Home Depot Puts a New Spin on the Idea of 'Sales Rep'

With Social-Media Store Associates, Retailer Looks to Boost Brand Awareness, Customer Service

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They've got names like SteelToes, ChrisFixIt and THDiva. And they spend hours each week touting favorite products, sharing home-improvement tips and answering questions about everything from installing ceramic tile to venting a microwave. The Home Depot's so-called social-media store associates are part of a new, hybrid group that spends two days each week managing the retailer's How-To Community and creating content for use across the company.

In 2009 and 2010, the retailer was having internal discussions about what its social-media strategy should look like, said Brad Shaw, who leads the company's efforts as VP-corporate communications. At first Mr. Shaw said his group presented CEO Frank Blake with models that would build out a social-media team at corporate headquarters in Atlanta. Mr. Blake pushed back, saying that Home Depot's store associates were the company's strongest source of knowledge, and he wanted to think about how to use them before adding people to the corporate communications team.

One solution involved identifying knowledgeable associates with social- media skills and bringing them to corporate. But that plan was discarded. "We know that when a store associate leaves a store permanently their product knowledge immediately begins to degrade," Mr. Shaw said. "The way to stay fresh and current is to stay in the aisle with vendors and customers. We also wanted to be able to market them as real store associates. These are not call-center people or marketers or merchants or my communications team."

Your store associate could be your future Facebook friend.
Your store associate could be your future Facebook friend.

Ultimately, a hybrid job, dubbed social-media store associate, was created. The 25 selected associates work two days a week on social-media efforts and three days a week in their existing store job. (The How-To Community is staffed seven days a week.) Mr. Shaw and his team pulled candidates from Atlanta, Chicago and Orange County, Calif., where Home Depot has regional offices. Store managers helped the corporate team zero in on candidates and in-person interviews were conducted.

"It was actually hard, because the target we were looking for was a pretty small bull's-eye," Mr. Shaw said. "Finding all of the qualities [we wanted] in one person took some doing. We literally went market to market meeting these people."

The associates selected have significant tenure -- the group's average is 10 years -- are tech-savvy, good communicators and are willing to work outside the store. Store managers also had to be persuaded to relinquish some of their best associates two days a week, as well as collaborate with the corporate office on logistical things like performance reviews. Mr. Shaw said that a percentage of each associate's performance review is attributed to work in social media and communications, but he declined to comment on pay structure for the group. The social-media store associates have also been instructed to keep the two roles as separate as possible -- no shooting videos or crafting posts on three days that they are on the store clock; that 's reserved for the two days when they are wearing their social-media apron.

Once the social-media store associates were selected, a two-day training session took place in Atlanta. A "dark site" was also set up weeks before the actual launch of the How-To Community to help hone the associates' tone and style. Each was also given a Flip video camera to upload video responses or demonstrations. Now, seven months later, the How-To Community is fast gaining steam and exceeding benchmarks, Mr. Shaw said. Nearly 2,000 topics have been started, with some discussions garnering hundreds of posts.

The volume of posts means the corporate communications team isn't able to review all content before it's posted, though items pertaining to electrical or plumbing topics, for example, are given extra scrutiny. All posts are reviewed within 24 to 48 hours. There hasn't been much need for changes, however, and initial concerns about things like the misspelling of brand names have been unfounded. In fact, the associates are now creating content beyond the How-To Community and will soon begin contributing to the company blog, The Apron.

"We're seeing that [the social-media store associates] are becoming a center of gravity for content, in general, inside the company. Anywhere someone wants a how-to video shot, they're coming to us," Mr. Shaw said. "We knew our associates would be good, but it's just incredible to us just how great they are on the content front."

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