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Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007 at 4:25 pm

Can Wal-Mart’s Facebook Campaign Survive Transparency?

By Robert Gorell
August 28th, 2007

Wal-Mart rooms with FacebookIt all seemed so innocent at first. A few weeks ago, when Wal-Mart announced it would market to college students on Facebook, the idea seemed simple enough: Allow students to use their Roommate Style Match group (Facebook subscription required) so they could coordinate their dorm room shopping. Now that it’s been up for awhile, though, Wal-Mart’s getting grilled by detractors.

BusinessWeek‘s Burt Helm noticed this gem of a Facebook comment:

“do people realize WHY prices are so low at Wal-Mart? cause THEY DO NO PAY LIVING WAGES to employees in America and THEIR CHINESE FACTORIES ARE BASICALLY SLAVERY.

WAL-MART IS HATEFUL AND IS A BLIGHT ON AMERICA.

Facebook should CUT ALL ITS TIES to Wal-Mart. GET WALMART OFF FACEBOOK!”

To which Helm adds:

I actually think it’s a good call on Wal-Mart’s part not to censor the page or take it down. This discussion is inevitable. And looking at the feed of comments now, it has actually spurred a pretty healthy bull session on Wal-Mart’s role in the U.S., with several students coming out in favor of the retailing giant. I think it’s smart PR for Wal-Mart to host this discussion, even it was totally inadvertent.

The retail giant seems happy to stay on the sidelines for now. Jami Arms, a spokesperson from Wal-Mart told Reuters:

“We recognize that we are facilitating a live conversation, and we know that in any conversation, especially one happening online, there will be both supporters and detractors” [...]

Still, PodTech’s Jeremiah Owyang thinks they should be more proactive:

[...] I highly recommend that Wal-Mart consider trying a community strategy using a transparent and authentic blog or video blog series that addresses the very brand issues that they are getting slammed on. I took at look online for a “Walmart blog” and didn’t see any from the company, why is this? It’s going to be very difficult to try a community marketing strategy with eCommerce hooks without first addressing the brand detractors.

Now I’m confused. How exactly could a blog be more transparent than this Frontline documentary on Wal-Mart? Could any company’s self-reflecting stab at “citizen journalism” be more transparent than that of objective, professional journalists?

Linking to our recent discussion on transparency, Copyblogger‘s Brian Clark wonders if we really want authenticity in the first place:

[...] Some so-called business blogging experts think “keeping it real” is rule number one, even when it’s completely inappropriate.

The secret to effective marketing is to focus on the needs of others, rather than our own egocentric need to “authentically” express whatever we’re feeling at the moment. We teach that to our children, and yet we’re to believe it doesn’t apply to social media?

Where do we draw the line with transparency and authenticity when what people really want is a story that adds value to their lives? What if no one likes the real you?

Click MeIt’s a good question. Wal-Mart brings a welcome dose of transparency in terms of product reviews, but the documentary finds their executives coming off as rigid ideologues who readily justify an NSA-style employee spying program, its contribution to America’s vast trade deficit with China, reports of bullying manufacturers, and a creative definition of the phrase “living wage” in terms of the company’s commitment to saving consumers money and increasing “shareholder value”.

Fortunately for Wal-Mart, its loudest critics don’t seem to shop there. It’s a good thing they can take the heat; they’ll need that attitude in order to stay on Facebook.

Has the brand people love to hate finally learned when to stay quiet? What do you think? Should they stay or should they go?

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Comments (8)

  1. Wal-Mart can be a transparent as glass, and it will never change the mind of anyone who doesn’t like them. As you point out, those people typically don’t shop there, but they are noisy.

    Will the noise matter? As someone just commented over at my place, “Sometimes the deal is better than the person giving the deal.”

  2. Well, they’re brave to allow the ‘debate’, I’ll give them that. And I think this shows that Walmart have actually understood the nature of social media, at least on one level.

    As for whether Walmart should be on Facebook or not – well, it seems to me that they have a role to play, regardless of their business ethics. It’s certainly not my job – nor anyone else’s – to dictate which organizations have a presence on Facebook.

    Good luck to them, I say. But, as a Brit, their brand and reputation means very little to me. I might feel differently about the whole thing if it was Tesco that was at issue here.

  3. I’m glad to see WalMart letting this play out naturally. I have some past experience in these types of arguments and it’s pretty uncommon for these things not to be censored, denied, or covered up.

  4. [...] an endangered species on Facebook? If so, it seems dubious that sponsored (read: billable) groups like Wal-Mart are welcome to market themselves despite intense community backlash. I'm not saying it's wrong for Wal-Mart to be on [...]

  5. I would like to let people know that there is a new book that is coming out in a few days, “DISCRIMINATION SAMS’ CLUB STYLE (THE INSIDE STORY OF WAL-MART CORPORATION AND NOW DEMO, INC.). It is a true story about my personal experience of working in my local Sam’s Club as an outside vendor for Now Demo, Inc. It is filled with pictures and documents (yes, I took a camera to work with me and a tape recorder).

    It is a must read book for anyone that is working in the corporate arena. It shows just how far a company will go to try to silence someone.

    I am now offering it postage free and an autographed copy for the list price of $25.95. You can purchase it from me on http://www.livedeal.com

  6. [...] to create reputation and trust, instead of either remaining passive witnesses of this phenomenon or goofily entering the world of social [...]

  7. [...] Can Wal-Mart’s Facebook Campaign Survive Transparency? [...]

  8. [...] know, I know… We've been blogging a lot about Wal-Mart lately. But there's good reason for that. We are in the midst of witnessing the [...]

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