Facebook users resisting Wal-Mart's latest Web 2.0 endeavor

Retailer looking to help college roommates purchase back-to-school supplies

Analysts have applauded Wal-Mart Stores's new "Roommate Style Match" group on Facebook.com, created to help college roommates link up online to coordinate back-to-school purchases at the retailer. However, most of the 100-plus comments posted on the site so far from its 932 members are critical of the retail giant's business practices.

One post, signed by Janine Carmona, wrote that " Facebook should take the number of negative comments on this page as a note that we don't support this company [for] its use of a space for social networking. This space is for people talking to other people. Facebook, get your priorities straight."

While a minority of the comments were positive about Wal-Mart in general, none focused on the company's goal for the site - having users "chat with other college students by posting their comments about dorms, decorating and college life."

In a statement e-mailed to Computerworld, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jami Arms said that the company is glad so many of its customers are visiting Facebook and interacting with each other.

"We recognize that we are facilitating a live conversation, and we know that in any conversation, especially one happening online, there will be both supporters and detractors," she wrote. "We're happy that so many of our customers are talking on Facebook about why they like Wal-Mart. Most of all, we're glad that soon-to-be roommates are using our site to come together and make choices about their dorm rooms."

Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst who covers social networking for Forrester Research, said that any company that puts itself on Facebook is likely face detractors. "Wal-Mart has more enemies than most people," he noted. "Wal-Mart has a PR weakness. If you give people an opportunity, they are going to come after you."

Despite the critical posts, Bernoff said he expects the Facebook effort will lead to more sales than the company's previous two Web 2.0 projects. Wal-Mart got egg on its face when it was revealed last year that a blog supposedly written by two independent consumers was backed by a initiative funded by a Wal-Mart's PR firm. In addition, a Wal-Mart social network called The Hub was closed after 10 weeks last year.

"For Wal-Mart this is the right approach," Bernoff said. "This is a great way to reach college students. It is much easier to get someone on Facebook to join your group than to get someone to come to your Web site and join your community."

Jeremiah Owyang, a blogger who writes about Web strategies and who is also director of corporate media strategy at PodTech.net, blogged that Wal-Mart shouldn't give up the effort even though he expects that the "battering of the [Wal-Mart] brand" on Facebook will probably continue. He recommends that Wal-Mart start discussion group forums to try to "segment the conversations about going back to school and even consider keeping folks on topic. Continue to allow critics (you can't stop it anyway) but try to use the forums as a guide to a discussion about school."

He commends Wal-Mart for being "bold" enough to continuing to try social networking efforts despite previous failures, and for not abandoning the Facebook site despite the criticism from users.

"I highly recommend that Wal-Mart consider trying a community strategy using a transparent and authentic blog or video blog series that addresses the very brand issues that they are getting slammed on," he wrote. "I took a look online for a 'Walmart blog' and didn't see any from the company. It's going to be very difficult to try a community marketing strategy with eCommerce hooks without first addressing the brand detractors."

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Heather Havenstein

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