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July 19, 2006

Wal-Mart Garners Attention with Social Networking Brand Site

Wal-Mart has gotten some attention this week with the launch of a social networking brand community site loosely based on social phenomenons like MySpace. The site--called The HUB--School Your Way--focuses on the impending back to school season and coincides with the launch of the store's school clothing lines. The likenesses to more general MySpace sites, for instance, are only a loose affiliation, however, as the site focuses on the back to school rush and Wal-Mart clothing lines.

Many responses to the release of the School Your Way site is based on Mya Frazier's scathing review of the site in Advertising Age. Among Frazier's gripes were the inauthenticity of the kids in videos on the site, the sanitzed and censored replica of MySpace that would not appeal to kids, and the focus around a clothing line that kids just don't see value in. Considering the strong degree of corporate backlash against Wal-Mart, especially by those that consider the low prices retailer as censors selling lower-quality wares, the response in the blogosphere is not surprising, and several bloggers have continued with Frazier's line of attack. Particularly, these folks are attacking the idea of trying to copy the success of a major social phenomenon in a watered-down product that only serves to make the brand seem more low-rent instead of "cool."

On the other hand, Seth Godin makes a compelling argument as to why the site may well work--even if it's not cutting edge in any way, Godin says, doesn't mean it won't work because "the early adopters out there will push hard," but "the middle of the market" is pretty profitable as well. For all the parents out there forbidding MySpace in their house, for kids who don't feel safe on MySpace after hearing all the news reports of the site's potential dangers, or for those kids who love the Wal-Mart brand (Frazier's choice of interview subjects for her story indicates that there are few teens that fall into this category, but she didn't present the most objective report, either), the site may draw well.

GSD&M, a partner here at the consortium, is Wal-Mart's ad agency. I'm not sure the involvement of the agency in this project and have not discussed it with them, but I think Seth's argument is a compelling one that we can't forget. Just because this doesn't reach out to the people in the blogosphere or to those of us who are LinkedIn and who have face time on Facebook or who have long been established in MySpace doesn't mean that there isn't a strong market out there for the product.

Of course, I'm no advocate for closely monitored censorship, even when it comes to teenagers, so I'm not so crazy about this controlled communication forum (if you aren't really allowing open communication nor private correspondence on the site, is it really a communication forum?). Wal-Mart's site may end up being successful, and it may catch a lot of new users uncomfortable with the jungles of MySpace or the more technical social networking sites out there for teens. That sanitized and protected and censored site is appealing to many parents and even teens. For the sake of trickle-down innovation, I hope the site does attract kids to the potential of social networking and encourage other old media companies to continue brainstorming ways to extend their brand into community forums. Let's just hope that the limits of the Wal-Mart site doesn't become the norm.

Thanks to C3's William Uricchio for drawing my attention to the current debate.


We launched - a true tween virtual community - about a month and a half before WalMart spilled out this “thing” - a/k/a "School Your Way" -on their haphazard subdomain. Our stats showed 187,000+ gross visits in the first 14 days post-launch.

Obviously I have motive to pump But, the WalMart site is seriously misguided. I'm particularly taken aback by the dude who walks up to the unsuspecting stranger and asks how long his armpit hair is.

Be on the lookout for a tween-size spoof . . . .

In reality, activity on our site shows that tweens are funny, polite and interested While our site is fully moderated and constantly monitored, we have had little or no trouble with members or those posing as members.

The kids on our site are actually a good - and growing bunch who know better than to unsuspectingly hand over their demographic and marketing information under the guise of “expressing” themselves..

WalMart ought to take note and give their audience a little more credit.

Tony Zinnanti Adult Admin
Paperless Commerce, Inc.
27433 Tourney Road, Suite 160
Valencia, California 91355-5601
Telephone: 661.309.3011

Tony, you mention Wal-Mart's motive as being a marketing ploy. Do you think that any attempt to capture kids in a branding community is doomed from the start because of the commercial purpose of the site or just this one in particular?

Posted by: Sam Ford | July 21, 2006 8:02 AM

While I didn't expressly state that, I do think that. I think it's a total marketing ploy.

On to the question . . . .

No, I don't think that any attempt to capture kids in a branding community is doomed from the start. At the risk of sounding pejorative, here's why I think that -

The effort has to be an honest one. If it's cool to own an iPod or it's cool to wear certain jeans, fine. Kids follow along with that - for better or worse.

I have substantial experience with kids and, in particular tweens. Specifically, I taught junior high school and high school (including special education and in the jail schools) for about five years. Thereafter, I have praciced family law for eight years. 85% of my family practice was deciated to high conflict custody cases.

Important: In a weird kind of way, kids are more mature at the age of ten than they are at the age of 18. This has to do with desire to be accepted and still following a set of norms that are laid out for them.

Kids - and particular tweens - are neither stupid nor unattentive. Before I even had fully deployed, my tween daughter and her friends dissected the script and began constructing pages. Further - and another important point - they followed the rules. Out of 70+ kids, I've had to get on only one kid about content issues.

Here's the relevance to marketing: If you're going to approach kids, do it in an honest manner. Like with, give them an open space with rasonable parameters and they'll tell you what they like. Visit us and look at some of he pages.

On the other hand, a lot of the tween sites are way too "kiddie" to be of interest. Tweens have a definite focus. They are still very idealistic, they are wonderful dreamers and they are not scared of life.

Thank goodness for that.

So, when WalMart constructs what is an obvious farce - shamelessly loaded with branding to every corner - it's offensive. The Hub - School your Way - says "Hey kid, you're an idiot who's too unsavvy to see that we're pitching you."

Want to sell stuff? Excite kids with possibilities. Remember that they are fast thinkers. Don't try to mold them into what you wish you were - or think they should be. Guide. Interact. Encourage. Support.

Yes, all this takes time. After all they're kids and they deserve the attention.

I have a tween daughter who is rapidly blossoming into quite a young lady. It puts me on the front line with convincing her to do or not do something. I'll tell you - like any marketing venture - I'm not going to get results by insulting her intelligence.

Thanks for the question. I'm honored to have the opportunity to reply in this forum.

Tony Zinnanti
Paperless Commerce, Inc.
27433 Tourney Road, Suite 160
Valencia, California 91355
Telephone: 661.312.4880

What you're saying is that you think kids are savvy enough to see through a lot of promotional BS and that what works for iPod may not work for every other MP3 player company? I think that's an important part of understanding how to develop a brand community through a project like this--the project has to feel authentic to the brand. Maybe the problem is that, since Wal-Mart has a certain expectation that comes along with it, that it simply cannot do some projects that work well elsewhere. Or, is there a way you feel Wal-Mart could have done this while being
authentic or "real"?

Interesting point about kids being more mature at 10 than 18. And you mention that kids are pretty good about following rules without you having to impose on them. But I'm curious about what you meant as far as kids being more mature at 10 than 18? More savvy? More open-minded? More obedient? Mature is a word that can be construed a lot of different ways depending on the way a person wants to use it, so I was curious as to your meaning in this instance.

But your point about insulting the intelligence of the kids is the strongest. Since I post about wrestling often, it just reminds me of any product I would see as a wrestling fan growing up or even sometimes as an adult which would appeal or treat wrestling fans like they weren't savvy enough to understand that the pseudo-sport was scripted. Even as a kid, nothing infuriated me more than someone talking to me like I had no concept of reality. There's a playful way to do that and engage in fantasy, but being condescended to just isn't fun.

Posted by: Sam Ford | July 23, 2006 12:10 AM

I think the numbers speak for themselves:

MySpace currently reports just over 98 million members, with 500,000 new members each week.

In just under four weeks, the Wal-mart "School Your Way" site has just 677 members.


Thanks for the statistic. It does underscore the point that, while social networking is a good idea, it doesn't work in every case, as the communication has to be authentic, and a restricted communication space is not the most compelling alternative for kids. That doesn't mean that these sites should not be policed but rather that Wal-Mart, a brand that has become synonymous for many with censorship, is likely seen as either too unhip or too controlling for tweens/teens.

Posted by: Sam Ford | August 7, 2006 12:03 AM
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