Retailers are using social media and mobile technology to build brands, cement shopper loyalty and drive promotions, but can social media help rehabilitate Walmart's (NYSE: WMT) image in the face of growing shopper dissatisfaction?
Yes, according to Umang Shah, Walmart's director of social strategy. When Shah joined Walmart in 2012, he found a company that rarely played up its good deeds or philanthropic efforts. For decades Walmart had viewed that kind of self-promotion as unnecessary, an expense that drove up operational costs.
As a result, the company's reputation has suffered, often undeservedly. Enter Shah, who joined Walmart from Microsoft. "I went from one evil empire to another," he joked to attendees at the eTail West conference in San Antonio earlier this month.
Shah created a command center to get a better feel for what's going on for the brand online. He started analyzing its presence and studied the metrics. "I'm a technologist, not a social media guy," he said. His is a data-driven social strategy.
The goal is to identify influencers on social networks and in the media, and communicate directly with them about programs such as natural disaster relief efforts or the number of honorably discharged veterans the company has hired to date (30,000) on the way to its goal of 100,000 hired by 2018.
There needed to be good data to base a strategy on, measurement that went beyond the traditional. Ads are great, he said, but clicks don't tell the story of how people receive those ads.
Shah's team turned off all paid promotions. "We saw an increase on every measure on every channel," he said. Walmart gained followers across social media platforms but it wasn't raw numbers that mattered, rather it was gaining the right kinds of followers. A year into the strategy, there was a big increase in this metric, he said.
Followers of Walmart across its handles grew by 110,000, not an overwhelmingly high number given the retailer's reach, but engagement climbed 84 percent. In 2013, Walmart's average reach through Facebook was 474,000 with an engagement rate of just under 3 percent. Just two months and 18 posts into 2014, that reach had climbed to 2.4 million and engagement had nearly doubled to 4.7 percent.
Today, a team at Walmart monitors online activity. They try to extend the lifecycle of a positive story or bring balance to a negative one. They join in existing conversations and create content. In February, the team launched a blog detailing things Walmart is proud of.
As for the outcome? "We've seen on the whole more and more people are positive about Walmart. Now the audience is jumping in and defending us using our talking points," said Shah. "The goal is advocacy; that should be everyone's goal."
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