Inside Walmart’s Ecommerce Marketing Engine

BrianMonahanWalmart, one of the last bastions of big box retail, is investing for a digital future – one with considerably less square footage.

Walmart recently revealed plans to invest between $1.2 to $1.5 billion in its ecommerce and digital operations for fiscal year 2016. Subsequently, its in-store investments are taking a temporary hit. In its capital expenditure plans, Walmart notes a “moderation of large format store growth" in order to test pharmacy-and-convenience-store models of Neighborhood Markets.

While Walmart expects its global ecommerce sales to grow 25% by 2016 – there’s still an elephant in the room: Amazon. But Walmart’s online sales growth rate recently surpassed Amazon’s for the first time in 10 years.

Walmart’s $466 billion retail engine includes a collection of tech developed (or acquired) through the @WalmartLabs accelerator whose capabilities include search optimization, predictive analytics and product recommendations.

According to Brian Monahan, VP of marketing for Walmart.com, a team of 100 @WalmartLabs engineers supports the store’s internal marketing efforts.

Walmart’s relationships with the world’s largest brands and manufacturers – its suppliers – also spurred the development of digital media buying and optimization platform Walmart Exchange (WMX).

Monahan, who joined the retailer roughly a year and half ago after spending 20 years working in agencies, spoke with AdExchanger about Walmart’s digital growth spurt, WMX and the future of shopper media.

AdExchanger: How did you start at Walmart?

BRIAN MONAHAN: I’m a recovering media buyer who had the dumb luck of being in San Francisco in the early nineties when the Web stuff happened and I did my first online advertising campaign back in 1994. I came to Walmart after 11 years inside of IPG, including stints managing the MAGNA intelligence practice and the IPG Media Lab. We did some work incubating the project that turned into Cadreon, our trading desk and I ran different pieces of the business there.

I knew Neil Ashe [now global head of ecommerce at Walmart] from his days at CBS Interactive and when he came to reset Walmart’s global ecommerce initiative, it was a really interesting move to see… [someone] coming from a background in digital media into a role [in ecommerce]. I joined a year and a half ago and I’ve absolutely loved it. It feels like a great time to be at Walmart.

What does the VP of marketing at Walmart.com do, exactly?

I’m essentially responsible for customer acquisition, retention and brand strategy for our US ecommerce business. I have a marketing team that works very closely with the merchants and the rest of the business folks inside of our ecommerce operation, as well as our colleagues in Bentonville, who work in stores marketing. We are also supported by a team within @WalmartLabs, which is a team of about 100 engineers, who are dedicated to supporting marketing at Walmart.

What was the biggest change shifting from agency to brand?

Coming out of the agency world, you realize how little bespoke software is actually built (within) the marketing industry. A lot of it is technology that companies sell to the marketing industry. To actually have an organization that can make bespoke software is the reason why we’ve been able to launch things like WMX and these incredible capabilities only happen because we have the engineering horsepower inside the company.

How do you interact with @WalmartLabs?

WalmartLabs has been an indicator of Walmart’s commitment to building a best-in-class omnichannel shopping experience. I believe it’s now 15 companies they’ve acquired, and the last one they acquired was Luvocracy, which was a social shopping play.

We have about 3,500 associates who work in global ecommerce, and about 2,500 of them are based in the US, with most in Silicon Valley. About two-thirds of the people in GEC [global ecommerce] are technical or have data backgrounds and they sit inside the @WalmartLabs organization building the products and the data science and the algorithms and code that will help us deliver an awesome experience for our customers to help them save money and live better.

Where are you finding success bridging in-store and online?

I’m really excited about WMX [Walmart Exchange] because this personalization engine is really at the heart of this omnichannel experience. It’s powered by software and data, and having good signals of [a] customer’s intent so you can better serve her is vital. We have found the highest fidelity signal, as far as building an experience that works, comes from past transactional data.

The same notion of personalizing what shows up in [a customer’s] inbox or in a display ad is the same approach to what they see when they hit our website or open our app. Building a marketing platform that’s powered by our data is the most effective way to invest marketing dollars.

Is WMX used both for Walmart’s own marketing efforts and its suppliers’?

[WMX] has been a very powerful tool to fuel our own growth. Walmart is one of the original platform companies. For years we have been [working openly] with suppliers and true to that heritage, we’ve opened up WMX to our suppliers so they can work with us to do targeted, relevant advertising for their brand and for their audience based on past transactions at Walmart. And then [they can] measure the impact based on sales online and in-store, and optimize. It’s executing along aligned interests, because we both want to sell more stuff and serve our customers better.

Does WMX also target media off-network?

It’s used to target media both on Walmart.com and through our audience extension network as well.

What’s the technological makeup of WMX?

The components of WMX are a mix of homegrown and partnerships. For example, we use Triad [Retail Media] to essentially be our sales representation firm and they provide a services layer. We work with LiveRamp to join different data sets in appropriate ways. We work with a couple of different DSPs to deliver the ads, whether it’s MediaMath or DoubleClick Bid Manager.

But the core is really the DMP we’ve built ourselves, which gives us the ability to create target profiles based on historical transaction data – actual shopping, not shopping behavior. And then [we can] measure [sales lift] at the SKU level in real time.

Why is Walmart investing in this?

Our interest in getting into this space is to make advertising more relevant, effective and less expensive for our partners to have to execute. So we’ve been working really hard on how you measure sales lift, that you have a control group with the exact same characteristics of the test group. We think this is material to really understanding, “do your dollars work?”

Not to nerd out too much around WMX, but [we have] the ability to precisely measure the impact on sales at a SKU level, at a scale you can then power through algorithmic optimization. So you’re turning on and off ad placements and creative units – that is a super exciting opportunity and frankly nothing I’ve seen yet, speaking from my experience on the buy side.

Are you matching transaction data against Facebook audience profiles in order to measure sales uplift or to determine the effectiveness of cross-platform campaigns?

I’d rather not comment on any specific partnerships right now [referring to Facebook.] But, yes – (speaking more broadly to partnerships Walmart is forging) – our ability to measure the impact on sales lift based on exposure to advertising is broader than just ads that run on our website. Yes, we are working with partners to combine data sets to make even more refined target audiences, but the secret sauce we’ve seen in our own business has been the historical sales transactions. Other data sets are helpful. It's helpful to look at incrementality and finding ways to grow and grab share, but the historical transactional data is the best signal of commercial intent we’ve encountered.

Is WMX primarily a managed offering or are you considering self-serve functionality, such as the tool Amazon rolled out with VivaKi?

It’s more of a managed system and we want to make it as easy to use for our suppliers as possible. Our goal is to drive more relevant experiences to our customers and to help our suppliers scrub more costs out of their demand chain, but it’s more of a managed system.

MediaVest is our media AOR and they manage all the corporate campaigns and co-marketing campaigns we do. They manage those for us and through [to] WMX. Triad is our managed solution for campaigns that fall outside of our own activity.

Thoughts on Dunnhumby buying digital retargeter Sociomantic? Will more of these deals go down?

Do I think retailers will continue to acquire technology companies? Yes. It’s hard for me to speak to what other retailers are doing.

Can you give an example of how you're innovating and uniting in-store and offline?

The type of shopping experience we’re building in the grocery category is: You can go to our recipe library online [and] sort recipes based on occasion or dietary restriction, plan your family’s meals for the week, then dump all those recipes into a shopping list. [Walmart provides] smart recommendations on how to trade out price parameters or dietary needs. You can then take that shopping list, order from it online and we’ll essentially mail it to you. Or if you live in one of the cities where we offer a pick-up and delivery option, you can make an appointment to have us drop it off on your stoop or you can swing by your local Walmart.

Does that work with mobile?

You can push [that shopping list] to your phone and go to a local Walmart, pull up the app, which automatically goes into “store mode.” We have a local store search so you can identify where items are in your local Walmart. You can add it to your basket, go pay at the register, take your receipt, scan it with your app, upload that receipt into Savings Catcher where we’ll do an automatic ads match to see if anybody advertised at a lower price. We return the difference to you in a gift card and then make recommendations for the next trip based on what we’ve seen you buy. All of that is live today.

How do you balance customer experience developments with audience data monetization?

Sam Walton [had a] 10-foot rule where if you get within 10 feet of your customer, [you need to] look her in the eye, greet her and ask her if she needs help. The challenge for us is how you deliver that kind of personal service when you’re seeing customers across all those touch points I just described and at 240 million customers a week across our stores, clubs, sites and apps.

The answer is you have to build powerful software in order to deliver that type of personal experience. The hybridization of retailers and technology is going to continue to speak to your earlier question and we think it’s a competitive advantage for us, frankly. We’re really marrying the assets of the world’s largest retailer with the best in class Internet technology companies, so not only do we have [11,100] stores, but we have a very sophisticated technology organization with @WalmartLabs.

 

 

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