Marketing   /   December 14, 2020

‘A true influencer program’: Inside Walmart’s growing army of employee TikTokers

When Lauren Castle started interning at Walmart in 2011, she didn’t think she’d last more than a few months. Castle, who was enrolled in pharmacy school in Ohio, said she was “100% certain that I would stay with a small, independent pharmacy and open my pharmacy one day,” Castle told Modern Retail in a phone interview. But while interning at Walmart, she said, “I absolutely fell in love with it.”

 She was shocked when a brief reflection she wrote about her summer internship experience, which she’d posted on the company’s intranet forum, made it all the way up to corporate executives. They decided to feature her in their company-wide newsletter. She remembered thinking, “Wow, I am one associate out of over 2 million in the entire world, and my story mattered,” she said. “That was the start, basically, for me.”

Now Castle is speaking to more than just Walmart employees. She is one of the roughly 500 people enrolled in the company’s Spotlight program, a new initiative that wants to turn Walmart workers into small-scale influencers.

Spotlight, which the company began testing this fall, remakes Walmart employees into public-facing company advocates. It’s an outgrowth of Walmart’s My Local Social program, which asked volunteer employees to post on behalf of their local stores. Now, under Spotlight, each employee is the brand. Spotlight is designed to showcase a behind-the-scenes look at life at Walmart. On Instagram, Castle posts about the grocery delivery services offered through Walmart’s subscription program, Walmart+, or her advice for student pharmacists.

Other Spotlight influencers have gravitated to TikTok (a platform Walmart may become a stakeholder in), which has fast become a new hub for the company. The app is teeming with employees jokingly taping their store managers to a pole, giving a “Walmart cheer” before work, or participating in a cross-country “Walmart dance party” hosted through TikTok’s duet feature.

For now, the Spotlight program is still small — but over the next few years, Walmart is looking to expand it to its nearly 1.5 million U.S. associates.

“Our vision is to grow this into the world’s largest employee-influencer program,” Jeff Zilberman, the vice president of client services at Brand Networks, the contractor that manages Walmart’s My Local Social and Spotlight programs, told Modern Retail in an email. Brand Networks also manages social campaigns for Samsung, among other companies. “By giving a voice to its front-line associates, Walmart is humanizing its brand and giving customers authentic, relatable content that they actually want to see and engage with.”

Walmart has been shy about discussing its extensive employee social media programs, and the company did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But conversations with Walmart employees, interviews with executives familiar with Spotlight and publicly available episodes from Walmart’s Sparkcast podcast give a glimpse into how the growing program is trying to turn employees into a social media force to be reckoned with — and might presage a future in which retail workers are tapped to promote products, broadcast store promotions and combat bad press.

Walmart is part of a growing cohort of retailers that have recruited employees to showcase the positive sides of their companies. Dunkin’ is compensating four retail employees to post TikToks on the job, and GameStop recently tried to get its employees to participate in dance challenges on the app. Even Amazon has an army of “FC ambassadors” — warehouse workers that are paid to tweet corporate talking points about life inside Amazon fulfillment centers.

Walmart has not formally announced plans to make Spotlight available to a large swath of its workforce, but the company appears to be actively considering it. “We are talking about opening this up to some hourly roles, on the clock,” Zachary Lones, who heads social media marketing at the company, told the podcast “Click 2 Bricks” in November. And Zilberman, the Brand Networks employee, said on an episode of “Sparkcast” that “we very much want to continue to grow and evolve [the Spotlight program], and one day make it available to all 1.5 million associates.”

The company has framed its employee influencer program as a way to empower workers. “We want their voice, we want them to talk to their community about what’s relevant,” Lones said on “Click 2 Bricks.” But Walmart in particular, which has only recently raised employee wages to an average of $14.26 an hour and has faced accusations of punishing workers who take sick days, has extra incentive to look good on social media.

The makings of Spotlight
Walmart clearly understands the power of social media. Since 2011, every Walmart store in the country — nearly 5,000 — has had its own, localized Facebook page. That program — first called My Facebook, then renamed My Local Social — soon expanded to other social channels, with local Walmart stores popping up on Instagram and TikTok. 

Stores are given general autonomy to post content, and most posts go up before the company can approve them. Lones told “Click 2 Bricks” that there is a moderation team that will vet posts after the fact. He also said that the My Local Social app has an algorithm that “flags keywords and won’t allow things to be published if there’s curse words or something like that.” Only once has the company asked that a post be deleted for being, as he put it, “off brand.”

@justmeamandamarie

#duet with @brittanyhaines it’s a #Walmartdanceparty #dance #walmartsocialchamps #Snapshot

♬ Suit & Tie (feat. JAY Z) – [Radio Edit] – Justin Timberlake

Posting on My Local Social is a volunteer gig — although employees can win items like pins or t-shirts. Castle, who was a My Local Social volunteer before she became an influencer with Spotlight, said that while she was a pharmacist in Flint, Michigan, her Walmart store was especially active on social media. That was after news broke about the water crisis in the city. Her store made it a point to talk about all the programs it offered to the community — like lead testing, health fairs, plus foods and vitamins that could offset potential lead poisoning. 

Within Walmart, an entire micro-industry has sprouted up around My Local Social. There’s the Sparkcast podcast, hosted by Brand Networks. In Walmart’s corporate intranet, Brand Networks hosts a video series called “Posts that SPARK,” which highlights some of the most successful social posts that year. Walmart also organizes regular speaking events with social media and copywriting experts to teach workers about social media. According to Lones, employees from TikTok recently gave a session.

Within the My Local Social app, there is a ranking system, complete with white, blue, silver and gold badges; they’re recalculated every quarter according to how much reach and engagement each store’s posts get. “People who raise their hand to become social champs end up becoming our next-level leaders,” Lones said on “Clicks 2 Bricks.” “They get promoted faster. They’re getting visibility. They’re happier.” 

How My Local Social became Spotlight
The new Spotlight program takes the My Local Social project a step further. Instead of having employees post to a Walmart store account, it asks them to talk about the company on their own personal social channels.

Right now, only salaried employees can become Spotlight influencers. The hourly workers who make up the bulk of Walmart’s staff are not yet eligible. Walmart recruited its top-performing My Local Social ambassadors, like Castle, to join the program this fall. 

Spotlight, which has its own dedicated app, runs themed “campaigns,” built around a series of question prompts, to inspire employee posts. Most campaigns are centered on timed events like Thanksgiving or Black Friday, according to Castle. The Spotlight app asks questions like, “What do you like to cook on Thanksgiving?” Others are dance challenges — on TikTok, Walmart recently introduced an employee-created song and dance, the #WalmartHolidayShuffle. On their profiles in the app, Spotlight influencers can select certain skills, personality traits, or hobbies — running the gamut from “veteran” to “singing/rapping” to “makeup” to “gardening” — so that Walmart can recommend campaigns for them specifically. 

Ryan Orlick, another Spotlight influencer who started out posting through My Local Social, told Modern Retail that Walmart’s social media strategy is especially good for recruiting. Orlick remembered a video he posted two years back, recorded from the paint aisle in a Walmart store, talking about new jobs available at Walmart. It got a lot of engagement — and a rush of applications. “It was this aha moment,” said Orlick said in a phone interview. The draw for people, he said, is the local connection. “People knew who I was. They stop and pay attention because, oh, I know that face,” he said. “It’s not a corporate campaign promoting our hiring or a product or service.” 

Orlick, who now oversees digital operations for 11 Walmart stores in Michigan, said that social media was instrumental to his rise in the company. “I was able to use the My Local Social program to put myself in front of my boss’s boss’s boss,” he said. “It helped me get noticed, and start building those relationships.” 

Orlick emphasized that Spotlight is opt-in. But even as an optional program, Walmart’s corporate executives clearly see a lot of value in expanding Spotlight. Orlick said he didn’t realize how important Spotlight was going to be until recently, when he started getting asked to participate in two or three conference calls about Spotlight per week. “That’s when it kind of clicked that this is a program that the company is invested in, and they want it to grow,” he said. 

Compensating engagement
While personal content makes up the bulk of Spotlight posts, brand sponsorships are on the rise. In November, Walmart introduced a partnership with action figure brand Funko: Spotlight influencers were asked to make posts with Funko products, according to Orlick, and the top 10 posts (based on an algorithm that measures engagement) received $200 each in cash. Other challenges are higher paid. For a new challenge that Walmart posted with the hoverboard brand Hover-1, the top prize is $1,000.

Castle said that these rewards are a step toward Walmart developing a “true influencer program.” “A lot of us, we started off with our own personal profiles just because we were genuinely excited about it and like to share what we do in our job,” she said. “And so now it’s actually kind of coming full circle where we have this program to help compensate for that, which is just really exciting.” 

Introducing financial rewards adds new questions for the employee influencing field. Patrick Thelen, a public relations professor at San Diego State University who studies employee advocacy, worries about the larger trend that programs like this might signal — especially if, as Walmart has discussed, the program becomes available on a much more widespread basis.

“Some employees are more active on social media than others,” Thelen said. Referring to paying employees for successful social posts, he said, “is it fair to offer that as an incentive? I don’t know.” It becomes even more complex if executives say employees with good social chops are most likely to get promoted. “Why should your ‘influencer skills’ have anything to do with getting a promotion?”

Even though the program is voluntary, he worried that it could set a troubling precedent. “I think that’s dangerous territory, and I would stay away from that if I were advising the organizations,” Thelen said.

On the flip side, promoting companies on social media is a form of labor, and in the same way that regular influencers will receive compensation for talking about a brand, other experts feel that employees should be offered the same benefit. “It seems like there are a lot of companies out there right now who are like, ‘we now expect you to post in your spare time,’ and not treating that as real labor that deserves payment,” said Alexandra J. Roberts, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire who studies social media disclosures. “I think [saying] ‘we’re going to give you a color-coded ranking and tell you that you’re great’ is pretty weak compared to, ‘We’re going to pay you for your work.’”

The other thorny question that Spotlight raises is centered on disclosure rules. Although Walmart rarely publicly discusses its employee influencer programs, the company does note that workers are behind these posts. In order for a post to be counted inside the Spotlight app, it has to include the hashtag #IWorkAtWalmart — the employee influencer equivalent of appending a post with #ad.

It gets a bit murkier when talking about brand-sponsored campaigns. The Funko collaboration, for instance, asked employees to use the hashtag #FunkoPop in addition to #IWorkAtWalmart in every post. Employees made clear that they were Walmart workers — but less certain is whether, since the campaign was sponsored by Funko, an extra disclosure is needed.

I haven’t seen much precedent on this question,” said Roberts. If Walmart and others continue to expand these practices, maybe we’ll hear from the FTC with additional guidance soon.” The bottom line, she said, revolves around the question, “would having the information affect how consumers understand the post or endorsement? If it would, they should have it.

A growing retail phenomenon
Right now, the companies with employee influencers are a small but fast-growing pool, running the gamut from Topgolf to Huawei. Scrolling through TikTok, it’s increasingly difficult to gauge which posts are company-ordained and which are truly organic — especially as some actually organic employees posts have resulted in firings. “There are many companies using leaderboards like the ones Walmart is using, where employees can compete and get monetary rewards, swag, prizes,” said Thelen. “It’s a practice that seems to be increasingly common.”

But there are pitfalls to growing these programs. Employee social media posts work, Thelen said, when they’re actually organic. If soon every company is incentivizing every employee to post about their workplaces, consumers will get smart, and “then those programs will lose value,” he said.

@walmart1026

Start everyday with a strong Walmart cheer 💛 #regrandopening #walmartsocialchamps

♬ original sound – walmart1026

The program could easily become an important publication relations tool. Should something bad happen, a Spotlight campaign could in theory ask employees to shed a more favorable light on the company. It’s much harder to criticize a company when faced with an employee — even if they aren’t representative of the majority of workers — saying they love their job. The description of the Spotlight app on Google Play alludes to its use for “brand reputation,” writing that “challenges may be about products, services, brand reputation, etc.” 

None of the influencers Modern Retail spoke to said they were explicitly asked to say positive things about the company, and Orlick emphasized that while Walmart does have question prompts in the Spotlight app, “never is there a ‘hey, we want you to talk about X,’” he said. 

Jaywant Singh, a marketing professor at the University of Southampton, has studied how brands use influencers for corporate PR. He pointed to some cases of this happening, like McDonald’s partnering with food influencers in India after backlash to the company’s Dosa Masala burger. But Singh said examples of companies using influencers to fend off critics are “far and few between.”

For now, Spotlight’s future as a Walmart-led PR tool remains to be seen — as does the overall phenomenon’s impact. But if employee influencing does catch on to a much broader extent, it could have implications for the fundamental experience of working in retail. Thelen worries that, as employee influencing becomes more mainstream, social media might increasingly guide hiring decisions — even for people in jobs outside of PR and media. “I’m scared of the fact that, will you be looking at how many followers people have on social media before you hire anyone for any type of job? Is that what we want?” said Thelen.

Castle, however, continues to evangelize the program. She described groups on the company’s intranet server where Spotlight influencers point out especially social-media-adept Walmart workers. “It’s like, hey, I saw this associate who’s doing some really cool things on their social channels,” she said. “It’s just sort of that grassroots effort to try and get more people involved and participating.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that Castle graduated from pharmacy school in 2011. It has been updated to reflect that she was interning while still enrolled.

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