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Groundswell Author: Wal-Mart's Ahead of the Pack on Social Media

When you think "Wal-Mart," do you think of blogs and RSS feeds? Probably not. But the Bentonville Behemoth has moved aggressively into the world of social media to both speak to and hear from customers.

Forrester Research's Josh Bernoff reports on the Groundswell blog that a recent trip to Bentonville has persuaded him that the world's largest retailer gets it. "Let's see if I can convince you that Wal-Mart will become social media's biggest success story," Bernoff writes.

Wal-MartWhy? Buy-in at the highest levels. "When I kicked off the workshop, I mentioned that they might be feeling a little hesitant about these new ideas, since they involve a loss of control," Bernoff writes. "[Wal-Mart CEO] Lee Scott actually interrupted me to say 'You're wrong, we're not hesitant, we're ready to embrace this stuff.' And they were. What followed was some of the most rapid ideation I've ever seen."

Bernoff points to three projects already live:

  • Reviews and ratings: Walmart.com is one of the largest implementations of Bazaarvoice in the world, and hasn't shied from negative reviews. Bernoff posits that honest consumer feedback probably helps Wal-Mart in its famously hard-nosed supplier negotiations.
  • Buyers speak out: Launched last spring, the Check Out blog, "Where the lanes are all open," is still being updated regularly by a team of buyers and other managers, including senior director of sustainability Rand Waddoups, who just posted about weatherstripping in better packaging to make it easier to install. Judging from the quality of the writing (meow), the blog entries aren't getting worked over by corporate communications, which is exactly as it should be. They come from the trenches, from people who know their merchandise and spend their days trying to figure out what shoppers want.
  • ElevenMoms.com: This panel of blogging moms isn't edited by Wal-Mart, which just links to them and solicits their input on new products and how to reach consumers like them. One of the panelists, Lucretia Pruitt (@GeekMommy on Twitter) commented on the Groundswell thread, "I've dealt with many C-level execs in my lifetime (as well as many attorneys) and I've never seen such an openness to an idea that is clearly going to rock the foundations of 'how business has always been done.'"
Bernoff sums up:
Think about the situation Wal-Mart is in. It has plenty of detractors, hundreds of people who feel the company's labor practices, effects on small-town America, purchases of products from China, and general ways of doing business are a threat. These Wal-Mart haters have gathered in sites like Walmartwatch.com, tend to be socially savvy, and are ready to pounce on any Wal-Mart news or rumors and spread them using social technologies.

But on the other side of the ledger are hundreds of millions of customers. When these customers think about Wal-Mart, their most likely thought is "they sell the stuff I need at really low prices." If you don't believe me, see what they're saying right now on Twitter â€" it's mostly about saving money. Wal-Mart wants to turn these millions of voices to their advantage, to use them as a counterweight to their detractors. And with more and more Americans participating in social technologies, they can do it.

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