How do you communicate to 1,000,000+ associates? Walmart shares its recipe for social success


After hearing Walmart’s Micah Laney present at the Intranet Global Forum 2012 (IGF) I decided to reach out to the Senior Manager of Global Associate Communications to learn his secrets of success in helping to create a successful intranet as well as swaying the retail giant’s executives to embark on social media.

After receiving the Nielsen Norman Group honor in 2010, what brought about the need to redesign your intranet and launch in September 2012?

ML: Great question, why mess with what works? At Walmart we have a culture that embraces continuous improvement. If we know that we can make it better, no matter how great it already is, we have to. In the business that we’re in – employee communication – you have to build and maintain the single best place for your community to develop. If you don’t, someone else will, and suddenly you’re no longer a part of the conversation.

What are the goals of the new site – what do you want Walmart employees to get out of it?

ML: Simple. Be a relevant and useful resource for associates. It’s a standard we hold to everything on the site. If we’re not adding value for our associates in the moment that they arrive on the site, then what good are we? It’s why we exist.

What makes particularly ideal for collaboration and knowledge sharing?

ML: With over 1 million people, it’s not a simple thing. is actually the 3rd iteration of our employee extranet and we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. With this latest version, we’ve started by more clearly outlining and categorizing our communities and conversations. It’s reduced the barrier to entry, which can be daunting with so many people participating. We want each of our associates to arrive and find that place where they can immediately have a sense of belonging and join (or start) a conversation in a trusted environment.

Can you describe the process of winning over senior executives when it comes to internal (or external) social media? Why is it so important to think like they do in terms of what can go wrong and the risks associated with social media?

ML: I spoke on this topic at the IGF for 45 minutes, so condensing this is going to be tough. But, here goes:

When you walk into someone’s office with this new, fantastically shiny idea, repeat to yourself: This is my partner and they are not out to get me. As communicators we have to get that adversarial mindsets out of our heads. If you go in for battle, that’s what you’ll get.

Here’s what’s really happening: As you make your presentation, your potential partner is actually thinking exactly the opposite – that you are out to get them and the company they love. That’s their job – to protect the company from you.

Once you have this new mindset, that you are a wrecking ball, and that things can and will go horribly wrong, it changes your pitch dramatically. Now it’s not only about the shiny. Now you’re going to talk about what you want, along side all of the doomsday scenarios that they know are possibilities.

That collection of scenarios and carefully researched contingency plans is going to take a lot of work on your part. It’s going to be tedious and boring – but it must be done. Your collection becomes a Worst Case Handbook that you will not only use to put minds at ease, but may put to use in practice. Think about all the massive social media fails that you’ve seen online. What if you were in that situation – how would you handle it? Better yet, how would you prevent it from happening in the first place?

What advice can you give other companies who wish to embark on social media and make their intranets more interactive?

ML: For communicators looking to push their company into the world of internal social, here’s my advice:

1) Know your audience, know your culture
. Just because you can add a fancy new website with tons of social elements, doesn’t mean that you should. Before you get started, talk with everyone who will talk to you to understand the problems that you need to solve. There’s nothing sadder than an abandoned intranet without a purpose or audience. You gain that audience by being useful and relevant – solving problems, filling needs.

2) Go slow. Experiment with, and then master each step before you add more elements. The best baby step I’ve ever seen: The executive blog, done right. I say done right because there are some bad, I mean really bad, executive blogs out there. If you can find an executive that can tell a compelling story (with gentle editing), that’s gold. If it doesn’t work, try something else. There’s a combination out there for every organization. It’s your job to find it.

3) Don’t give up. If you’ve identified a problem that you’re going to solve, and have done the research to prove to yourself that it’s going to be a hit, stick with it. At my company we’ve been hammering away at this for a decade, and we’ve still got such a long way to go. A social intranet is a powerful thing. It can be a driver of culture, a hotbed of ideas, or the primary communications vehicle for a company of millions. That’s worth fighting for, and you’re just the person to do it.