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Whole Foods mines social media for voice of the customer, trends

ATLANTA -- Using social media platforms to forge relationships with customers isn't new. But for Whole Foods Market, based in Austin, Texas, the challenge is to use social media to establish a global presence for its brand as a whole while also entrenching the local flavor of its stores.

Natanya Anderson of Whole Foods discussed some of the challenges and opportunities in mining social media conversation to understand customers, preferences and trends that might arrive down the road.

"We use it as an input for the voice of the customer," Anderson said. "If there is a product that customers are excited about, they can share that with the local stores. Then, what we try to do at the brand level -- because there are so many stores and so many product lines -- is to bring that broad voice of customer in and look at trends in the marketplace, what are the concerns that customers have. We also use it as a chance to say, 'This is what's top of mind for customers.'"

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Anderson also discussed the role of social in generating themes and topics that Whole Foods. "It gets really interesting to have the brand component bump up against the local component and all of those voices mixing together." Anderson said.

Whole Foods also uses geofencing to monitor social conversations based on consumers' locations.

"The other thing is listening around our stores -- using geofencing or using mobile devices to identify consumers' location, to see the conversations happening in our stores … the ability to move beyond keywords and move to location, it creates a real opportunity to understand a conversation," she said.

Anderson also discussed the potential of predictive analytics but noted that most companies are "on the edge of it." Anderson said that she is starting to look at the language triggers that indicate a crisis might die off quickly or become a major storm that needs attention, such as a reputation issue with Whole Foods. "How can you look at those trends and, over time, develop what I call a weather predictor that is based on how a conversation morphs and evolves?" she noted. Anderson said that this voice of the customer analysis would enable companies like Whole Foods to address issues in real time and create "real ROI" by managing the crisis proactively.

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What are you doing to map customer journeys?
Consumer input combined with predictive analysis and market data guides our product launches. Because we're continually putting out new products, we're as far from a single item industry as possible. We are continuously in listen-mode, constantly monitoring customer input and responding accordingly.

Not that we always get it right. Our product is supplied by ego-obsessed artists who thrive on creativity, not restrictions. OTOH, management is guided by bean-counters who care more about profits than products.

Our customers guide our journey. The key to our success is listening very carefully, then continually adjusting our product line. Even when we gamble - and we do that quite often - it's within carefully proscribed guidelines.