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Mastering Social Marketing, Wal-Mart Style

The world's largest retailer is preparing a billion-dollar assault on social media, but it plans on listening, not selling. What can small retailers learn from Wal-Mart’s move? By Evan Schuman

Wal-Mart, the world's largest and most aggressive retailer, is pouring money and strategy into social in a way that other chains are not.

In March, Wal-Mart announced that it had acquired Social Calendar, a Facebook app that handles appointments and special occasion tracking. What's so special about grabbing a small firm with 16 million global users and data on 110 million birthdays and other events? The flood of birthday and anniversary wishes—plus condolences from funerals—paints a perfect picture of your network of friends and family, complete with email and social contact info. From a retailer's perspective, that's a group of people who will likely be responsive to email discounts for gifts you'll like around your special days, including a reminder that your event is indeed coming up in eight days. It can be tied into shipping options to guarantee delivery of an item right on time.

Many major retailers – among them JCPenney, Nordstrom, and Gap – have tried Facebook, but pulled back soon after starting. With its Social Calendar purchase, Wal-Mart hopes to flourish by understanding the culture of social sites and having a disciplined approach to sales. In this context, discipline means resisting sales temptations. It means not jumping in and trying to say that every problem can be solved at your site or store.

Wal-Mart uses social as the world’s most elaborate research tool. And that’s a benefit retailers of any size can leverage. Owners can do their social research on their customers or use it to find new customers. Local students—college and even high-school—can also serve as low-cost resources for scouring social sites for information and comments people make about your stores.

The other element of social that Wal-Mart has mastered speaks directly to the social culture. It translates to sitting in the background of discussions—listening, learning—and waiting for that rare moment when you can truly help. If someone is complaining about Wal-Mart, a customer service rep can swoop in.

That helping effort is actually more difficult for Wal-Mart than for many mom-and-pop stores and small ecommerce sites. Other than customer service, the best kind of help is expertise. Given the huge array of products that Wal-Mart sells, the company is not perceived as having any strong expertise in a particular area. Most smaller stores and sites are specialized, which means they have expertise. If you sell car parts, why not hire a local mechanic to spend 10 hours a week offering great car advice in social sites, making sure she identifies herself as “Mary from Phil’s House Of Car Parts”? Remember those high school students you hired for social research? Maybe one of them has legitimate expertise on teen-age clothing trends. If you sell apparel, that student might be your perfect voice for social site comments.

About the author

Evan Schuman is editor and publisher of Storefront Backtalk, a site that tracks retail technology and ecommerce issues.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of FedEx.