When Michael Bepko, global online community manager for Whole Foods, describes the company's social media strategy, it sounds like herding cats -- 350 cats to be precise.
That's how many stores the company has in the US, Canada, and the UK. By design, each store handles marketing independently, including running its own social media accounts, Bepko said, speaking at the Online Marketing Summit in San Diego on Tuesday.
The company's central social media team in Austin provides support, but can't mandate direction.
"We don't really have the authority to dictate what the stores are doing," Bepko said. "We're looking to empower the stores to market to the community they serve." Whole Foods' rule is that 30 percent of social content should originate from a central marketing message, the rest should be localized.
Bepko's three-person marketing team also augments local messages. For example, Whole Foods provides centralized social media channels for subjects like wine, cheese, and recipes, which prove popular with customers but which local stores lack staff to support, Bepko said. The subject-matter channels answer specific food-related questions from customers.
These specialized channels can also help defuse controversy. For example, food pictures can offend some people. "People want to see meat. They want to see turkey on a plate, sliced and carved. Every time we did that, the vegans and vegetarians were up in arms."
Whole Foods' solution: Set up communities for vegans and vegetarians to share their specific needs.
Specialized channels are run by Whole Foods' subject-matter expert in that field. The wine and cheese specialists travel the world looking for the best food deals; they come back with great stories and photos, but need help posting that content to social channels, because the experts are so busy, Bepko said.
As with many national brands, Whole Foods has had to deal with a proliferation of accounts. Employees set up accounts without authorization, resulting in redundancy and orphan accounts -- employees leaving the company without leaving their credentials behind. A big part of Bepko's social team's work was simply inventorying all of Whole Foods' social media accounts, and making sure the company had access to the credentials. Whole Foods used the social media management platform Spredfast for that work. Then, Bepko's team figured out when it made sense to consolidate accounts; for example, San Francisco has seven or eight Whole Foods stores, and not every store necessarily needs its own social media accounts, Bepko said.
Bepko's team has a big job, and it's going to get bigger. Whole Foods' plan is to have 1,000 stores by 2020. Each store will have a Twitter and Facebook account -- at least. Bepko's team also monitors emerging social channels, like Pinterest and Google+, to determine where Whole Foods needs to have a presence.
With that kind of growth, Bepko and his team's plate should be full for years to come.
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