do with wholefoodsmarket.com, we all wear a lot of hats, and I've kept my hand in Twitter and other social media because that's where my passion is. From my first day at WholeFoods, I was advocating for getting us on Twitter. I think I mentioned it in my job interview. I had been tweeting for a while, and as I saw more and more brands come on board, it was pretty clear that Twitter would be a powerful way to communicate with our customers. I actually spend very little of my work time on @wholefoods -- I tend to tweet mostly nights and weekends.
Winnie fields the day-to-day questions and posts links to our web and blog content. My tweeting is a bit more meta: pointing to pertinent articles on other sites, surveying followers about website features and so on.
4. What is the thinking behind you being anonymous? What does Whole Foods see as the advantage? Do you see any disadvantages at all?
We decided immediately to tweet as @wholefoods rather than as named individuals, and we still feel good about that decision. We haven't seen any disadvantages at all, and these advantages:
1. Authority. The person on the Whole Foods account is unquestionably speaking for the company, whereas an individual's name on the account threatens to dilute that: the question arises, "Well, is that Whole Foods' official stance, then, or just hers?" On the other hand, if he or she tweets as an individual, and the company affiliation is secondary, the personal tweets can become noise.
2. Boundaries. It works both ways, of course: on our personal Twitter accounts, we talk about everything from tattoos to politics to our friends and families. Keeping our names off the @wholefoods account frees us to be strongly opinionated individuals in our personal posts, and avoids any confusion between our own views and what Whole Foods Market stands for.
3. Continuity. If Winnie and I are both out, whoever takes over the account can jump in without having to introduce a new "identity" to our followers. We've found that the specific individual doesn't really matter to most of our customers. They're following @wholefoods because they want information about Whole Foods Market, and answers to their questions about the company and our products. We've had only a handful of people ask who's behind the account, and those are mostly journalists and social media analysts.
5. How would you respond to my contention that people would prefer to speak to a real human being? Who really wants to chat with a logo or an icon?
Naturally people would prefer to communicate with a human being, and in fact it's the only option we offer. What's really at issue is, do they feel a need to know the identity of the real human they're speaking to, or is the affiliation enough? As I mentioned, most of our customers seem unconcerned, as long as the person on the account speaks for Whole Foods.
Similarly, if I'm contacting an airline for tickets, I don't much care if the person who responds is Eleanor, Bob, or Maggie: I want to know the best price the airline will give me for a window seat to Denver, and I assume that information will not change depending on who answers the question. As a designer, I think using the company logo as our Twitter avatar is useful to our followers - it's a distinctive image in a stream of faces. For example, when I scan my Twitter page, @comcastcares doesn't jump out at me in a column of faces. On the other hand, @wholefoods, @jetblue, and @starbucks catch my eye immediately, as do other iconic avatars such as @npr, @arstechnica and @nasa.
6. Let's move on to strategy. How do you think the Twitter account has changed Whole Foods marketplace position? Do some people see you differently because of Twitter?
I do believe Twitter has changed the way people think of Whole Foods Market. First of all, we get a lot of buzz for using Twitter as part of our social media program. That buzz creates a positive feedback loop: the more people hear about our online outreach, the more people come check us out on Twitter, Facebook, etc. and strengthen their relationship to us.
Secondly, it's reaffirmed what most of our longtime customers know and new ones are just learning: that Whole Foods is a very community-driven company. Each store is actively involved in local events and charitable giving, and our team members help in the community with everything from creek cleanup to blood drives. It's nice to be able to show this side of ourselves using Twitter and our company blog.
7. Whole Foods is quite active in social media. You have a couple of blogs and you're in Facebook. How does Twitter interact with the other social media activities, if at all. How do you think Twitter is different than other social media tools?
At present the interaction between Twitter and our other social media efforts is one-way: we may tweet about a new Local Grower profile on the website, or ask for comments on our latest blog post, but rarely do we use one of our other venues to point to Twitter content (other than to simply let people know we have an account). Nor does it make sense to, because of the immediacy and fluidity of Twitter. Twitter is uniquely powerful. It's spontaneous and immediate and fun. It allows us to communicate directly with individual customers and rapidly answer very specific questions. It also allows us to monitor for mentions of Whole Foods so we can address concerns proactively - say, if someone who doesn't even know we're on Twitter tweets something like, "I wish Whole Foods offered cooking classes," we can initiate a conversation to let them know that many stores do, and provide a link to the class calendar.
8. Can you give me a great story about something that has happened @wholefoods ?
When the Gulf Coast hurricanes hit, many businesses were closed for days on end. We were able to let people know via Twitter that several stores were open using generator power, and that we had drinking water available for free. We got a lot of thanks for that from people who were stranded without groceries and couldn't find any open stores.
9. How has Tweeting for Whole Foods changed you? How do you think it has changed Whole Foods, if at all?
It's given us insight into how we're viewed and what customers want and expect from us. In business, that's golden. One thing many people don't know is that Whole Foods is incredibly decentralized - each store sets its own policies, decides its own product selection, even uses its own recipes in the deli. Being on Twitter has helped us to educate people about how the company operates. Engaging with customers via Twitter has also helped us realize the challenges that lie ahead in communicating with our customers at the local level.
I think the greatest change to come for Whole Foods' social media program will be to increase the local store's involvement. We've just launched store blogs, and most stores have a growing Flickr set. I hope we can expand this to Twitter and other venues in 2009.