Monday, July 13, 2009

Two Things Wal-Mart Got Right on Twitter (and Five They Did Not)

Most Social Media practitioners would agree that most brands (depending upon size, customer base, and other factors) should have or be creating a Twitter platform for engaging with consumers. There is little doubt of the positive PR and enhanced brand influence that can come from listening to and engaging with individuals who praise, criticize, or microblog a need for assistance with a product or brand.

But how should brands establish their presence in Twitter, and what can be expected of employees assigned to represent brands on Twitter? Wal-Mart offers some practices that other brands may wish to emulate, and some practices that could be improved upon.

What Wal-Mart got right:

  • Established a Twitter page within their Web site: Like brands such as Dell and Zappos, Wal-Mart has launched a page on their site to promote the company's Twitter accounts. The page ( offers several benefits for the brand: It alerts consumers to Twitterers they may wish to follow, promotes the brand's efforts in Social Media, and gives Wal-Mart a chance to separate the official Twitterers (they currently have seven) from the fake accounts and cybersquatters.

  • Set customer expectations: Wal-Mart did something I haven't seen before, and I believe it makes a lot of sense: their site includes a Discussion Guidelines page to communicate what consumers can expect from Wal-Mart on Twitter. For example, these guidelines state, "While we’ll do our best to reply to your comments, generally, we won’t be able to reply to store or service issues through Twitter." Some in the blogosphere have criticized Wal-Mart for a half-hearted approach to customer support on Twitter (and I tend to agree), but it's difficult to argue with the practice of setting customer expectations.

    Of course, it is unlikely many Twitter users would have happened upon the Discussion Guidelines page on, so Wal-Mart did something else that is pretty smart: most (but not all) of their official Twitter bios include the text, "Official Twitter page and discussion policy:" This provides a means for Twitter users to understand what they can can count on from Wal-Mart.

What Wal-Mart got wrong:

  • No uniform branded presence: For a brand that has a strong sense of its visual identity in everything from signage to ads to stores, the Wal-Mart Twitter accounts seem to reflect little of the company's focus on design. The profile pictures have no uniform branding to help establish the accounts as official Wal-Mart accounts; the backgrounds vary; and there is no Wal-Mart logo apparent on most of their official Twitter profile pages. Twitter may be a place for personal connections and individual personality, but these Twitterers should look and feel like Wal-Mart when speaking on behalf of Wal-Mart.

  • Too promotional: There is probably no single trap in Social Media that trips up brands as often as focusing far more on themselves than on their customers, and Wal-Mart makes this common mistake. Of course, you expect accounts like @SamsClubDeals and @WalmartSpecials to be promotional in nature, but even the individual employee accounts like @Walmartkelly and @Walmartkevin focus far more on what is happening at Walmart than they do what is happening with Wal-Mart customers.

  • Lack of activity: Establishing a Twitter page and Twitter accounts is smart; letting them age with little activity is not. In the last month, @Walmartkelly hasn't tweeted even once, and @Walmartmeeting has tweeted just twice. @Walmartkevin and @walmartcheckout haven't shared anything on Twitter in over two weeks. And even Wal-Mart's three promotional accounts (@SamsClubDeals, @WalmartSpecials, and @WMSoundcheck) have a combined total of just five tweets in the past week.

    People are listening--these seven accounts have amassed over 7,000 followers--but Wal-Mart's official Twitterers don't seem interested in sharing very much. The combined total of Tweets from all seven accounts doesn't even exceed 900 as of yet, which is 85% less than my neighborhood liquor store. (Of course, quantity doesn't equal quality, but I happen know that @blatzliquor is seeing demonstrable success from its activities and connections on Twitter; I doubt Wal-Mart can say the same thus far.)

  • Failure to Follow: The three individuals who represent Wal-Mart on Twitter are being followed by over 1,000 people but apparently find only 21 of them worthy of returning the favor. When employees Twitter on behalf of their employers, it's a good practice to follow back every follower unless there is a reason not to (such as spam, inappropriate language, etc.) After all, if people indicate you and your company are interesting enough to follow, what does it say to those folks when the company doesn't find them interesting enough to do the same in return? As one person recently tweeted to Wal-Mart's Kelly: "why not follow back?"

  • Failing to live up to Wal-Mart's own Twitter promises and neglecting dialog: Having gone out of its way to set expectations for its participation on Twitter, Wal-Mart doesn't seem to be living up to these expectations. According to Wal-Mart's own Twitter Discussion Guidelines, "we encourage dialogue with customers" and "we’ll do our best to reply to your comments," but their official Twitterers are having very few discussions with customers on Twitter.

    There is quite a lot of buzz on Twitter about Wal-Mart and Walmart (the company uses both variations)--the brand is mentioned thousands of times a day by both fans and detractors. Obviously, sifting through the mountains of tweets and responding to even a fraction of them would be a monumental effort, but perhaps making some real and visible effort to do so is what might be expected of one of the world's largest brands and a company that promotes its desire to "encourage dialogue."

    Failing to respond to tweets that aren't directed at you is one thing; ignoring the ones that are is an altogether different and worse practice. No one will blame @Walmartkevin for ignoring a spammy tweet offering "information on acqusititon [sic] to take walmart to the next level in the home theater market," but failing to respond to or retweet a message that compliments Wal-Mart's sustainability efforts seems indifferent and rude. @Walmartmeeting has tweeted often about the company's environmental program, so ignoring a question about whether the company has considered wind power for stores seems impolite.

    Of the seven official Twitter accounts, only one is being maintained in a way that demonstrates an understanding of the power of @replies and retweets--WMSoundcheck; otherwise, there is little reason for consumers to believe Wal-Mart is committed to and acting upon its stated objective of engaging customers in dialog.

Most of Wal-Mart's Twitter problems are solvable by creating and enforcing rules for employee Twitter engagement. Brands participating in Twitter must define expectations for employees assigned to the task, and these rules must be explicit enough to provide guidance for employees and furnish a foundation for evaluating employee performance on Twitter. These rules might consider:

  • How many tweets per day or week are expected

  • Rules for tweeting; what topics or language is acceptable and what is not

  • Follow-back guidelines--when should followers be followed?

  • Expectations for when and how to respond to @replies (or direct messages)

  • Expectations for retweeting

  • Expectations for seeking out new followers--since following people is a successful way to build a list of followers, how many new people should be followed each week and what are the criteria?

  • Expectations for monitoring for and responding to brand mentions on Twitter

  • Expectations for engaging with and showing interest in followers regarding non-brand matters.

Wal-Mart has demonstrated foresight in establishing their Twitter page and discussion guidelines, but it seems their employees are being left to their own devices with little guidance for their very public, very visible participation on Twitter. The notoriously strict brand marketer wouldn't leave their advertising to this sort of chance. Creating and communicating a clear set of rules for Twittering employees would help Wal-Mart better establish its brand on Twitter and diminish the chance of Social Media missteps.


jmal18 said...

Interesting post, some great points were made that I really agree with. It seems as if Wal-mart has taken a half hearted approach to social media. They have failed to realize the maintenance and responsibility that comes with it. Customers are being let down by the lack of communication at the Wal-mart Twitter account. What can be worse than a brand that has thousands of eager followers willing to share but no one is listening???

Augie Ray said...

Thanks JC!

"What can be worse than a brand that has thousands of eager followers willing to share but no one is listening???" That should be stenciled onto the wall of every marketer in America!