Managing the Reputation of a Mega-Brand with Walmart’s Chad Mitchell


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Interview with Chad Mitchell of Walmart

Eric: Can you talk a little bit about your background Chad?

Chad: Sure, it’s probably not the typical one. I’m not really “digital” or “social,” per se. I view myself as a communications professional who has simply adapted to the changing environment. I really cut my teeth in politics, working on local, state, and federal races in Virginia.

I majored in journalism with a minor in political science and gravitated toward politics and campaigns and away from being a reporter or journalist. Then when I got an opportunity to work in the State House for two different reps in Virginia, I really learned what my writing background could do.

I’ve always been interested in working for people and organizations that have a mission that I can get behind. And I think Walmart is second to none in that category.

My first role at Walmart was on the team supporting efforts to build new stores in some key markets.

We tried out some new things during those campaigns, specifically digital tactics that were highly successful. From there, I moved into my current role with our digital communications team, where we manage our external facing corporate channels, both traditional web and on social media. We’re responsible for creating content, building our platforms, growing our audience and measuring how everything is working.

Eric: You talked about the Walmart mission and what your focus is. Can you expand a little bit more on those topic areas?

Chad: At Walmart we have 2.2 million associates globally and 11,000 stores around the world. With so much to account for, we do a lot of great things, but we don’t get everything right. So it’s easy for people to be critical. Typically, that criticism is focused on one of three things: too many products come from China, we put Mom-and-Pop stores out of business, or we don’t treat our people well.

Our job is to introduce people to the real Walmart, to tell the stories about our products and our commitment to domestic manufacturing. For example, did you know that items that are made assembled, sourced, or grown here account for about two-thirds of what we spend to buy products at Walmart U.S.?

2/3 of Walmart Products are Source in the US

Or share the stories from community leaders who have seen their towns thrive when a new Walmart was built. A recent study out of Washington D.C. has shown that our two new locations not only enhanced economic development, but created jobs and are saving families in the district money.

And most importantly, we’re sharing stories from real Walmart associates. Critics would have you believe that associates are unhappy and that we’re a bad employer, but when you listen to our associates, you can see the joy and pride coming through and you know they have a different story to tell.

Regardless of those facts, you can pretty much put the general public in three categories: hard-core critics, hard-core fans, and the people in the middle. While it’s critically important to remind our fans and core customers what we’re doing, we’re really focused on building relationships with the people in the middle who may generally be skeptical but are willing to learn more.

In politics, you would rate lawmakers on a scale of one to five to know if they were with you, against you or in the middle. At Walmart, we think of our audience on a 10 point scale, and so you hope that the fours, fives and sixes are willing to have a conversation. And if they’re willing to engage you in a meaningful conversation, I feel pretty good about where Walmart’s going to come out once we can really introduce ourselves and tell our stories. That’s really about improving reputation. We also need to increase trust, and so we’re always looking for opportunities to prove ourselves and strengthen that trust with customers.

Eric: That’s great. In terms of the detractors, hard-core critics I think you called them, the ones that are never going to be with you. Do you try to engage them at all, or what’s the approach there?

Hard Core Critics May Be Impossible to Convert

Chad: No. To be honest, we really found that there’s not much to be gained there. We’ve tried a couple things, and while I wouldn’t say they backfired, we learned pretty quickly that provoking the loudest critics really didn’t help the cause. I love my job and I love telling the stories about the amazing things we do, but unfortunately there is a small percentage of the population that is never going to come around, regardless of what we do to change their minds.

I always say the double-edged sword of social is that, the good thing is everybody has a voice and the bad thing is everybody has a voice. Choosing whom to engage with in such a public setting and again, I think back to being in politics, if a constituent wrote a letter or made a phone call and lit my boss up about the way he voted on something, you could handle those things one on one. And it was private, for the most part. You would respond in a letter, my boss would make a phone call, whatever the case may be.

Now, the general public expects to have questions and conflict resolved in open forums, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or our blog. So, there’s going to be a process in place or a method by which you get involved with people. And I think we just learned it experientially. And then you start to use data to inform some of the decisions you make about who you’re going to engage with.

We don’t have enough resources to spend a lot of time engaging with people who really aren’t interested in some positive outcome, or impacting change. And so, we’ll leave them over there in their cohort to do what they need to do, and we’ll try to keep telling the stories that we think are more representative of our company, and the people who work here on our mission.

Mark: In Social Media Today, over a year ago, you said that one of your objectives for 2014 and beyond was to begin to create more compelling and engaging content, and really center more on that content. Can you talk about how that effort has progressed, and what you’re seeing from that?

Chad: Good question. We’re in a really good place today. We’ve continued to grow our team and have centralized our digital communications function. Not quite a center of excellence yet, but getting there, in terms of content creation, channel management, research, and analytics and advertising.

With that said, I don’t think that what we did was unique at all. We could probably both quickly name 20 or 30 brands who have all launched efforts to tell their story and get closer to their customers and employees. In our case, we learned a lot from and emulated Coca-Cola. I loved what they did with their channels in transforming their corporate website to a digital magazine and thought we could do something similar.

Coca Cola Journey Home Page

This is where our size and scale works in our favor, because we’re never at a loss for finding great stories to share. The challenge now is bringing those stories to life in a compelling way.

“Storytelling” and “branded journalism” are almost cliché now, so we have to be relevant, be meaningful, and stand out as we try to those stories and give people a glimpse into the work of Walmart, our associates, our customers.

We’ve got the pieces in place. We’ve got agency support that is embedded with the team, as well as back where they are headquartered and we’ve added more resources to our digital team.

You can’t just build a website or a blog, or create a social handle and put content through it and think that your job is done, and that people are going to see it. You really need to work a lot harder these days, in terms of getting your content in front of the audiences that you most need to see it.

We’ve done a lot of work in understanding our audiences and understanding the places that they may be congregating online, and what we can do to get our story in front of them on those channels.

I think one of my counterparts at MasterCard said something at a social shakeup last year about, “If you are not doing it smart and you’re not being strategic, then you are nothing more than a content polluter.” I don’t want to just continue to crank out content for the purposes of flooding the zone. It’s got to have a purpose, be imminently shareable and people need to care about it. I want to make sure that the Walmart story is breaking through when every other brand out there is probably trying to do the exact same thing we’re doing.

Don't Be a Content Polluter

Eric: Browsing through your Facebook page, I noticed that over the month of May, a lot of videos are telling stories of your employees and how working at Walmart has bettered their lives or changed their lives, taught them things. Do you plan out in advance storytelling campaigns? Like, “In May, we’re going to tell this story, and June we’re going to tell that story,” or are they more randomized?

Chad: It’s become much more planned out.

About three years ago, we set off on a joint project between corporate affairs and the marketing team to bring to life what we called at the time, our “Live Better Stories.” The mission of Walmart is, we help people save money so that they can live better, so we really honed in on how to tell stories that pulled our mission statement through. Saving money to live better can be as simple as finding products at the lowest price and it can be more emotional in terms of what our customers do with those savings.

That was when we really started to plan out what those stories were going to be like and what channels we would use to distribute them. That was the genesis of our partnership with our marketing department, which today, in my opinion, should be held up as an example of a best practice.

We made a big announcement on May 20 that we were increasing our commitment to hire veterans. We came out in 2013 and said that we would hire 100,000 veterans in the next five years. Two years into it, we’ve already hired 92,000 veterans. And so now we’re projecting that by 2020 we’ll be able to hire a quarter of a million veterans.

So to your question, you can be sure that we’re planning out how to share stories from our associates who are also veterans – what their transition from service to Walmart has been like and what the skills that they acquired during their military service mean for their careers at Walmart.

Walmart Employs Many Veterans

Eric: In another one of the interviews you did you talked about the concept of, “Keep your content simple and don’t over-think it.”

Chad: That’s very true. Back in February, we made a really big announcement about our $1 billion commitment to our associates in the form of higher wages, education and training. We didn’t issue a press release and instead recorded a video message from our CEO to associates. Doug is an amazing leader who can instantly connect with his audience, but especially associates. He started at Walmart in a distribution center and has become our CEO, and so why over-think that piece of content?

When Walmart felt the need, I think the very right need, to get involved in the religious freedom legislation that made its way through the Arkansas legislature. We made a statement. It wasn’t about over-thinking the content. We just had a statement that Doug put together and we issued it through our Twitter handle.

With that said, I think there is a time and a place for all different types of content. As I mentioned earlier, the space is very crowded and at times you do need to think beyond simple and strategize on what will stand out and get noticed and get shared. I don’t know who had the fortune or misfortune of deeming content as being “snackable,” but you don’t have a lot of time to get or keep the attention of your user. But I think there is a time and place for short form, medium form, or long form content. And it’s all about what you’re trying to accomplish, who your users are, and how that data is being consumed.

So, what I’ve told the team moving forward with our blog and with our channels is, let’s not lose sight of some quick and easy things. We’ve got a very professional team who loves the written word and they want to do a lot of long form stuff. But that takes up a lot of time and I think there is some stuff out there that we can do that’s much simpler at times.

It resonates with your audiences, and it’s authentic. I know those are words that are being overused right now, but it’s important to be authentic and make sure the brand comes across as human and not just some robot sitting on the other end of the computer, pushing out pre-planned messages. I’d much rather see it, feel it, and then respond. And have it be true and authentic in coming from real people here.

Eric: You could say an emphasis on function over form.

Chad: Yes.

Eric: How do you think about tuning content to the various available platforms?

Chad: I think that’s probably one of the questions that we get all the time: “Why don’t we have a Facebook page for this or a Facebook page for that?” And it’s only been within the last, I’d say two months or so, that I feel like we’re having really, really, really honest conversations about our channels and our audiences and our content. And are we thinking strategically about the content we’re creating and the channels and the platforms we’re using to distribute the content?

It’s really been an evolution, and we’ve learned along the way how you tune or program your channels to best reach your audiences. It took us a while to get our corporate blog up, which is now called Walmart Today, and when we first launched, a lot of decisions were made on gut. Now we’ve got a ton of testing and research to inform our decisions so that we can be real strategic when we build communications plans.

It’s paid off. Back in December or January, Mark Schafer recognized it is one of the top ten brand blogs in the world. So that felt really good.

Walmart Today Blog

Our team puts a great value on collaborating with our colleagues inside of Walmart to answer some simple questions like, “What’s your announcement? And who are you trying to reach?” Once we know the answers, we can determine the channels where they need to be for their announcement to be relevant.

I’d like to think that we’re maybe doing it a little bit better than some other folks. I don’t know that to be true, but I just think that we’re really thinking about it in a really smart and strategic way. I feel good about where we’re going moving forward, in terms of content and channels and platforms that we’ll use to reach audiences that matter to us.

Eric: Yes. It’s a challenging thing. So if I were to net that together, it’s a particular message or campaign you might put out on one or two channels and not the others, because that’s what is going to get you the best result for that campaign.

Chad: For sure. Somebody might come in and say, “I need it on Walmart One,” which is our Intranet for our associates, or, “I need it on the corporate website.” Now we’ve got them to say, “Well, actually you don’t need it here, you need it there.” Not only do you maybe not need it on an owned channel, but we need to put it over on a paid or a rented channel. And we need to get it in front of this select group of people.

Eric: Right. Well, it’s really about cultivating each of those channels, too. If they are on Facebook with you, they are there for a reason. If they are coming to your blog, they go there for a reason. And if you start delivering things to them that are not fit for what they want, then that hurts that relationship.

Chad: That’s right.

Eric: Do you see yourself as an in-house consultant to the rest of the company on how to best create content and place it where it needs to be?

Chad: Yes, for sure. We really wanted to establish ourselves, almost as an agency or consultancy model within corporate affairs. We’re not using those words, but the approach that we took was one so that we could centralize a lot of the functions. The digital landscape changes so frequently that it’s nearly impossible to expect everyone to keep up with the changes and understand what they mean to their day jobs. But that’s what we can do and we can help keep them informed and work with them to build great content, delivered on the right channels to the audiences who are most essential to our reputation and to our business.

Eric: Any last observation you’d like to offer?

Chad: I am thrilled with where we are as a team and where we are as a brand. I think we have a lot of work to do. The space is always changing, so what feels really good today may not feel so good tomorrow, it may suddenly feel like it’s dated. But that is the challenge of the job. And the world is not suffering from a shortage of channels or a shortage of content creators. I think we are all overwhelmed right now in the flood of content, and things that we can engage with each day.

How we get noticed and how we break through the noise I think is going to be the challenge moving forward. So we’ve got to be on our game and understand what the ecosystem and the environment out there looks like and do what we have to do to get the Walmart story out there.

About Chad Mitchell

Photo of Chad Mitchell

Chad Mitchell is Senior Director of Digital Communications at Walmart. Positioned within Walmart’s Corporate Affairs division, he and his team are responsible for managing and supporting all aspects of Walmart’s corporate digital presence, including the corporate website and blog, social media platforms, and email communications both internally to associates and externally to customers. They are charged with managing and protecting Walmart’s corporate digital reputation, both reactively and through proactive influencer outreach.

Prior to joining Walmart, Chad spent time at a Washington, D.C. agency where he developed innovative online advocacy strategies and campaigns for Fortune 500 companies and national and international trade associations.

A graduate of Penn State, Chad is a frustrated golfer, tormented Washington Caps fan, husband, and father of two amazing children.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Eric Enge
Eric Enge is a partner at Stone Temple Consulting (STC), which has been providing SEO Consulting services for over 5 years. STC has worked with a wide range of clients, ranging from small silicon valley start-ups, to Fortune 25 companies. Eric is also co-author of The Art of SEO book.


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