But the social program of its stores, during the same timeframe, has gone nowhere, according to a report slated to be released Thursday (Sept. 20) by Recommend.ly. The reason? Just about nothing that corporate is doing right—dedicated social resources, rules about the number and frequency of posts, people dedicated to responding to shopper comments—has been replicated at the store level. According to the report, the stores have been left to do whatever they can fit in, which seems to be pretty much nothing.
Walmart on Wednesday (Sept. 19) didn't dispute the report's findings, but said that the local store efforts were very young and needed time to grow. "Our Local Walmart pages are still in their early stages," said a Walmart statement. "Next month will mark their one-year anniversary, and we're proud to be the only retailer to have launched this kind of innovative social media effort."
It's a very legitimate point that Walmart is the only major retail chain to have even tried to have thousands of store-level Facebook pages. In effect, the chain is saying, "cut us some slack. At least we're trying." That's fair, but it might be that other chains calculated such a move would fail unless huge additional resources were dedicated to it. As such, it may be too early to award Walmart brownie points for trying.
As for this effort only being 11 months old, in the world of social trials, that's positively senior citizen-like.
The bigger issue, though, is what will drive better numbers unless the core issues—the lack of local content and responses to the local comments that are posted—are addressed.
Walmart declined to discuss what resources it has put behind this local Facebook effort, nor what its social media marching orders have been to store managers. The only related comment Walmart issued was, "we've encouraged our store managers to post to their local store pages." And that may be the issue right there. Unless posting is tied into financial incentives—such as store managers whose sites were not updated at a certain frequency or whose comments were not replied to at a certain level faced bonus reductions and possibly even termination—it's unclear why overworked store managers would make the time.
Todd Michaud, StorefrontBacktalk's retail columnist and a social media advocate, said he wasn't surprised by the weak Walmart store results.
"They are typically designed to be run by the local people at the store or restaurant," Michaud said. "Although they all clamor that they want their own FB/Twitter/Google presence, because they think they can do a better job than corporate, that quickly fades when they realize it is a lot of work. They quickly realize they are going to have to hire someone to do the work, which is typically a non-starter at a cash-strapped retailer."
Michaud also said that when it does work—a little—the timing screws things up.Michaud also said that when it does work—a little—the timing screws things up. "Even if they dedicate the time, it is not likely 100 percent of the time, meaning they might do it after they close for the night. This doesn't work when it comes to using these vehicles as a customer service tool. If I post/tweet about my problem at 8:00 A.M, I'm not going to wait for an answer until 10:00 P.M. It's of note that some agencies are recommending that these local pages are set up simply to improve SEO results with Google and Bing (links back to corporate) and not for their engagement opportunity."
Tonia Ries, the CEO at marketing consulting firm Modern Media, agreed that this is not the sort of effort that can be optional.
"There are only so many hours in the day. Unless there's a clear upside for the store managers, is this really where they should be spending their time? How, specifically, will their involvement increase bottom-line revenues? What specifically do they need to do to achieve that goal? And how, specifically, will this success be measured so they will know what the return on the investment is, and continue to optimize?" Ries said. "It's the corporate team's responsibility to answer these questions. Until they do, they're not going to get anyone to take time or resources away from other activities to focus on this."
The report from Recommend.ly examined 2,799 local Walmart Facebook sites (out of a 3,500-site universe). It found that the local sites had an average of 0.92 updates a day (less than one a day), compared with the Walmart corporate page, which had an average of 4.42 updates per day. But that's not even the key content problem. It's not the frequency of updates nearly as much as it is the absence of anything local.
"We compared the 'unique' posts with a larger sample of Walmart Pages, and found that except for two posts, every post on these five Walmart stores is a common post probably designed and posted by corporate," said Krishna Neelamraju, the Recommend.ly COO. "Some of the common wall posts appeared across all Walmart Pages on the exact same date. I think this proves beyond a doubt that Walmart's content is largely controlled by corporate, with very little participation from local stores, if any."
As for being responsive to local shoppers, these local Walmart sites did not fare well. The report found that 84.7 percent of the sites responded to zero customer inquiries. Another 12 percent responded to fewer than 5 percent of all such inquiries and 2.9 percent of the sites responded to fewer than 10 percent of such inquiries. None of the stores responded to more than 20 percent of the inquiries. (To complete the tally, 0.3 percent responded to 10 percent to 14.9 percent of shopper questions and 0.1 percent responded to 15 percent to 20 percent of questions.
Walmart speaks of these local sites as works in progress. But if some radical changes aren't made to boost the number of local posts and site responsiveness—and there's no way around the fact that this will require additional resources, and a lot of them, whether it comes from corporate directly or store managers are given more budget to hire locally—it's difficult to see how this will improve.
Then again, Walmart does have one advantage: It has clearly figured out to make a social strategy—and specifically a Facebook strategy—work brilliantly. So it doesn't need a social media consultant. But it does need a reminder that what it does on corporate needs to be re-created—on a much smaller scale—some 3,500 times across the country. Getting existing local personnel to do a lot more work for no more money is, honestly, not going to work well, as these numbers reflect.