Social Media Integration Fuels Whole Foods Boycotters

  |  August 28, 2009   |  Comments

While boycotters of the natural grocery store are taking an integrated social media approach to drive support, the company itself has done little online to quell the digital outcries.

Ever since Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote an op-ed in favor of less government intervention in healthcare reform, the social media world has been abuzz with efforts for and against him and the natural grocery store chain. Indeed, both sides have gained supporters in recent days since the flurry of social media action began in response to Mackey's article. Still, the company itself hasn't done much to quell the digital outcries beyond setting up a healthcare forum and responding to customer comments via e-mail.

Detractors, who say on the Boycott Whole Foods Facebook page that their money "will no longer go to support Whole Foods' anti-union, anti-health insurance reform, right-wing activities," numbered almost 30,000 yesterday, up from 28,000 Wednesday. A less popular Whole Foods Boycott Action page had 750 fans.

In his August 11 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Mackey supported "less government control and more individual empowerment," suggesting that "a massive new health-care entitlement [will] create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system." That opinion doesn't sit well with liberal-minded Whole Foods loyalists.

One of the Boycott Whole Foods group's admins, Steven Mikulencak, said he was the fourth member to join, and was surprised to see 1,000 members join by the next day. Tactics used by Mikulencak and the others running the group display the symbiotic relationship among various social media platforms when it comes to disseminating messages and fostering communities. For example, he helped set up the wholeboycott.com blog and the @wholeboycott Twitter account which had about 575 followers as of Thursday afternoon.

They're all working together to get the word out. The Boycott page on Facebook, for instance, asks people to tweet about where they are shopping now instead of Whole Foods. In conjunction with that call-to-action, boycott supporters are also using Flickr, where they have posted photos of related protest events and receipts from purchases at Whole Foods competitors.

Sally Hampton, a self-described healthcare activist, and another Boycott Whole Foods admin, has a healthcare blog on MySpace which she uses to promote the Facebook group. "Our goal, of course, is to have more people on our page than the Whole Foods page, and we will continue to educate [people] on why we're boycotting and why these things work," Hampton says.

For now, the Boycott page has more members than some Facebook pages that support Whole Foods, but it does not have nearly as many fans as the Whole Foods Market page -- which boasted about 125,600 fans yesterday -- around 2,600 more than two days prior. Whole Foods also already had a Twitter account -- @WholeFoods -- with about 1.25 million followers.

Facebook pages such as "The Original: I Support Mr. John Mackey" have a more modest following with around 4,100 members as of yesterday. Crystal Jones set up that page a day or two after the op-ed ran, because she was surprised Whole Foods was chosen as a boycott target. Jones told ClickZ News she has shopped at Whole Foods since it opened in Pittsburgh five years ago. What's more, her partner has worked there for several months, so she is now more familiar with the firm's health benefits.

"The real issue here is how well is Whole Foods going to switch to the social Web to use social technology to draw the boycotters back to the table?" asked Dave Evans, vice president of digital media at social media strategy firm Digital Voodoo, and a ClickZ columnist.

A Whole Foods spokesperson said the company "has no official companywide position on the healthcare reform issue," and said the firm would not comment on its marketing strategy. The company hasn't done much to respond publicly to the boycott. However, the spokesperson said Whole Foods has responded directly to customers who have e-mailed and called with feedback, and is responding to customers in stores who have questions.

The firm also set up a forum on its site dedicated to the healthcare issue about two weeks ago. Already with over 2,000 posts, most of the forum's initial posts supported the boycott with subject lines like, "Whole Foods Has Lost My Business, Too," and "How to Lose a Long Time Customer." However, more recently, the forum's complexion has changed to reflect the opinions of Mackey supporters. One recent post was titled, "I never bought ANYTHING at Whole foods.... Until today."

One thing that both sides agree upon: They would not have been able to rally supporters without social media tools. MySpace blogger Hampton said digital media has been "a lifesaver for democracy" and called the boycott campaign a "real true grassroots effort" much like the response to the Iranian election earlier this year.

Evans suggested that social analytics tools show the conversation about the Whole Foods boycott has peaked already. Now that social media has created communities on both sides, he said they should begin discussing healthcare on those platforms.

He said one way to facilitate conversation could be for Mackey to engage other CEOs via a discussion platform such as Salesforce.com's IdeaStorm, in order to create a place where people with different opinions can work together to develop a plan.

"That's one of the ways to move from just, 'We've got this boycott going,' and a whole bunch of people are talking," Evans said.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Lacy

Lisa Lacy is senior staff writer at ClickZ. In addition to ClickZ, her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Luxury Spot, LearnVest, MarthaStewart.com, GoodHousekeeping.com, amNewYork, and The Wall Street Journal. She's a graduate of Columbia's School of Journalism.

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