Walmart Turns the Corner with “Energizing”

A few months ago my colleague Josh Bernoff visited Walmart HQ and wrote how he believes the company is going to understand social –I was skeptical. Last night I had dinner with some of the Wal-Mart digital team invited by John Andrews, Emerging Media Sr. Manager at Wal-Mart Stores, along with other colleagues and some other vendors.

If you’re not aware of their checkered past, Walmart is a case study for doing social media wrong. They created the myspace clone community called “Hub” and shut it down after a mere 10 weeks, then they were caught “astroturfing” (fake blogging) along with their PR agency Edelman. They’ve launched the “Checkout Blog” which I give mixed ratings, while it’s certainly an authentic piece from Walmart buyers, there’s only a mere 6 comments on the 10 most recent posts. If conversation rate is a measure of success –they’re borderline.

[Rather than forcing the message with their own branded community, fake blogs, and corporate blogs, Walmart gets it right by creating a platform for customers and pundits to tell their story]

But what gets me thinking that Walmart may become a case study of success? They’re allowing for customer opinions by using Bazaarvoice for the last few years, this give customers the chance to rate –and rank the products they think are good. Secondly they’ve created a platform for the 11 moms bloggers (now beyond 20, with men too) that allow bloggers to discuss their opinions about products, Walmart and lifestyle. The difference between the Walmart blogging program and Kmart Izea deployment? The Walmart bloggers are not paid, and not-sponsored, and can write anything they want, with the caveat it’s non-disparaging (rather than saying “Walmart sucks” they should discuss what could be improved and why. I’ve spoken with a few of them, such as Lucretia Pruitt, (aka Geekmommy on twitter, follow her) who can share insight to why the program is working.

So why is this a change for Walmart? It’s pretty simple. Rather than Walmart trying to tell the story themselves with a community, and blogs. They’ve now figured out how to let their customers tell the story on their behalf –and that’s the difference. At Forrester, we call this ‘energizing’ which is commonly known as word of mouth, rather than “talking” which is the company speaking directly with the market, learn more about the five objectives. Given that corporate blogs aren’t trusted –and people that you know are –this is the way to go for Walmart.

Sometimes, the companies that have the roughest start (like Dell) with social end up being the case studies of success, I have a suspicion Walmart could fall into that category.

  • Kristi C

    Jeremiah, this is very interesting information, so thanks for writing it. While I hear what you’re saying about letting others do social for them, as a person who does branding for folks, I hate to see Walmart never find a way to insert their own voice and their own stories into the mix. I believe companies should do both, if they can. It will be interesting to watch them use the space now, because I didn’t know about the fake blogging and missteps of the past. It’s never too late to learn, and the great thing about going social is, there are multiple ways and places to play, until you figure out how to get it “right” for your company and customers.

  • Chad E.

    It is great news for those of us in social media to hear that the biggest retailer in the world continues to see value in our industry.

    How did they get the “11 moms blog” concept off the ground without any incentives?

  • Rob Walker

    Great post Jeremiah,

    I’ve been keeping an eye on Walmart’s efforts and it is good to see that they are moving the a successful direction. This is a great example of a retailer realizing that the community will have positive and negative things to say and it’s better to embrace that then try to put up artificial barriers.

    To answer Chad E. I’d guess that the Mom’s are not paid with cash — but are paid with products to review plus the added notoriety and traffic to their blogs that they can monetize with ads.

  • jeremiah_owyang

    Rob is correct there are ‘soft’ incentives to the bloggers aside from raw cash payments.

  • Lucretia Pruitt

    Thanks for the shout out Jeremiah, I was wondering where those folks were coming from today! :)

    Chad & Rob – there are ‘soft’ incentives as Jeremiah pointed out – but the main reason that the program has succeeded in retaining our interest and involvement is Walmart itself and the people who work there and believe in it.

    The day after Josh visited Walmart’s HQ in Bentonville, we were there as well. Thanks to the efforts of John Andrews and his team, we met with an amazing assortment of people all the way up to sitting in a room talking with Eduardo Castro-Wright and other executives discussing how Walmart can engage its customers – in particular, Moms – in a genuine and authentic way.

    The day after that, we were privileged to attend the famous “Saturday Morning Meeting” and to meet Lee Scott – who even escorted us out to our departure shuttle and talked with us as well.

    The people at Walmart are what make the difference and why we stay engaged. They’re families and real, working, concerned, invested folks just like we are and they believe in the changes Walmart is making. You can’t fake that.

    Lots of bloggers get “soft” incentives from companies – but the passion we have to see Walmart succeed in this Social Media space comes from our own belief that they earnestly care about what their customers think. If they didn’t? No amount of goods could sway us.
    Because honestly? Jeremiah’s ‘skepticism’ is commonly expressed to us as down-right shock that we would work with them. Until someone talks to us for awhile and then understanding happens.

    We, the ElevenMoms, believe in what Walmart is trying to do. That’s what makes it work.

  • Tom Maras

    Sounds like WalMart didnt initially believe in the power of a community..kind of a tough way to enter the social media space…actions speak volumes…once the trust factor is gone, the community is no longer viable…

  • evan shaw blackerby

    I am excited that companies are starting to actually care and listen to consumers. I would say that Walmart is proving that mass marketing is dying. It will all be word of mouth in ten years. Either through social media or whatever is around.

  • Eric Brown

    Jeremiah, Thanks for the post. It is very helpful to see how corporations are adapting to this space we call Social Media.

    We operate a small boutique apartment management business in SE MI, and have had much success by Enhancing the Residents Experience. We launched a blog aimed at our residents, and goings on and happenings in and around the city we operate in. It was only after turning the blog over to resident evangelists that it took off.

    Our Goal; “To provide our residents with an experience and value with a high enough return to create enough Customer Evangelists within our core resident base that they self rent our apartments.” We are working hard to lead our Resident Influencers within our core resident base, and have transitioned most of our marketing budget inward, to further focus on our existing residents. Only good things have happened from this move. Resident retention has significantly improved, and we have created a forum and a field for the Influencers to participate.

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  • Jim Storer

    Thanks for the update on Walmart (just catching it now via a shared items in Google Reader… better late than never).

    What strikes me about Walmart yesterday vs. today is the concept of control. Their early efforts suggested they wanted to control what people saw and said about the company. Their most recent efforts lean toward nurturing voices to speak on their behalf, while maintaining minimum control over what’s said.

    This is a fundamental shift most leaders need to make in order to be successful in social media. I say most because some are clearly already on their way. Hopefully, the folks at Walmart are in that group.

    Jim | @jstorerj

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  • anon

    Why is it that one of the 11 moms had a terrible time buying her iphone but never posted it?

    Also, ask them about the $5,000.

  • Rob Walker

    Great post Jeremiah,

    I've been keeping an eye on Walmart's efforts and it is good to see that they are moving the a successful direction. This is a great example of a retailer realizing that the community will have positive and negative things to say and it's better to embrace that then try to put up artificial barriers.

    To answer Chad E. I'd guess that the Mom's are not paid with cash — but are paid with products to review plus the added notoriety and traffic to their blogs that they can monetize with ads.

  • Anup Kumar
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    I don't understand why they want to create a blogging platform?

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