It was only fitting that when Walmart announced the winner of the Fighting Hunger Together contest on Wednesday afternoon, a big headline anointed Memphis as the winner while the blurb beneath it explained why Salt Lake City won.
As we all know now, Salt Lake City really did win the million dollar prize. The Memphis thing was just a glitch on the Walmart site. But it was a glitch that was emblematic of the contest as a whole. It displayed something that many of us who spent last week feverishly clicking away already knew — the way Walmart handled this contest was one big ol’ mess.
This is not a “boo hoo, we didn’t win” post. It’s not sour grapes. As messy as the contest was, I’m still quite thankful for two outcomes: (1) That Walmart is giving us $100,000. It will certainly help our community. (2) That our community rallied behind this contest and came together to make Fresno a better place in the process. But that doesn’t mean Walmart should get a pass for the way it handled this.
This contest was — first and foremost — about good PR for Walmart. It helped needy people in the process, sure, but it was really about getting Walmart’s name all up in your Facebook feed. I’d be willing to bet that someone at Walmart HQ was hoping this would help turn around Walmart’s not-so-wonderful image just a tad.
So if good PR was the goal, Walmart stumbled and bumbled its way through this campaign. It started with the “FAQ” section of the contest site, which read like it was starving for a good copywriter.
Because the rules weren’t clear, all hell broke loose on Facebook during the last week of the contest. What exactly were you supposed to “like?” Links? Comments? Could people vote multiple times? Could people create new Facebook pages just to have a like-and-comment bonanza? Could people use technology tricks such as the “macro-like”? And, really, how many times did you refresh the Fighting Hunger site and ALL the votes were gone?
Local media did its job and asked the questions, but it wasn’t getting a lot of answers from Walmart. Or clear ones. When it did, it seemed like Walmart would contradict itself later on Facebook.
From Tuesday’s Bee:
A Walmart official said Monday that voting more than once “absolutely” is allowed. In fact, said Walmart spokeswoman Tiffany Moffatt, the “frequently asked questions” section on the contest’s website offers six ways to vote for the city of choice.
Maybe they were asking, ’cause the FAQ wasn’t very clear. Duh! Then on Thursday, Walmart wrote this in a Facebook comment thread — notice, not anywhere prominent, just in a comment thread:
The integrity of this initiative is very important to us and we have been working with Facebook to track votes very closely since the campaign launched on Nov. 15. and will continue to do so until … the campaign’s end. Only valid votes will be counted — bot-like applications, fraudulent profiles and other misuse of this functionality will be deleted and not factored into the final counts. We will not make any decisions regarding the winning cities or nonprofits that will be funded until we are sure that the final vote tallies are correct.
Then on Friday, it wrote something about only three “likes” counting, which sent the Fresno Hunger Fighters into a tizzy, expecting that all of their clicking and commenting would be disqualified:
The integrity of this initiative is very important to us and we are working closely with Facebook to ensure that only legitimate, manual votes made by individual users are tallied. Facebook is able to access the analytics behind each city and pull out unique ‘Likes’ per city and will choose a winner accordingly. We will be calculating the final tally only on unique Likes, which we will be capping at 3 Likes per user (Like, Share, and Comment).
By the end of the contest, it was fairly clear that both Fresno and Salt Lake City had been using fake profiles and bot-like applications. So nobody really knew what to expect from Wednesday’s results.
Maybe when Walmart took away all the “cheating” Fresno would be back at No. 1, because that’s where we were before Salt Lake City’s out-of-nowhere surge. Maybe both cities would get knocked out of the No. 1 spot. Maybe Salt Lake City was ahead fair and square.
What made the most PR sense for Walmart at that point was to give both cities a million dollars. An additional $900,000 is not much to a company that had net sales of 405 billion in 2010. It certainly would have paid for itself in goodwill PR. Walmart could then be the company that went above and beyond. That would help its image, right? Maybe get this campaign on The Today Show or something?
But Walmart didn’t do that. In fact, after making all that fuss about the “integrity” of the contest, it didn’t dock any city any votes. Fresno and Salt Lake City had just about the same number of votes when the final results were released today as they did when the contest ended on Friday. In fact, I believe Salt Lake City had MORE.
And after all this fuss, Walmart just announced the winner at noon on its Web site? Where’s the big reveal? Where’s the “move that bus” moment?
Where’s a Walmart suit showing up in the winning city, smiling for pictures in front of a Walmart store? Or sticking an apple down some impoverished kid’s throat?
That’s good PR, right?
Just to recap: Walmart gave us confusing rules. Changed its interpretation of them a few times. Told us a bunch of votes would not count. Then ended up counting them anyway. Finally, when it came time to announce the winner, it briefly announced the wrong city.
It’s within reason that Walmart got caught off guard and was overwhelmed by how much interest and enthusiasm this contest generated. It was, after all, the contest’s first year. That might explain some of the technical glitches and confusing rules, but not Walmart’s inconsistent messaging.
You’d think for a company as big as Walmart, they’d have marketing and PR folks savvy enough to prevent things from getting so sloppy. Apparently not.
One thing I’m pretty sure of at this point: If I were ever giving away $1.5 million dollars, I’d do it much more clearly and concisely than Walmart did. And I’m just some guy — not the world’s largest public corporation.