REI's Twitter Strategy Is No Longer Camping Out at HQ

Outdoor Retailer's Decentralized Approach Will Allow Local Staffers to Address Regional Needs

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While most marketers have scrambled to assemble social-media SWAT teams -- hired to sit at company HQ and monitor customer sentiment on the web -- outdoor retailer REI is trying another approach.

This week, the retailer is rolling out a decentralized approach whereby Twitter handles will be assigned to the 53 markets it has a presence in nationally. The thinking behind the move is that customer needs vary depending upon the market; the tent and sleeping bag required for a frigid mountain climb in Washington State isn't the same as the one a customer would be seeking for a weekend music festival in Austin, Texas, for example. Being able to recommend products on a more local basis is something the brand, which counts everyone from Amazon.com to big-box retailers such as Walmart and Dick's Sporting Goods as its competitors, hopes will give it a competitive edge.

REI's stores are evolving in a similar fashion, with each location tweaked to make it more palatable to that particular community. A forthcoming three-floor, 39,000-square-foot New York location -- REI's first foray into the Big Apple -- is expected to be far more cyclist-oriented than most of its other stores. Executives say that location, which is slated to open in the fall in Manhattan's historic Puck Building, will feature a ground-floor bike-repair shop and carry clothing brands that are more fashion-forward, such as Portland, Ore.-based label Nau and New Zealand-based label Icebreaker.

When it first started dabbling with social media a few years ago, REI, like most companies, set up a centralized team to handle outreach to bloggers, fans on Facebook and, later, communications on Twitter. While it won't completely disband that team, the localized tack means the company is relying on far more staffers to participate in its social-media efforts. And it's coordinating those efforts without the help of an agency. REI works with BBDO, Atlanta, for traditional creative duties and Prometheus Media for media duties, but has thus far handled much of its digital efforts and social media in-house.

"We are not moving away completely from a national presence," a spokeswoman told Ad Age via email. "The local teams will be in addition to our national presence. Also, in terms of staffing, we have a handful of employees at each location participating in social media. They may play different roles within retail (customer service, outreach, product specialist, etc.)."

Inherent in the experiment is a lot of trust. The approach could be risky for REI because it's not only a few, but now dozens or hundreds of employees that are empowered to talk about about the brand. Jordan Williams, manager of digital engagement for REI, told Ad Age that certain staff members are being identified as experts at handling customer complaints, others at communicating new product arrivals and features, and others as people who can provide local travel advice.

But Mr. Williams said it's no different than what happens in the offline world. He noted the company has more than 9,000 employees and trusts its people every day to interface with customers in person, so why wouldn't they trust them to do the same online?

Seattle-based REI has just less than 120 stores, concentrated on the West Coast, Midwest and Eastern seaboard. According to Kantar, the company has for the past several years spent about $30 million on measured media, while its social media and other unmeasured media spend has been rising.

Few companies at this point have made a push to take a local approach to their social-media efforts, but those with on-the-ground presence -- particularly retailers and restaurants -- will likely need to consider it in the near term. (Another big-name outdoor retailer, L.L. Bean, also uses a smaller regional strategy, tweeting Chicago-area-specific deals and events for its Midwest customers.) It's also an issue for big multinationals who oversee hundreds of brands in different parts of the world and market in a multitude of languages.

Intel is already dabbling in the space, with a local Facebook pages strategy that it embarked on earlier this year.

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