HOW WALMART FOUND ITS VOICE. An Interview with Director of Social Strategy Umang Shah

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1 HOW WALMART FOUND ITS VOICE An Interview with Director of Social Strategy Umang Shah

2 REPUTATION MANAGEMENT Twenty months ago, Walmart decided it needed a fresh approach to getting its voice noticed in the noisy world of social media. Walmart hired Umang Shah, the brand s director of social strategy. Now, in the Wild West of the post-press-release media landscape, Walmart is punching back against its critics with its side of the story and winning. Xerox. Shah s mandate: Boost the brand s reputation management as part of the corporate affairs team. His strategy? Listen to Walmart s audience and influencers on social media and engage them with relevant, timely content. To accomplish his strategy, Shah built a small team of capable content producers, quarterbacked by Indianapolis-based Raidious, a real-time brand newsroom. Just nine months later, the company s Twitter engagement increased 1,200 percent. In August, the national Content Marketing Awards honored Walmart We re not trying to sell product.... What we re trying to do is change people s minds, their hearts and their opinions. Walmart had a problem. Two years ago, the nation s largest retailer, inundated by criticism on everything from its corporate to employment practices, found itself drowning in negative news coverage and online chatter. To make matters worse, the company was often slow to respond, if it responded at all. In January 2012, the brand decided it needed a fresh approach. Walmart hired Umang Shah, a veteran of the high-tech sector with experience working with brands such as Microsoft and with a silver in the Best Use of Twitter in a Content Marketing Program category. Now, in the Wild West of the post-press-release media landscape, Walmart is punching back against its critics with its side of the story and winning. In a sea of shouting, Walmart is finding and amplifying its own social media voice, after years on the sidelines. Here, in an exclusive interview, Shah opens up the Walmart social media playbook.

3 We re really trying to understand what people are talking about, and adding to that conversation, as opposed to being a talking head trying to tell our own story. Umang shah Director of Social Strategy, Walmart Understanding and Listening to Your Audience When you took this new role for Walmart in January 2012, how did you frame the key challenge that you faced? At a high level, my job is to help manage, protect and improve the company s reputation. A corporate affairs role in general is to protect, manage and improve the company s reputation period. So, the question I was asking was, How do I build a strategy that allows us to better connect with people, that allows us to tell our story in a more compelling way, that allows us to kind of learn from our audience? Since you started, Walmart s social strategy, by all accounts, has been much more sophisticated in terms of monitoring, listening and engaging online influencers. How did this new direction evolve? What I realized as I was interviewing and learning about Walmart was that there is a huge gap in perception publicly in what Walmart does and doesn t do. That was part of the selling point for me to even join the company. It was believing in what we do, which helps me and puts me in a position to then go and share that with others. People don t know there s a positive side of the story. They generally want to talk about the negative side. We don t have that other, more positive side represented. So we took this more analytical approach to understanding our audience. We know there are different types of audiences. So, for each of those different audiences, we want to understand: What do they talk about? What different channels are they on? What interests them? And then we started to pay attention to the way we did things well talking about what we want to talk about being able to share content that is relative in a timely manner. Real-Time Response and Audience Segmentation A big part of your strategy shift seemed to be leveraging the power of a real-time brand newsroom. How important was the real-time component to turning things around? One of the big changes in our strategy was timeliness. In the world we live in, timing is critical. So, we re really trying to understand what people are talking about, and adding to that conversation, as opposed to being a talking head trying to tell our own story. We ve seen great results from that. Even if you just look at it from the standpoint of understanding our audience, there is great value in that alone. That informs everything else that we do. Along those same lines: You ve taken an interesting approach to audience segmentation in your Twitter strategy.

4 For instance, under the main Walmart Twitter you also have @WalmartGiving that speak to different audiences. Why that approach, and how has that strategy played out for Walmart? We took this approach because, quite frankly, a lot the conversations we re having when we re trying to change perceptions, when we re trying to impact reputation those conversations can get pretty deep. We re not trying to sell product. We re not trying to showcase product that we ve dropped the price on. What we re trying to do is change people s minds, their hearts and their opinions, which takes a lot of work. With those kinds of conversations that we re having, it made the most sense to have dedicated communities where we can have those really deep conversations. They can follow a high-level overview of all of our initiatives by and when they really want to understand our healthier eating initiatives, they go and they can get all the information they want. Responding with Relevant, Authentic Content Volunteers from the American Red Cross gather items to help those in need before Hurricane Sandy During your tenure, Walmart s social response team has become skilled at not being in a defensive crouch, but instead offering critics disarming, relevant and timely content that tells your brand s side of the story. How do you strike that balance? There s been a shift in our willingness to get out there and talk with our critics and our audience and engage with them a lot more. We try and give everyone all the facts, all the information. As a company in the past, we wouldn t do a lot of chest-pounding. It s just kind of the nature at Walmart. We re a humble company, a humble brand. We don t talk about all the great things we do to help fight hunger, or all of our sustainability efforts, what we re doing to help veterans and all this stuff. Of course, we talk about it. But we really don t go out and talk about it. There was a shift in mind to be like, It s okay to pound our chest a little bit we did a great thing. Even when we received criticism in the past, we were always slow to set the record straight. We just kind of let things go. Now, it s, Hey, let s actually make sure we have the tools to understand who is criticizing us, and then, when appropriate, respond not in a defensive way, but in a way that provides some value. If it s a topic that s of value to us, let s share the real story. We ve been more and more willing to do that this year. If someone says something that s patently false, we ll say, Here s the reality. I think people have been so surprised, because Walmart didn t always do that. You wouldn t get a response that says, Here s a link to an infographic that actually shows that Walmart does pay a living wage. We re a humble company, a humble brand. We don t talk about all the great things we do to help fight hunger, or all of our sustainability efforts, what we re doing to help veterans...

5 A group of Walmart associates attend a team meeting. In the past, our teams have been so focused on the media. So when you have a negative article that s written about us, there s not a lot of engagement opportunity there. We can try to put out a press release combatting that, but that s not very effective. We re not going to get a competing article in another media outlet. Now, what we re able to do is when people do say things online whether they re bloggers or members of the traditional media we re actually able to have an open dialogue where other people will comment or respond on Twitter. Now, with our embracing of social media, we re able to respond. What are examples of some of the scenarios when Walmart engages critics on social media? We ll get a lot of people that will criticize us about our employment practices. We employ a lot of people. Everything we do around employment gets criticized: [They ll say] we don t treat our associates right, or pay them a fair wage. We actually put together a series of videos to help combat that. We feature our associates talking about how working at Walmart is a great career, and how they have a future. We pushed a lot of these videos out, and we started to get a lot of criticism. People said, Hey, those aren t real Walmart associates. They don t really work for you. You hired actors. Associate Nathaniel Williams shares how much he loves working for Walmart and shares his dreams for the future. We responded, and said, No, these are real people. Here s some b-roll. None of them were paid actors. The campaign was called The Real Walmart. Just sharing that content stopped the conversation dead in its tracks. What ends up happening, in typical fashion, is the conversation shifts: OK, fine. They re not actors, but you don t: Insert claim here. You don t treat your associates right. And so we respond to that: Here s an infographic that shows how we compensate associates, and provide them with benefits. Then the conversation shifts again. At a certain point, you give up and say, At least we resolved a couple of those issues. People are always going to have issues with us, and there is nothing we can do about it. But if we can engage on a couple of those points get our story out there that s a victory for us.

6 As you look at the seemingly ever-expanding social media landscape, how do you prioritize which spaces and channels you need to be involved in? How do you approach thinking about that challenge? It s something we ve been giving a lot of thought to lately. It s about understanding our audience, and where they are at. If we re trying to reach influencers, they are going to be more active on Twitter than Facebook. That s the backbone of our social media strategy Twitter. However, as we move forward, we need to be evaluating other platforms and understand where our audience is moving, and find additional opportunities to engage new audiences. We ve dipped our toes into Vine this year. On the flip side, we evaluated Instagram, which is not a great audience for us because we re not consumer-facing; we re influencer-focused. That s not really a good channel for us. We ll constantly evaluate. We put some structure and rigor into how we re going to continue to feed those channels good content that resonates with the audience. Relying on Content Partners That Are Knocking It Out of The Park That seems to be similar to the way you partner with different social media and content marketing agencies your specialization strategy, so to speak. One of things I just don t think you can ever do is outsource the strategy creation process. It s good to have people who are thinking along with you, and working with you, but to actually bring in an agency to help you build out a social media strategy doesn t resonate with me, and I don t think it s the right approach. No one is going to understand Walmart s challenges and the structure of the company better than somebody inside the company. So who better to set up that strategy? Once we ve done that, then it s incumbent on me to help build out the team to execute it in the best way possible. That kind of goes to my approach to find the absolute best people to do the tasks. I know lots of companies will do the tasks well, but I want one agency who will do a specific part of the strategy better than anyone else. There s two sides to that: If they are the best at two things, then great, they can do those two things for me. But it s the groups that come to me and say, Oh, we can do everything for you yeah, they can probably do everything for me, but they probably can t do it better than everyone else. That s just not realistic. As we expand out into a new network, we might need to find someone who

7 We ve kind of established Raidious as our quarterback. is a specialist in Pinterest, someone who is a specialist in short video creation. We re always evaluating new partners that might be new to the space but are really knocking it out of the park. We don t let our agencies get complacent. If they were the best last year, but they re not the best this year, we re probably going to have to talk about that. How does Raidious help you execute your social and content creation strategy? Raidious has helped us in two main areas: Coordination, because we have so many different resources, it s helpful internally for our culture to have a single point of contact. We ve kind of established Raidious as our quarterback. By the virtue of having that centralized position really understanding the team and what everyone is doing it also puts Raidious in a position to suggest content ideas for us, and implement those content ideas well. Every week I have a call with [Raidious Producer] Craig Lile, and we talk about suggestions for new content pieces that might get the greenlight or not, but Raidious is constantly coming to us with those ideas. What are the challenges that you re grappling with now in your position the things that keep you up at night, percolating with potential solutions? We re constantly looking at what else is out there. What else should we be focused on? Are the current things we are doing still relevant? We re looking at how we can expand our strategy out to paid media as well, in addition to owned media. There are other discussions that we have about the ratios. As much as this is analytical and science-based, there s an art to it that we re trying to evaluate how much of this conversation should revolve around our own agenda, and how much of this conversation should be based on what our audience is talking about. We can t just talk about what our audience is talking about. We have to talk about initiatives that are important to Walmart, because our audience might not be talking about it simply because they re not aware of it. We have to find that right balance. Looking back at your last 20 months, what accomplishments during your tenure are you most proud of? There s a lot. Overall, just having the opportunity to give Walmart a voice has been really rewarding. It s been great to see the willingness of the group to actually to get out there and engage and talk with our audience it just wasn t happening in a very meaningful or compelling way. It allows us to be more human. I m proud that Walmart now has a genuine voice in this conversation that they didn t have before.

8 Raidious builds audiences for brands Contact Us 47 South Meridian Street Suite 302 Indianapolis, IN (317)

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