Wal-Mart's Paid Search PR Spin

After last weekend, it's tough to imagine anyone needing a public relations boost more than the New York Jets field goal kicker. In the grander scheme of things, however, Wal-Mart is a far more enduring lightning rod for criticism.

Wal-Mart is going on the offensive, and in a small but significant way, it has turned to paid search to help alleviate its woes.

Last week, the retail giant launched to tell its story, backed by a massive print campaign. To help drive traffic to the site, Wal-Mart purchased paid search ads through Overture. A search on Yahoo! for "walmart" brings up a sponsor result saying: " What drives Wal-Mart? Want the facts? Go to"

Wal-Mart could use added exposure for its own sites. Yahoo! has several anti-Wal-Mart sites in the first page of results for a search for "walmart," including Walmart Personal Injury Survivor at In Google, the fifth entry for a "walmart" search - the first not run by Wal-Mart, goes to Wal-Mart Watch, an outdated but still visible site attacking the retailer. Type "walmart labor" in Google and the top-ranked page is a February 2004 Congressional report called "Everyday Low Wages: The Hidden Price We All Pay for Wal-Mart."



Whether or not the charges against Wal-Mart hold water, what matters is they are out there, and people are talking about them.

The paid search PR campaign is a creative approach for the retailer to add its voice to the conversation. Generally speaking, pay-per-click (PPC) ads tend to be so direct-sales oriented that few advertisers use them for anything else.

Ben Silverman writes the PR Fuel column for eReleases, and I sought his candid opinion on two questions: Will this campaign help Wal-Mart, and what other companies should try this strategy?

He replied, "Will it help them? Probably not in any measurable way, but it's a cost-effective manner to reach a new audience and potentially give the company's side of the story to some of its critics."

As for question two, Ben notes, "One sector which I think could use PPC as an effective means to fight a PR war is the pharmaceutical industry. If you do a search for Vioxx on Google and Yahoo!, all the PPC ads are for law firms seeking clients for class action lawsuits. Merck (the manufacturer of Vioxx) would probably be wise to regain control of its brand. As it stands, from a PPC perspective, Merck's Vioxx brand has been hijacked."

For reasons still unclear, as of the start of this week, Wal-Mart is only advertising through Overture (and thus on Yahoo!), with no Google ads in sight. On Yahoo!, is the first visible link, thanks to the ad. Type in Vioxx, however, and there's a smorgasbord of legal-themed ads screaming for attention.

I called Wal-Mart to find out more about their paid search campaign. The representative couldn't answer strategic questions but shed a bit of light in her own way. "We did a media buy," she said. "We bought whatever we bought."

Then she said something more incisive. As to why they did the paid search campaign at all, she responded, "We wanted folks to be able to see the new site. When launching a site, it's just a smart tactic."

Score one for Wal-Mart. Yet Ben provided the counterpoint: "With a company this large and issues so complex, how do you measure the return on investment (ROI) on a campaign like this?"

Here's where everything comes together. Wal-Mart needed to be more aggressive as the lawsuits, media criticism, and rumors mounted. The centerpiece is the Web site. Ads lead to the site, and the site provides a central channel to inform the messaging that the company carries out to the world.

As the rep mentioned, when launching a site, the logical way to drive traffic is with a paid search campaign. To Ben's point, the ROI can't be easily measured for the PPC ads, nor can it be measured from creating the site, or placing an ad in The Wall Street Journal, or landing the CEO on "Meet the Press." As much as the search industry thrives on ROI metrics to prove value, there's so much more value (e.g., branding, offline sales, return on trust, etc.) that isn't generally quantified but plays a part nonetheless. For this public relations push, Wal-Mart is focusing exclusively on the intangibles.

Though such a time is hard to remember, it was once newsworthy when companies were using paid search at all. When Overture was still, a Fortune 500 engaging in paid search would have made for a top news story. Now, it's old hat. "It's just a smart tactic."

In time, using paid search as a PR tactic will lose its newsworthiness too. Kudos to Wal-Mart for leading by example.

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