BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- There aren't too many places where Walmart isn't dominant. The digital realm is one of the relative few, but not for long, as it ramps up a host of programs to vault the chain -- which has already distanced itself from value retailers in the offline world -- further ahead in the online one.
What makes Walmart's efforts so interesting is its ability to "own" the concept of value online. It launched free classifieds last year, and its site, thanks to its blogger outreach and online message boards, is already crammed with content about saving money that will only grow as it builds out Save Money Live Better, a portal for penny-pinching strategies. In fact, amid all the talk of how digital has allowed marketers to be their own creators and distributors of brand content -- some people would call this a media company -- perhaps no one has the potential to be as big a juggernaut as Walmart.
Suppliers Procter & Gamble Co. and Unilever, who used to bring digital and other marketing programs to Walmart, are now vying to piggyback on programs such as its ElevenMoms network of mommy bloggers or its SoundCheck digital-music initiative. It recently launched the release of the "Twilight" DVD almost solely with digital media and public relations. It's taking free classifieds on Walmart.com. And with a network of employees closing in on 2 million globally, the world's largest retailer is creating a fairly substantial in-house social network all its own.
"Digital has such an amazing role in how to help people on an emotional, logical and rational level. We want to use it to our full potential to help our customers," said Wanda Young, senior director-digital marketing at Walmart. Nonetheless, Ms. Young, who only joined the company in October, said the chain still has a way to go. "We are really just getting started in digital in helping build up our brand."
As of mid-March, Walmart had yet to finish a review to name its first digital agency of record. And the digital manifestation of its 18-month-old ad campaign, "Save Money Live Better," remains a work in progress.
Yet with its major competitors in value retailing -- such as Costco and dollar stores -- largely absent from digital media, Walmart stands to grab a much larger share-of-mind digitally than even its dominant share of wallet in the offline world. In that, it has the support of some heavyweight marketers.
Soundcheck, a 3-year-old program, gained new life last year via a partnership with nine Unilever brands and substantial tie-ins to in-store displays. Unilever sponsored free downloads and streaming music videos from such artists as Beyoncé and the All-American Rejects at soundcheck.walmart.com and paired its products with new music releases in stores. The program from promo shop Lunchbox generated $26 million in sales for Unilever with a budget of between $1 million and $5 million, according to an entry in the Promotion Marketing Association's Reggie awards.
Walmart has customers tell their own stories about how the retailer saved them money and enabled them to live better.
But the highest-impact digital initiative yet for Walmart appears to be the recent launch of the "Twilight" DVD, which set a record for preorders on its website in March. Behind those sales was a social-media program that included a microsite for moms and daughters and an exclusive interview with "Twilight" cast member Taylor Lautner on Blog Talk Radio.
Among the newer initiatives is the internal social network created by Rockfish earlier this year where employees can share ideas and get answers to questions. The same service-oriented logic led it to offer free classifieds on Walmart.com -- one-upping Craigslist and Monster among others by making real-estate and job listings free. Walmart's strategy is to brand the retailer, drive traffic to the site and help customers at the same time, said Duncan Dreschel, director-customer engagement for Walmart.com. "We see part of our role as connecting customers to help each other," he said. "It also allows us to provide a more complete offering."
Already, Mr. Dreschel said, some people close deals struck on the website in the parking lot of their nearest store. How to further leverage that brick-and-click synergy has also crossed his mind. "We're looking at lots of things to make classifieds evolve," he said.
Walmart isn't entirely new to digital marketing. It's outspent most of its suppliers and rivals on online display for years, according to data from TNS. But the media buys often were made well before creative or even strategy had been discussed, said Kelly Mooney, president of Resource Interactive, Columbus, Ohio, which for several years has worked on a project based on Walmart's digital efforts. Now, however, digital is becoming more strategic for Walmart.
A Twitter search on "Walmart OR Wal-Mart" yields three or four new tweets every minute, many none too flattering. Walmart accepts this as part of the territory. "We do not see ourselves as trying to control what happens," Ms. Young said.
MOST IMPORTANT DIGITAL LESSON I'VE LEARNEDYou can't control what people say about you on the web, but you can be a good listener.
"The organic nature of the web means that when you are the world's largest retailer, people will talk," said Wanda Young, senior director-digital marketing at Walmart. "And we're OK with that. We believe the hallmark of a really great brand is that you are relevant. And part of the way you do that is listening to what your customers have to say."