Wal-Mart's Check Out Blog Fails Authenticy Test

UPDATE: Based on the excellent comments contributed to this post, it looks like this isn’t an intentional case of Wal-Mart gaming the social web, but a technical issue with how their PR firm tracks feed subscribers. Check the comments for details. Thanks.

Wal-Mart claims that their new employee blog, Check Out, is authentic. Here is an example of why that’s not the case.

Earlier today, I wrote a post about how PR firms game the web for their client’s advantage. The post included a quote from Edelman’s Steve Rubel who said that PR firms had learned from their anti-social uses of social media in the past, and went on to day (first time I’ve used the same quote twice in the same day):

Call me an optimist, but in 2008 most in the PR business take a clean approach to social media. A key reason is that when our clients engage, their participation needs to be transparent for it to be credible.

Now I’m going to be a jerk and quote myself from that post (I’ll try not to make a habit of it):

Expect to see many more online PR disasters in 2008 as firms continue to overstep as they attempt to leverage the audiences found on social networking sites.

6 hours later, I believe my prediction has come true.

The New York Times ran a PR piece today (you don’t believe they came up with the idea for this story themselves, do you?) about a new blog from Wal-Mart where buyers present unfiltered opinions directly to a worldwide audience of Wal-Mart customers.

It even goes so far to give the back story about how Wal-Mart has screwed up previous blogging efforts including creating a fake blog about RV users who camp in Wal-Mart lots. Perhaps I’m going too far, but that sounds eerily familiar to Rubel’s “learned its lessons” talking point.

The article explains that Wal-Mart (and Wal-Mart’s PR firm?) have learned their lesson:

The lesson seemed clear: create an authentic blog or don’t create a blog at all.

Gaming Social Media

Wal-Mark CheckOut Blog RSSI checked out the site, and as I often do, decided to subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed so I could give it a test run for a few weeks. However, when I did this, I saw something I’ve never seen before: A random number tacked onto the RSS feed’s URL.

Say What?

If you mouse over the RSS subscribe button and take a look at the feed’s URL, it will look something like this:

http://checkoutblog.com/rss/rss.ashx?id=633401472027920477

All you really need to access the feed is this:

http://checkoutblog.com/rss/rss.ashx

But Wal-Mart (or more likely, Wal-Mart’s PR firm, which I believe happens to be Edelman) is sticking a long string of numbers onto the end of the RSS feed’s URL.

Now, if you refresh the page, you may see something like this:

http://checkoutblog.com/rss/rss.ashx?id=633401476486527797

They’re similar, but not exactly the same, which is exactly the point. Every time you refresh the page, you’ll be presented with a different URL for their RSS feed.

By presenting a unique URL to every prospective subscriber, Wal-Mart (or, more likely, Wal-Mart’s PR firm) is gaming a popular social media site. You’ve probably heard of it: Google Reader.

Google Reader offers a “Subscriber Count” report to their community that helps people figure out which blogs are worth subscribing to. Blogs with large numbers of subscribers would often be considered better than blogs with less subscribers on a given topic.

A search for the Check Out blog brings back the following results on Google Reader:

Wal-Mart Check Out Reader Stats

Normally, this would give you an accurate report of how many subscribers the blog has, but Wal-Mart’s gaming of Google Reader’s social network has hurt the community’s access to valuable information.

Why is Wal-Mart Gaming Google Reader?

Just guesses here:

1. The PR firm did this to obfuscate how many people reading the blog. They’d rather talk about the NY Times story than the dismal readership of the blog they charged Wal-Mart an arm and a leg to develop.

2. Wal-Mart and the PR firm know that this site has little traffic potential but they don’t want the entire world do know that so they worked together to make it harder to measure.

3. This blog is so successful that they don’t want competitors to be able to tell how successful it has become (with the exception of pitching PR pieces to the NY Times business section).

What’s your guess?

Authenticity? FAIL

It seems clear to me that Wal-Mart has failed to become an authentic member of the blogosphere, which is counter to what they said they were now doing in today’s NY Times.

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