Episode 67 - Nathan T. Wright of Hy-Vee

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Geoff Wood: Welcome to the Welch Avenue Show, episode number 67. Our guest today is Nathan Wright, or as he's known on Twitter, Nathan T. Wright. Be sure not to confuse your Nathan Wrights online, folks. Nathan leads the digital market innovation group at one of Iowa's most well-known corporations, Hy-Vee. Nathan's also an illustrator, a former startup founder, and just started a newsletter, which you can find at tinyletter.com/nathantwright. Quick reminder that the Welch Avenue Show is almost entirely funded by our listeners like you. A huge thank you to everyone who supported us this far. If you'd like to contribute, just go to showtipjar.com to find out how. Now on to episode 67 with Nathan Wright.

Geoff Wood: More than ever, I actually like make myself go to the bank and get a roll of quarters and just keep that … It's such a hassle.

Chris New: See, I use the card. I've talked about this before, but card [crosstalk 00:00:56] is really useful, because you can load it up with twenty bucks or whatever you want. 

Nathan Wright: If you could load the card online ...

Nathan Wright: Uh-huh.

Chris New: Oh, yeah, yeah. It's a pain to go there, because you got to go into the ...

Geoff Wood: Yeah.

Chris New: The offices, and whatever.

Nathan Wright: Nobody wants to do that.

Geoff Wood: Right, or if it just took a credit card. 

Chris New: Yeah. 

Geoff Wood: Have you used the ones in Cedar Rapids, downtown?

Chris New: Apple Pay. Meters with Apple Pay, now. 

Geoff Wood: The ones in Cedar Rapids are on a bank. You just have a number; there's no meter at your actual thing. You just go to a little kiosk and put in your actual number.

Chris New: I've done that, and that's kind of annoying because you have to download the app. 

Geoff Wood: No, no, it was a kiosk that you went to. 

Chris New: Oh, is it? Oh, that's different, yeah. That's nice. 

Geoff Wood: You put in your number and then it's all centralized, and there's one on every block, I think, so ... Yeah.

Chris New: Yeah. We're rolling. 

Geoff Wood: We're rolling? Okay. Cool. We keep this pretty loose and casual, so ...

Nathan: Sounds good. 

Geoff Wood: We've talked a lot in the past. You've been on various episodes of podcasts I've done for five years, maybe, now?

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Geoff Wood: But none since you've been in this new role and kind of doing new things, so yeah; why don't you tell everybody what you guys are working on?

Nathan: Yeah, so, I joined Hy-Vee at the corporate office about a year and a half ago, in October of 2013. My role there is ... It was a new role to them. I oversee a variety of digital marketing projects, so a lot of that includes social networks, day-to-day content strategy, pushing them into new platforms that they haven't been in yet, doing a lot of research, consumer trends, behaviors. Things like that. I touch some other things too. Email marketing, mobile app, hy-vee.com. Those are primarily IT roadmap projects, but I do like to hang out and play in those spaces too. Probably my favorite part of the job, though, is helping stores. I actually operate as an internal consultant in the Hy-Vee land. The way Hy-vee works, for those who don't know, is most stores are fully autonomous, meaning that the store director, he or she is basically their own CEO and they get to operate with a lot of ... a long leash, to make their own decisions, buying decisions, pricing, things like that. What that also means is that, when you have 237 stores, you've got 237 Facebook pages ...

Geoff Wood: Oh.

Nathan: 237 content strategies, thousands of admins, employee turnover. That's a fun part of my job, is I get to help them and give them guidance and help them be successful. There's no shortage of questions ...

Geoff Wood: Sure.

Nathan: That come in from them. They're interested in other things too, like, "Should we be on Twitter?" and "Should we be on Snapchat or Instagram?" I'm always, everyday, talking to stores and helping them with small to large problems. It's fun.

Geoff Wood: So, is that why the beer selection's better at 42nd Street than at Windsor Heights?

Nathan: Yep! Yeah, you will find inventory differences by stores, and what's good about that is Hy-Vee can react to its neighborhood.

Geoff Wood: True.

Nathan: So the 42nd and University Hy-Vee can say, "Well, this neighborhood needs this, and we're going to supply that to them," where a couple miles away it might look and feel completely different. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah. That's awesome. I remember when you went over there, and you had consulted with them in your private life.

Nathan: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: Your private sector, before that, right?

Nathan: Yeah, before that I was ... I have my own consulting firm specializing in digital, and Hy-Vee was a client throughout some of those years, yep. 

Geoff Wood: Is your picture on a truck yet? 

Nathan: I'm not on a truck. I don't know what the threshold is, but it's a big deal as I understand it, to work for Hy-Vee and show up on the truck. It's a big statement. You earn it, somehow. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah. I would think so. I always chuckle when I see them on the highway, though.

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Geoff Wood: I have to feel like that's what you try to attain. If I started at Hy-Vee, that would be, "How do I get myself on a truck?"

Nathan: Right. Life goals: get on truck.

Geoff Wood: But is it like retiring a basketball jersey? There's no definition of what gets you on a truck? Once you get to that point, then, "Oh, we're going to reward this"

Nathan: I think. I could be wrong, but I think I think it has to do with exceptional performance or customer service, I think ... 

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Nathan: Will accelerate you towards "truck status". 

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Nathan: Yeah. 

Geoff Wood: Nice. I think there should be a whole campaign around truck status.

Nathan: Right, right. 

Geoff Wood: If you know anybody at Hy-Vee that can do that. 

Nathan: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: No, that's really cool. What is the most innovative platform you guys are doing that surprised you that's worked out well for Hy-Vee?

Nathan: I wouldn't say Twitter's innovative, but I've been pleasantly surprised by how embraced the brand has been by younger consumers on that platform. I'm pretty cynical about social networks after having consulted in that space for six years and brands playing in it. It's always tough to bring a brand to that space and just have people automatically line up and be engaged with you. I've been really surprised with how things have worked in that channel. Specifically the first thing I noticed when I started there, week one on the job was ... I set up all my Twitter feeds and my brand mentions and every day like clockwork at about 9:30 or 10am younger shoppers, specifically high school and college kids, start their Hy-Vee Chinese cravings, and they start tweeting about it and tweeting to their friends that they want to go get it, or "Do you want to go jump in the car? Let's go!" Every single day. Almost like 85% of the total mentions were about Chinese. I always knew it was popular, but I never knew it was that crazy popular, so we've built Twitter and social networking strategies around Hy-Vee Chinese, or, as it's affectionately known, "#hychi," is the hashtag that's used.

Geoff Wood: Did you guys come up with that, or is that something you pulled from the ...

Nathan: No, we did not come up with it, which I love that our consumers already made it up and we're just kind of latching onto it and ...

Geoff Wood: Yeah. 

Nathan: Along for the ride. Which is the best scenario for a brand hashtag. We don't really own it; someone else came up with it. It's already popular and being used by who we want it to be used by, and we're just going to come use it to.

Geoff Wood: The fact you've jumped in hasn't spoiled the hashtag; they'll still use it.

Nathan: No, I think we jumped in in the right way, too. It was just interacting with those people using it, and kind of slowly integrating it into some marketing pieces on digital as well as physical platforms in-store as well. T-shirts and hats; some of the employees wear them now. They have hychi hats and shirts, depending on what store you're at, and they wear them and they love it. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah. It is good Chinese food. 

Nathan: It is delicious. 

Geoff Wood: I always kind of thought the ... Wasn't there a "Rated the Number 1 Chinese Food" type or some list or whatever, and I'm like, "Really, that?" I guess I don't know that I have the most discerning Chinese food palate ...

Nathan: Right, right.

Geoff Wood: But I enjoy it. I think it was one of the first things we did when we moved back to Iowa, was we want to go get Hy-Vee Chinese ...

Nathan: Top ten list, when you come back to Iowa ...

Geoff Wood: Yeah.

Nathan: You go there immediately.

Geoff Wood: That's pretty awesome. Have you had any fallout from the Chuck Grassley tweet about wanting to find Hy-Vees that don't have the fresh, no ... what's, with the market thing?

Nathan: Oh, the market grill.

Geoff Wood: Market grill, yeah.

Nathan: Market grill tweet. I think the context, if I remember this right, is he just wanted to get in and out and ...

Geoff Wood: Yeah.

Nathan: Or eat at the buffet, and kind of a no-frills thing. 

Geoff Wood: Does that fall to you though, because it was over Twitter, when he said it? 

Nathan: Yeah. It was hilarious when he said it. It was like, "Is he trolling us? Or what is he doing here?" It's like, "Oh, Grassley! There he goes again." Those Market Grills, or Cafes, depending on what store, are taking over those deli spaces.

Geoff Wood: Yeah.

Nathan: So you here that from time to time. People are used to this. They're not quite ready for that. It's just part of changing it out in stores. I would anticipate most stores having that model, moving forward. 

Geoff Wood: How's Grassley feel about it, though? Have you had to kind of ...  He was just here, last week.

Nathan: I don't know. I haven't tweeted back to him. I know our ... So, we have a customer service department who handles all of those, and I think they said something back to him; I can't quite remember. Sometimes they have funny responses, but I know they engaged him right away. Typically, that's the other thing too, if you tweet about Hy-Vee you're going to get a response in an hour or two. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah.

Nathan: Most of them will get caught by us, whether you're mad or happy or somewhere in between. 

Geoff Wood: Foursquare, Snapchat; are those as impactful in the day-to-day, or is Twitter really the spot? 

Nathan: Our two main ones that have been the most successful for us are Facebook and Twitter. They're the big two. We were playing in some other spaces but those are really the big ones. I really believe in focus; there's so many platforms that we could be in, and I really want to get the main ones right first.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. Do you feel like you're missing conversations in the other ones that you should be a part of?

Nathan: I'm sure there is. Then you've got apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat where maybe it's less of a conversation in the sense that it's a problem or an employee issue or a customer complaint, like what would happen on Facebook or Twitter. There are certainly employees there or things happening that we'll never see. It's kind of the dark web.

Geoff Wood: Yeah.

Nathan: It's all out there in the ether, and disposable and never quite known.

Geoff Wood: I remember when I was in IT leadership for our company when Facebook kind of first released beyond college kids and anybody can sign up for an account. The company didn't want our employees on Facebook. That was the ownership's feel on it. The vice president I reported to was like, "The conversation's going to happen whether you're there or not, so it's better that we participate in them than just turn a blind eye to them."

Yeah. I can't keep up with trying to manage Twitter accounts for Gravitate, like all the things that I'm doing. So I can't imagine ... And that's with very few followers. I can't imagine what ... How many Twitter followers? Do you know, like a round number?

Nathan: I think it's around 130,000 right now, and it was at about 25,000 a year ago, so we've aggressively gone after building that audience. Same on Facebook, too. Then you lump in, all the stores have their accounts too, and a Facebook reach of over a million, and 100,000 plus on Twitter. 

Geoff Wood: That's crazy. 

Nathan: Yeah. We had one store that ... I think it's Springfield, Illinois, and they've been really successful on their Facebook page. They have over 17,000 fans, which is great. This one store in a city, in a Midwest city, and they have gone after it. They did it mostly organically, just getting people excited, and being smart and thoughtful about what they do. It's great to see that. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah. Well, a lot of the folks who listen to this are kind of in the entrepreneurial world.

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Geoff Wood: You were there, and you've kind of moved into a more established business. How has that changed your days, and what's good and bad about that?

Nathan: It's completely different, so you don't really own your schedule as much any more. That's a bit more rigid. I work in a ... It's a corporate environment. I'm not wearing a tie right now; your listeners can't tell but ...

Geoff Wood: Do you normally wear a tie?

Nathan: Yeah, every day. 

Geoff Wood: Really? Is that an expectation?

Nathan: Yep. Every single day, the tie is on. 

Geoff Wood: Do you have a name tag like they do in the stores?

Nathan: I do not have a name tag. I do have a name badge that I wear around, but that's like a security key. 

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Nathan: More of a key than a badge. Yeah, the schedule's more rigid. I have to wear pants to work. Yeah, but it's been fun, though. It's been fun to be in that world and helping them out, helping them understand all this stuff. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah. What's the best part of it?

Nathan: Best part. Getting a long leash to do a lot of new things in marketing; digital marketing is great because there's such an appetite for it there. Experimenting with new technology and new social networks and spaces like that. As I mentioned earlier, I still love helping stores out because they really need it. A lot of times their employees that do other stuff, they got tasked with digital. So, it's like a produce guy that's also doing this now, because he was told to.

Geoff Wood: Interesting. 

Nathan: Some of them can be really stressed out and it's fun to help them and teach them. There's just a couple things you need to learn and be successful with. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah. That's really cool. I would imagine just to go from bootstrapping any project you want to work on to having resources and, I assume, a budget for what you're doing. 

Nathan: We have budgets, yeah. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah. That has to be a big piece, too, that would be pretty nice.

Nathan: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: Cool. You just started up a newsletter. Do you want to talk a little about what you're doing there?

Nathan: I did. Yeah. That was inspired by partly you and Chris Snider. Chris Snider has ... he's here in Des Moines too. He sends out a social media and web design tips. Then yours, I loved how clean and stripped down they were, and focused. It's like, "Gosh, email newsletters have been neglected for so long." Or, non-respected as an effective communication tool, but they still are; they're still very intimate. I thought I want to focus my thoughts on a weekly basis and put the five or six things that I get excited about and bundle them together and share that with people. It's a mix of just the strange things I find on the internet, technology, consumer tech news or trends, sci-fi stuff. I always try to put a drawing in there, too.

Geoff Wood: How do people find it? What's the best way to subscribe?

Nathan: Best way to subscribe is tinyletter.com/nathantwright, or, I believe my website is still functioning, nathantwright.com. If you go there I believe there's something on the right hand side as well. 

Geoff Wood: I imagine it's nice to still have a chance to kind of share the "you," not necessarily the Hy-Vee's "you," but the "you," you, in that way, and sharing those types of things that do overlap but are also different. I would agree. I think email newsletters have a bad rap, and I feel like it's kind of an emerging area. You see, what's the one ... The Skimm?, or something like that, that raised a ton of money ...

Nathan: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: I subscribe to a bunch of them just to see how people are doing things, too. It's not always content that I care about, but ...

Nathan: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: I enjoy this. I think this is the 83rd week that I've sent mine out, and sent one every week. I think there was one week where I didn't have any content but I still sent it, saying, "It's Christmas Day" or something like that. It's been fun to watch it grow. I don't know if you want to share subscriber things, or kind of how that's going, but ...

Nathan: Yeah, it's less than a hundred.

Geoff Wood: Less than a hundred? Okay.

Nathan But I'm happy with it for under ... I think I've been doing it for four weeks.

Geoff Wood: Okay. Yeah. I sent my very first one out to one person, Danny Schreiber from SPN, or he just left SPN at the time. I think it's at 630 or something now, and it seems to be picking up steam, and I'm doing more marketing tactics, like Noah Kagan's SumoMe, list builder stuff that are sometimes annoying but seem to be working. People seem to be subscribing for it. It's great.

Nathan: Wow. Eighty three weeks in a row.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. 

Nathan: It's intense.

Geoff Wood: I did just start paying for MailChimp. I started with TinyLetter and I walked away from that because you couldn't save any templated stuff in there. So I went to MailChimp just to kind of give it more of a professional presence. My personal goal is 2000, which is where you have to start paying for MailChimp.

Nathan: Okay.

Geoff Wood: It feels like that's a milestone. I did start paying for it recently because one of mine got flagged as phishing.

Nathan: Oh, really?

Geoff Wood: So everybody here was telling me, "What did you put in this?" I can't figure out what it is that I put in it, but MailChimp let's you run a report before that, so everyone I've done since then, which I don't craft any different way, has said 100% passed the spam check thing. 

Nathan: Interesting. 

Geoff Wood: So, I don't know. Yeah. What else is going on, man?

Nathan: Going to my annual pilgrimage to Austin. That's nineteen days away, I think. South by Southwest Interactive is coming.

Geoff Wood: I'm going too, and I just was starting to schedule meetings out today and noticed that, like, "Oh, there's my flights," and things like that, so it's not that far away if I'm hitting it on the schedule now. 

Nathan: Yeah, it's just right around the corner. That's always my lighthouse in winter guiding me out. If I can make it to South by Southwest, then I'll know winter's almost over. 

Geoff Wood: Are you presenting this year?

Nathan: No. 

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Nathan: Just attending. 

Geoff Wood: Does Hy-Vee let you do things like that?

Nathan: Yeah, every once in a while I'll do a speaking engagements. I just did one a couple weeks ago for the American Marketing Association chapter. 

Geoff Wood: Oh yeah, how'd that go? I saw that advertised.

Nathan: It was good. Yeah, it was good. It was a day-long thing and I was at the very end. I was sharing top ten future retail trends; things that were interesting to me. 

Geoff Wood: Oh, cool.

Nathan: Yeah. 

Geoff Wood: Any big things you're looking for at South By this year? What's the ...

Nathan: Seems like there's a heavy amount of med tech, so I know this medical technology track has blown up almost like sports did down there, and it's its own separate campus now. That's interesting. I know one of the keynotes is about trans-humanism, which is basically humans modding their own bodies beyond what biological evolution intended for us. Which I guess you could say is evolution, if we've evolved to be this smart and we're just figuring out how to make ourselves better, then that's probably evolution too. That's putting on new ears that are better, or nanobots that are inside our bodies that are scanning for cancer, things like that. Just augmenting ourselves. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah.

Nathan: That seems to be ... There's a lot of content about that, and then a keynote about it. 

Geoff Wood: Okay.

Nathan: I would expect that to be a big pillar of the conference. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah. I didn't buy a badge again this year so this is the second year in a row I haven't bought a badge. I'm just going for the weekend. 

Nathan: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: And the state economic development #IowaHour, are you going to go to that? 

Nathan: The Iowa hour?

Geoff Wood: Iowa hour.

Nathan: That's hard to say. Iowa hour. That's a lot of vowels going on. Yes, I will be there. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah, that's Sunday night. I think that's going to be ... It was really fun last year, I think it's going to be ...

Nathan: Same venue? 

Geoff Wood: Same venue, but downstairs this year. 

Nathan: Okay.

Nathan: That was great. That was a great time. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah, I think that'll be good. Looking forward to that, just flying in for the weekend. We rented a house again, so got four people I think sleeping in various bedrooms. Yeah, should be good. Well, cool. I didn't really pay attention to when we started, so I don't want to keep you too long.

Chris New: About twenty minutes.

Geoff Wood: Okay, good.

Nathan: Perfect. 

Geoff Wood: Anything else you want to share folks about what you're working on at Hy-Vee, or the newsletter, or ... You're doing the illustrations as well; are you doing anything with that?

Nathan: Yeah. Every once in a while. It's kind of just a side thing I always do. Then for Christmas I got one of those digital pen tablets, so everything before that was hand-drawn, or created and ... I always wondered if I would resist the digital version of that but then about thirty minutes into it I just fell in love with it. It's so efficient. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah.

Nathan: You can create so fast, and there's no ... It's so responsive; there's no disruption in your own personal style of art. Once you pick it up, it's great.

Geoff Wood: Yeah. That's pretty cool. So the stuff that you're including in the newsletter now, is that drawn

Nathan: Some of it, yeah. Some of it's new stuff, but I have this whole batch of old things that I've done that I, when I'm lazy, I just throw those in there. 

Geoff Wood: Yeah. That's awesome. Well, cool. If we were to give the link, where should we find out more about you on Twitter, or what's the best place? 

Nathan: At nathantwright on the Twitter machine.

Geoff Wood: On the Twitter machine. 

Nathan: Yeah.

Geoff Wood: Perfect. Well, thanks, man!

Nathan: Yeah, thank you!