Does Wal-Mart need a Robert Scoble or a Lionel Menchaca? Neither, says the community

I try to help companies when it comes to the web, in fact the tagline on this blog is “Jeremiah discusses how web tools enable companies to connect with customers” Consider this free advice from myself and the community for Wal-Mart. I hope Richard Edelman and Steve Rubel see this –this comes from the community that knows this space, don’t pass up our free advice.

There’s a healthy discussion in my previous post indicating that Wal-Mart’s Facebook campaign is not going that great, at first, I thought it was salvageable, but now I’m realizing from the comments that the damage to the brand is causing this rejection. The Wal-Mart brand appears to be so tainted that the social media programs are not accepting (There’s a long history, go look it up, from the MySpace clone, to the astroturfing blogs).

[The Wal-Mart brand is so badly damaged that it’s campaigns are not being accepted in the social media sphere, to correct, Wal-Mart needs a trusted evangelist to reach, fix, and be human]

Web Strategist, Connie Benson, suggested in the comments that what Wal-Mart needs is an evangelist. Someone that will authentically, and transparently, and with passion will address the core issues, embrace and build community (even detractors) to provide a linkage and show that Wal-Mart has real live humans. (Update: AdnohrYak was the first to suggest the evangelist should be a woman, thanks to you both!)

Both Microsoft and Dell had damaged brands: The software giant was known as the the “evil empire”, and PC giant was going to “hell“. In response, both of these companies made a smart and strategic move to elevate or hire the right type of folks to change how one-way communications have failed. Robert Scoble (now my colleague and VP) put a human face on Microsoft, and even became the biggest critic of his own employer –forcing the community to join him, and Lionel Menchaca (my video interview with him) who launched the Dell blog, engaged detractors (even in person) and helped to spearhead the revolutionary IdeaStorm. In the end, many of the problems may or may not be fixed, but the perception has absolutely changed.

It’s clear to me now (Thanks Connie and community), that Wal-Mart’s online web tactics in the social mediasphere will not be accepted, in fact they will all be rejected until the bigger problem is fixed. Wal-Mart needs an evangelist to engage real humans, address the issues (and fix ’em too) and engage detractors head-on, via the web. Both Robert and Lionel had different tactics to change their own mediaspheres, so a unique strategy will have to come from Wal-Mart.

Connie has recently commented again, and doesn’t think that either a Lionel or a Scoble would fix the brand, she suggests that:

“As to what type of person, I agree with Adnohryak that it needs to be a woman. But not a single mom. I think it needs to be a woman that is strong enough to speak out intelligently initially to turn the brand around, but viewed as an avg American shopper. And yes, she needs to appeal to a range of ages & guys too. She will need to have strong leadership skills in order to support & motivate her evangelists because in the beg. it’s going to be a challenge. So the woman should be a cross between Robert & Lionel – someone who knows the tools to use, be out there with a strong message & intelligently utilize both.” –Connie Benson

I know exactly where to find strong, intelligent women, they should start with BlogHer.

By the way, I come from experience, I was a Community Manager at Hitachi (started this way back in 2005), read “How to be a Community Manager“, and am involved with the community event series called Lunch 2.0, here’s how to have a successful community event.

  • Jamie

    That would just be papering over the cracks Jeremiah. Scoble wouldn’t have been as successful as he was in presenting Microsoft in a different light if the will to change wasn’t there from within.

    Consumers are not stupid. Dont think the appointment of an evangelist will change their thoughts and views on a brand. That will only happen by changes in the product and processes displayed going forward by Wal*Mart.

  • Thank you, Jeremiah, for supporting the persona I’m suggesting. For the Community Manager to be effective it’s imperative to have a good ‘fit’ between their personality & the company’s needs. And let the Community Manager explore the options (‘push the corporate envelope’ – I love quoting Scoble on that!). And it’s way more than blogging. I think that would come later. There’s so much brand work to be done first.

    mark had commented: Walmart gets written up here, WalMart gets written up in BusinessWeek, etc. Walmart couldn’t have bought this kind of attention in the blogosphere, not at any price! (And how much do you think that group on FaceBook cost ‘em?)

    What does everyone think about that? Is it good for business? Are they doing it on purpose? I think there are far better ways to build PR (and make it effective).
    And I’m quite flattered to be given the title of Web Strategist…a humble thank you…

  • Jamie said “That will only happen by changes in the product and processes displayed going forward by Wal*Mart.”

    Isn’t that a key role for the Community Manager/Evang.? To help Walmart see what needs to be changed internally?

  • Web Strategist Connie, you’ve got the energy, that’s for sure.

    Robert Scoble refers to it as the “Corporate membrane”, although envelope makes sense. The membrane (he told me waaay back in 2005) is flexible, and you can push it, but just don’t stick out!

  • Jamie

    Not really Connie. Wal*Mart already know what causes them to be perceived the way they do. Their financial statements say they have little incentive to change these ways.

  • Wal-Mart faces criticism from multiple angles: real, perceived, and imaginary….largely regarding employment practices and their controversial effect on small retailers across America. Simultaneously, Wal-Mart is commended for their immense contributions to supply chain management, certain retail trade practices, pushing for sustainable carton and product packaging, and other issues too.

    I believe the primary arguments for liking Wal-Mart (low prices, monthly savings, wide selection) don’t justify enough people wanting to openly support Wal-Mart or comes to its defense. The opposition is just too strong.
    No amount of community evangelism will marginally affect any of that.

  • I am not sure, what worked for Microsoft and Dell can work for a discount-chain. Both Microsoft and Dell have a certain credibilty or call it innate industry predisposition to act in the “blogosphere”. Both sell “stuff” that is the essence of the Web.

    The same does not apply to Walmart. Internet is not their arena. That makes it more difficult. Even if I agree with the type of persona you both suggest.

  • An evangelist of the type you describe would be ineffective with respect to changing perceptions of the company overall. Instead I would recommend establishment of a parallel Wal-Mart business unit whose sole function is online relationship development, sales, and services.

    The persona of such a unit would be “We’re not like our parent.” Pricing snd services would be exemplary. Competiton between terrestrial and online Wal-Mart would be openly encouraged. Online Wal-Mart would be free to openly criticize the behavior of terrestrial Wal-Mart, and vice versa.

    Would it be physically and logistically possible to establish a truly independent unit like this given how well integrated Wal-Mart supply chain technology and processes are — technology and processes that the online unit most certainly would have to piggyback on? I don’t know. But if the unit were independent AND was able to convincingly demonstrate that to the public, THEN I think your idea of a scoblesque ombudsman might have a chance of working.

    On a related note, a possible area for research might be to begin experimenting with 3-dimensional user-defined avatars as online intermediaries with companies. Some people may prefer generic machine like interaction since they just want to get in and get out to complete a sales transaction. But for those folks where establishing a persona for the intermediary might actually make sense, why not let THE CUSTOMER decide who he/she wants to deal with online? Some folks might opt for a Scoble, some for Betty Crocker, and others might like a Captain Kangaroo. Let the people decide how they want to experience the “face” of the company.

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  • Dennis – Betty Crocker?! that’s how you interpreted the persona I was describing? There are so many professional women – they are the type I was referring to.

    Walmart competing with itself seems a bit like tossing out unattended social network strategies, maybe?

    Also a note of observation- yesterday we took my daughter to college. Walmart’s parking lot was packed & we were there. Network & usb cables & printers were in high demand. The 2 times we drove past Target,there were about 30 cars… parking lot was a quarter full. People in my area LIKE Walmart. I think Walmart just needs to connect with their customers better & that feedback could come from online strategies – input directly from the customers.

  • Whoa, potential mine field here. 🙂

    I don’t think the persona that we think will be succesful has bene discovered yet. It’s going to be a woman that’s savvy for: home, environment, family, business, personal electronics, and whatever else comes up next.

    It’s a pretty tough persona to find, but I know she’s out there. Maybe it’s Connie!

  • Connie – I was not trying to interpret your model. My point is that with so many “communities” to deal with it’s probably impossible to come up with a single model that appeals to all unless a serious attempt is made to limit the target audience (which is why I suggested the “independent online entity” model).

    Like it or not, some folks may find a Betty Crocker type persona to be appropriate. I wouldn’t but who am I to judge?

    I also don’t buy the “it’s got to be a woman” argument. That’s the flip side of “the president has to be a man” view, in my opinion.

    PS — The Walmart in Blacksburg VA goes out of its way to stock Hokey goods. I know it well and have purchased much there. Students at Virginia Tech can take the free bus service there and back to campus, too — I’m not sure about Target but I have shopped at both. At Walmart I did buy two personal refrigerators [to kids there], a microwave, a collapsing bookshelf, and tons of purple and orange hangers at Walmart, though.

  • Do people born after 1970 even know who Betty Crocker is?

    It’s tough – I think she also can’t be obviously from the East or West Coasts, too working woman, not enough Mom. Again, perception, not the reality (I’m a NJ-girl, myself).

    Connie – I had the opposite experience the other day, more people at Target than WalMart (I think that has more to do with location). Both store have just broken into NJ in the last 5 or so years and are still building their reputations. Target is much more integrated here. Maybe due to it’s large Times Square ad presence(?).

    Dennis – I think the persona of WalMart is male (Sam) and needs to be balanced by a feminine voice. The aggressive tactics of WalMart are what’s brought damage to the brand – a more healing (albeit knowledgeable) voice is needed to build back trust and brand equity.

  • How about James Stewart?

  • Yes, people born after 1970 know who Betty Crocker is. People born after 1980, however…

    And the character traits for the ideal evangelist you’ve envisioned for Wal-mart sounds like a resume for a political candidate. Honestly, I don’t know that the brand can be salvaged. Didn’t they have a fake family blogging for them and singing their praises at one point? I don’t think anyone is going to trust an evangelist to be anything more than yet another piece of marketing propaganda.

    Actually–I did think of one way Wal-Mart could salvage its brand; investing in American companies and filling their shelves with American goods. Of course, I have a better chance of growing a second head…

  • Jeremiah – I recently read ‘Marketing to Women’ & the main point was that women ARE making the majority of consumer purchases & advertisers aren’t marketing to them. And women are the shoppers in Walmart & Target, so why not have a woman leading the campaign to leverage their purchasing? And I think that an expert in marketing to teenagers is needed to plan the strategy. I know of a blogger who has nailed this – Stephen Abrams knows how to connect. He’s been promoting Library 2.0 for quite awhile & knows his audience. (my first intro. to web 2.0 concepts)

    Dennis – I have a great sense of humor. Now had you said Suzy Homemaker… Betty Crocker is a prof. woman’s best friend in the kitchen. 😉 And, I like Jimmy Stewart! It’s way easier to be optimistic rather than otherwise. Maybe that’s what comes from living in the rural Midwest? I found it very interesting that Jane thinks that people from the Coasts are out.

    Jane – this is great insight “The aggressive tactics of WalMart are what’s brought damage to the brand – a more healing (albeit knowledgeable) voice is needed to build back trust and brand equity.” I had wondered how it happened. I’ve seen the Anti-Walmart books, but they’re so negative I’ve ignored them & never pondered the background. And isn’t Sam more of an icon rather than a voice? (I’m following you on Twitter now & added your blog. Thanks Jeremiah for providing the space for the discussion!)

  • PR, whether conducted through traditional media or web communities cannot perfume a pig. At some point, you have to deal with what’s offensive about the pig.

    If you reach out to the community with an intention to reform, you can succeed. If you reach out to justify yourself, you’ll fail.

    Scoble succeeded because he is authentic, direct, aware, and speaks with an independent voice (even when he’s under a corporate umbrella). His voice is heard by insiders as well as outsiders.

    You can’t be an effective web embassador unless you have some of the power of an ombudsman.

  • Connie – I think that Sam is the personification (icon and voice) of WalMart – can you think of anyone else that you think if when you hear that brand? Maybe the “Rollback Smiley”! (I added you back on Twitter).

    This person has to be accountable only to the brand and not management – everything transparent and open, including influence from the board/company. Not an easy sell – to the public (especially with existing opinion) or to the board/management.

  • I pointed Jeremiah to this article earlier today

    I agree with you Jane, that exec/management would need to support the effort. But that’s pretty much the case for any company’s web strategy, isn’t it? Radical trust is a necessity for a Community Manager to be effective & successful along with a lot of allowance for experimentation.

  • Interesting article Jeremiah, but I have to say I totally disagree with their need for an evangelist. Evangelism only works when the company is willing and open to listen and change their practices. Dell improved their customer service, that helped change the perception of their company because it was clear they were listening to their customers.

    Unfortunately the issues with Wal-Mart that their most recent FB campaign show go much deeper to the heart of their business model. Unless they feel the need to change it, I don’t think getting warm and fuzzy with evangelists is going to fool anyone.

    I touch on this in a recent post –

    All social media tools (and even social ‘media’ in general) are not one-size-fits-all, nor are they appropriate for all companies if they aren’t willing to radically change.

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  • I believe that WALMART has more PR challenges than just a social media strategy need. To think that having an evangelist blogger could “turn them around” is wishful thinking whether it is a man or a woman.