Wal-Mart's Social Sales Heaven

The latest Wal-Mart social acquisition—one where it grabbed "the technology of" a 4-year-old Facebook app called Social Calendar—creates the potential for Wal-Mart shoppers to not only be reminded of Aunt Bertha's birthday but have gift ideas based on Aunt Bertha's social media activity together with her purchase history. Walmart.com will send these gifts to its customers—or to Bertha directly—with one-click mobile speed. That ability, plus new detailed maps to customers within Facebook, and Wal-Mart has bought itself quite a gift.

Social Calendar, which owner Newput Corp. sold to Wal-Mart for an undisclosed amount, claims some 16 million users globally (67 percent from the U.S.), 5 million monthly page views, and 110 million birthdays and other events on file. The magic comes when those millions of gift-giving events—birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, graduations, baby showers, etc.—are merged with Wal-Mart's new social media files and its not-so-new customer purchase histories. If Wal-Mart can match Aunt Bertha with Bertha Smith of Altoona, Pa., frequent shopper of the Plank Road Wal-Mart in Altoona, bingo! Wal-Mart marketers will start passing out their own party hats.

How difficult will it be making such matches? Given the role of Facebook in this festive fiscal folderol, not that difficult at all. One of the original points of Social Calendar was, according to its site, "recognizing that Facebook Wall is now where the action is on someone's birthday."

So if the birthday message is headed for the recipient's Facebook page—which is chock full of clues as to who that person is, assuming it doesn't reveal it explicitly—making an ID is not likely going to be difficult. And because the identification is happening right on the gift target's Facebook page, not only is the real-world identification easy, but there is a definite match to at least part of that shopper's social persona.

This has the potential for combining two very powerful sales drivers. A reminder of a friend's birthday (remember that a "friend" in Facebook and Twitter can be one of a huge number of people) is a strong psychological gift moment. To then make a truly personalized recommendation at that same instant is going to have huge potential. Add to that an easy one-click button, and Wal-Mart may truly be on to something here.

Much of this could raise privacy concerns, but not if it's handled properly. And remember that Facebook is diluting privacy issues in a huge number of ways. For example, if a search limited itself to publicly available Facebook pages, what type of legitimate privacy complaint could be made?

Setting Facebook aside for the moment, the world of E-tail gift recommendations has its own privacy minefields, but ones that can avoided with discretion, discipline and restraint.If no recommendation is made unless it can be supported by at least three distinct information sources, it's hard for the recipient (or, for that matter, the gift-giver) to know why you suggested a 12-inch sauté pan. Was it because of cooking books purchased? Comments made on Amazon about pans? Will the recipient immediately suspect that it was really the comment posted on Facebook last week that a fire warped and destroyed her beloved sauté pan? As long as that Facebook remark was not the only place Aunt Bertha discussed sauté pans, you're probably in the clear.

Amazon itself has understood the delicate dance of gift recommendations for years, even using the "creepy" reference back in 2008. (Although you might not know judging by Amazon's recent effort to guess someone's religion based on giftwrap and attempts to guess shoppers' income.

The initial comments from Wal-Mart seem to suggest that it will be tackling this issue without much help from the Social Calendar team. Wal-Mart has confirmed that it has purchased "the technology of" Social Calendar but is not apparently welcoming the team who created and maintained the Facebook app.

Wal-Mart has made no reference to the Social Calendar team, other than CEO/Co-Founder Raj Lalwani. And even with Lalwani, a brief Wal-Mart statement said only that he "will stay on as an advisor to the @WalmartLabs team for the short term." Short term? Is that Wal-Mart speak for "Don't bother hanging up your coat?"

Let's get back to the potential here. By getting in the middle of birthday wishes on Aunt Bertha's Facebook page, Wal-Mart has the ability to learn about something even more valuable than Bertha's favorite colors: relationships and, potentially, the nature of those relationships.

Let's say the gift-giver is Bertha's niece, Jane Smith. Wal-Mart started this situation knowing Jane Smith, and this birthday has enabled the world's largest retailer to discover Bertha and to associate her with Jane. But Bertha's birthday issues on her Facebook page now enable the chain to know the names of quite a few people who might also want to give Bertha gifts. Maybe the database can identify some of them as existing Wal-Mart shoppers. Or maybe it can't, but you now have the opportunity to change that by suggesting a new apron—which was also lost in the fire. (Remember how Jane knew Bertha's favorite colors? Here's where that comes in handy.)

How far Wal-Mart will go down this path is unknown, other than the fact that it is unlikely to go nearly as far down the path suggested by these scenarios. But even experimenting with this approach a little will have huge potential. This is where retail is headed, and Wal-Mart wants to make darn sure it gets there first.

As for everyone else, it's not all bad letting Wal-Mart get there first. If anyone can afford to eat the costs of well-intentioned pioneer mistakes, it's Wal-Mart. Just don't brag about it on your Facebook page.