Quick Take: Wal-Mart Loses Another Online Round

It's that time again. College students everywhere are picking out last-minute furnishings for their dorm rooms and apartments. They're haggling with parents to add a few more dollars to the bank account. And right before they power off their laptops, they hop on Facebook.

Facebook has expanded beyond its beginnings as a network for college students. Its recent efforts to accommodate third-party developers have increased the site's stickiness factor and allowed greater interactivity for its users. And this increasing popularity has caught the attention of corporations trying to reach a younger audience.

One such company, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , started a sponsored Facebook page targeting college students last week. At first glance, this page -- Wal-Mart Roommate Style Match -- bodes well for college-bound students. It offers a fresh and appealing format that includes a shopping checklist, roommate style quiz, environmentally friendly dorm choices, and even tips on avoiding the infamous freshman 15.

What Wal-Mart ironically forgot to take into account is the social networking aspect of the site, which is what makes Facebook so popular among college students. The Facebook generation craves interactivity and transparency.

And the crowd has created just that. The 550-plus members who have joined the Wal-Mart group have contributed 63 comments and six pictures. That might not seem like a lot, but all six pictures are clearly anti-Wal-Mart. The comments also have steered away from the page's light, college-related vibe to an intense debate about topics such as unfair wages and unions. This profile page has become an outlet of positive and increasingly negative information.

This isn't the first time that Wal-Mart has flubbed when it comes to the Internet. Just last year, Wal-Mart was exposed for its use of sponsored bloggers to improve its public image. This recent attempt may not have been intentional, but it's providing users a vehicle to speak their mind and possibly influence a crowd.

Companies shouldn't pass on these sponsored opportunities. A quick search on Facebook revealed that Target (NYSE: TGT  ) launched a similar sponsored page last month. By amassing almost 6,000 members having college-related discussions with pictures of Target-inspired dorm rooms floating around , this is exactly the kind of social networking effect that companies desire. Scrolling through the comments reveals that many college students are very happy with Target and often share personal stories about working at the company.

So, is there a lesson to be learned from all of this? Sure: Make sure you're loved by the crowd before entering unknown territory.

Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Try our value investing newsletter on for size free for 30 days to find out how this newsletter is beating the S&P 500.

Foolish research associate Katrina Chan does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned but does have a Facebook account. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that does not discriminate between Wal-Mart and Target.


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