December 20, 2012, 2:05 PM

Wal-Mart goes social and mobile for its holiday season kickoff

A Facebook mobile campaign splashes 50 million ads across smartphones in 72 hours.

Lead Photo

Wal-Mart wanted a record-breaking sales day on the day after Thanksgiving. Facebook wants to generate more advertising revenue.

This year the two worked together to assemble a massive mobile Facebook ad campaign on Thanksgiving Day and the two days afterwards that worked towards both those goals.

In the end Wal-Mart posted 50 million mobile ads on the social network over the 72 hours. The campaign attracted more than 100,000 comments on Wal-Mart’s Facebook wall as sales on specific items that the retailer wanted to promote popped up in Facebook users’ newsfeeds. The retailer also accumulated an additional 164,000 fans over the three days.


The retailer won’t say whether it deems the campaign a success, but says it had its best Black Friday sales day ever and that it is already planning for Black Friday 2013. It also won’t say if it is planning any big mobile Facebook campaigns in the near future.

However, it does say that working closely with Facebook enabled it to quickly change ads to more heavily promote items that weren’t selling as well as expected—and that the strategy helped sell out some slow-moving goods.

Advertising on Facebook is far from new territory for Wal-Mart, No. 4 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. The retailer estimates it will accumulate two billon impressions on the social network this year. 

However, the special holiday push was all hands on deck. For example, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman says the retailer pre-purchased the ads so that competitors couldn’t buy up precious mobile real estate on the prime shopping days. Typically, companies pay Facebook only when members of the social network see their ads.

The mobile holiday bonanza took months of planning and close work with Facebook, Wal-Mart says. For example, Facebook ad staff visited Wal-Mart home offices several times during the ramp-up to launch, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman says.

Facebook is wise to pay closer attention to advertisers with deep pockets and test out new ad sales strategies, such as the ability to pre-buy ads, says Jed Williams, senior analyst at consultancy BIA/Kelsey.

“It is interesting to see Facebook moving towards putting custom touches on campaigns with its biggest brand advertisers,” Williams says.  “One of the biggest criticisms for Facebook has always been the question of if they are really thinking about the good of the advertiser.”

The flip side of that point, he says, is the question of whether that level of attention is sustainable across thousands of brands.  

Those brands that are willing to investigate the opportunities Facebook has to offer will find a wide menu. Facebook, Williams says, isn’t only for the Wal-Marts of the world.  

For example ad formats like Facebook Offers let advertisers pay for consumers to see promotions in their news feeds, which display the latest stories and updates from friends and from companies they’re fans of. Consumers click to claim the deals and redeem them by printing them out, displaying them on their mobile phones at a store, or entering codes at e-commerce sites. 

To participate, businesses now must pay for ads to run in tandem with Offers, Facebook says. But advertisers can set modest budgets. Facebook requires businesses spend a minimum of $5 in advertising to post an Offer. Beyond that, costs will vary depending on the number of Likes on their fan pages, Facebook says.

And just this week, Facebook made updates to its Nearby tab in its iOS and Android apps that could help local business gain exposure for free. Users can now search nearby businesses by specific categories. They can also call, Like or get directions to a business, rate places, and recommend establishments to their Facebook friends. Before, consumers could only view nearby places where their friends had checked in. 

In the Monday announcement, Facebook outlined ways local businesses could use the updates to gain exposure. Tips include adding pertinent information such as store hours, addresses, phone numbers and a business description to their company Facebook page, and encouraging consumers to Like, check in, rate or recommend their establishment.

Despite having a reach Facebook describes as one billion global active monthly users as of October, Williams says there is still a curiosity about the effectiveness of Facebook advertising. Retailers with deep pockets can dedicate a nice chunk of change for experiments, as Wal-Mart did, but many other brands, especially smaller ones, don’t have the cash for expensive trial and error. 

“Brands are still trying to interpret how social triggers and Facebook newsfeeds impact purchases,” Williams says.

However, there is no doubt that they sometimes work.  “When Wal-Mart pushed shoes that weren’t selling on Facebook, suddenly they were sold out a day later,” Williams says.  “There is a ready-made trigger in Facebook that shouldn’t be ignored.”

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