What were they thinking?

What were they thinking? (From the NY Times.) “Under assault as never before, Wal-Mart is increasingly looking beyond the mainstream media and working directly with bloggers, feeding them exclusive nuggets of news, suggesting topics for postings and even inviting them to visit its corporate headquarters.”

Rather than throw rocks at Wal-mart (I do that enough), I’d like to at least give them some accolades for trying. The fact that they just completely missed the whole point of participatory marketing is beside the point. I think that by at least trying, they’re learning. So, they got their hand bitten when their astroturf approach to creating grassroots was exposed. So? Perhaps they’ll learn from the experience. Perhaps other marketers will learn about authenticity and transparency. Perhaps bloggers who are so eager to “monetize” their blogs will figure out the “asset value” of reputation and perception.

Learn from Wal-mart’s blunder here, but don’t learn that joining in the conversation taking place is a bad idea. Just don’t do it this way.

Let me be clear: For almost 20 years, I have been in the business of creating print and online media for corporate and association clients. I champion companies and other large institutions experimenting with new forms of direct-to-customer media that disintermediate traditional media channels. But for any of you corporate communicators out there who may want to experiment with this, let me give you the first (and perhaps only) rule you can never break: Don’t attempt to fake it. Your customers really do want to hear from you: You don’t have to lie about who you are. You don’t have to pretend that you’re someone else saying nice things. If you’re afraid to have your actions and motives publicly disclosed and discussed, then you’re better off staying on the sidelines and letting other people have the conversation. Blogging is about joining in the conversation…not about trying to manipulate the conversation.

Update: Debbie Weil provides links to more of the “back story” of this story and says perhaps Wal-mart is not blundering as much as the Times story suggests.

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