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.