Social Media Advice for Brands From a Wal-Mart Elevenmom

When Wal-Mart joined the social media marketing bandwagon last year, it started slowly and got its feet wet in a few disciplines: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Those early efforts eventually evolved into the Elevenmoms program.

Walmart.com’s Elevenmoms are a ring of bloggers who write regularly on the many challenges facing moms raising kids and running households. Wal-Mart specifically chose these bloggers for their content quality and influence and enlisted them to build a community of moms sharing advice and insight on saving money and living better — Wal-Mart’s mission.

The Elevenmoms built an extensive community using content on their blogs, social networks, and videos on YouTube, providing useful information for its followers that aligns with the Wal-Mart brand. Today, the original group of 11 has now expanded to 21, including one mom on green issues and a mom from Canada.

The Elevenmoms and the community built around them provide invaluable feedback to help shape Wal-Mart’s business, and allow customer interaction to ask and answer questions and share advice. This model has been extremely successful for Wal-Mart, and to learn more and find how it could work for other brands, I chatted with Katja Presnal, one of the Elevenmoms. See her profile here.

Robin Neifield: Social media is perceived as something anyone can do, which is technically true, but certain personalities and voices always seem to rise above the crowd. Why do you think that is?

Katja Presnal: The ones who genuinely want to help other people out, without asking for anything in return, those are the people that other people want to follow and make sure those voices are heard. It’s an unselfish platform, and they are good people. It’s a community. In any community, if someone is talking about themselves — me me me — no one wants to listen to that.

The only people who are afraid of social media are bad guys, they have something to hide. Complete transparency is important to rise above the rest.

RN: How did the Elevenmoms get to where it is?

KP: A lot of brands — 1-800-Flowers.com, Sears, Old Navy — have done a variety of short-term campaigns on Facebook, but Wal-Mart wanted something longer term. A lot of big brands have their own focus group of bloggers and evangelists. It works because I don’t have to go to a brand to ask questions, I can ask this group of moms, who are my peers. I don’t feel good about going to a big brand to ask questions about saving money.

RN: How does the relationship between Wal-Mart and the Elevenmoms work? Do they guide the topics? How do they support you?

KP: It’s very organic and we have a lot of freedom to do and write what we want. Nothing is ever mandatory. They do send us products to test and review if we want to. They are often related to specific promotions; for instance it is Earth Month now, and Wal-Mart sent us the “green” products they had designated to promote. But it’s not our job to promote those products; they just make them available to us if we want to write about them. They know it wouldn’t be authentic if we were just supposed to promote products and their brand; they are careful about that.

RN: Does negative information make it out to your audience?

KP: If they send it to me to review, I don’t feel comfortable writing negative reviews. I usually send my reviews to the company, provide that feedback, but don’t do it on the blog. It’s different if I go spend my own money and get a low quality product, that I will sometimes blog about, but I’m not here to trash products or brands.

RN: Are there topic areas you don’t want to be involved in?

KP: Yes, there are some where it’s like “I don’t want to go there.” I’ve gotten some weird stuff. Some bloggers love the controversial stuff; I personally stay away.

RN: A program like this makes sense for moms. This is a group that does a lot of sharing, has common issues, and is a major consumer group. Does the model apply in other areas of population?

KP: I think it does; some are saying “dad is the new mom.” But motherhood doesn’t go away; I will always be a mom, even when my kids grow up, and there’s always a new group of moms every year. Obviously you can’t have the same blogger evangelizing Huggies, but a new panel of moms coming in every year keeps it fresh. Moms are a particularly effective group for something like this because they are more tech-savvy. The Internet is their way of connecting with the rest of the world when they are home with the kids.

RN: Is it important for brands to have an offline connection with their social media groups?

KP: Absolutely. Social media is all about connecting with people. I actually declined Wal-Mart’s request to be an Elevenmom a few times at the beginning because I didn’t know much about the brand, and I didn’t feel like I could be an evangelist for them. But they made an effort to educate me and integrate me into their world, offline, and gave me that personal connection.

RN: What kind of results do you think Wal-Mart is seeing from this effort? Do they tie metrics back to the Elevenmoms program?

KP: One metric I know of was when the movie “Twilight” came out on DVD. Most of the marketing was done on social media. We had a “Twilight” Twitter party, interviewed cast members, and when the DVD released they already had more preorders on Walmart.com than they had ever had before on that site.

RN: Have you seen any evidence of companies who have tried to do it the wrong way?

KP: Not yet, not specifically. I know there is a trend with a lot of companies doing something similar, but I think Wal-Mart is different because they have so many vendors they work with, so we’re not saturated with one brand.

RN: What were your initial thoughts on Twitter?

KP: I thought it was weird at first, didn’t feel comfortable jumping in with no other people, but once they were on it was more fun.

RN: Your voice and writing have become a business. Do you have a business plan, a goal for the future?

KP: Right now it’s still a very new thing. Social media marketing is so new, I don’t want to pigeonhole myself; I like to keep doors open. I do have plans, but I have several plans so that if I want to go one way or another I can choose.

RN: What is going to be next for the Elevenmoms?

KP: It’s definitely not going to go away anytime soon; I’m hoping to see it grow bigger and better. First there was one, then eleven, now 21, maybe it will grow to 1,100, 11,000. They want to grow a community, we all share the same Wal-Mart mission to save money and live better. I’m hoping they are able to grow it, as long as it grows organically. That is why it has been so successful. A lot of big brands would throw so much money at it, market it to death. Wal-Mart could have done that but didn’t, so it has been all real. This is something I’m really excited about; I have a passion for this.

Katja’s insights highlight the keys to effective social media marketing for brands. Transparency and a certain amount of laissez-faire are required to build the audience trust required and establish the authenticity of the dialogue and the channel.

The dynamic of such a giant brand as Wal-Mart actually allowing this kind of program to progress organically without strangling control is an example to both small and large players out there. If you’ve got nothing to hide, social media can be a tremendous ally.

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