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J.C. Penney to America: ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me. (Now Please Come Back.)’

Old-school retailer J.C. Penney faces several big challenges moving forward—but executing social media strategy isn’t one of them.

The company fired CEO/former Apple man Ron Johnson in April after a big sales dive and followed his exit with an all-media campaign designed to address the backlash over controversial changes adopted during his tenure. It all started with this apologetic TV spot:

JCP continued the campaign by turning its social media forums into customer service complaint lines, promoting the #jcpListens tag and asking for feedback on Facebook and Twitter in order to absorb frustrated shoppers’ many suggestions on how to improve the business.

The chain didn’t just ask for ideas; it got specific.

For example, an early Facebook poll asked customers to choose their favorite brands (many of which had been pulled by Johnson), and the chain responded by immediately bringing fans’ top choices back. Social media managers also took the time to reply to nearly every comment from followers and further humanized the experience by including the names of the flesh-and-blood people manning the feeds.

In terms of social media community management, the brand did everything right: the first “let us know what you think” post inspired more than 20,000 comments. The major revelation to emerge from this project: J.C. Penney’s customers tend to skew older (shocking, we know). Younger shoppers took to the changes just as Johnson predicted they would, but the chain didn’t test its new approach among members of its core audience before the makeover—and many weren’t quite ready for features like single-name “stores-within-stores” that discourage comparison shopping and a new “lower prices, no coupons” approach to sales and marketing.

The only real counterargument to J.C. Penney’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink strategy holds that apologies work best for brands that lead their respective fields and therefore have nothing to hide. Social Media Today believes that the approach may have “had the unintentional side effect of exposing the brand’s flaws to a wider audience,” because anyone who spent a few minutes researching the hash tag or scrolling through Facebook comments would be privy to lots of negative feedback unrelated to the issues at hand.

J.C. Penney’s strategic team clearly thought the risk of overexposure was worth it, but brands following their example might want to be more specific when asking for consumer input. The nature of social media dictates that any truly open forum will get very rowdy very quickly.

Along those lines, “What should we change?” can’t be an open-ended question. Two weeks after beginning the campaign, J.C. Penney concluded its listening session with this ad, designed both to thank all who participated and to remind the retailer’s core demographic that it knows exactly who they are and what they want:

Only time will tell whether the chain acted too quickly in thanking its customers for coming back (had they?) and whether the “we’re listening” strategy was the right one to pursue in the first place. But the social media campaign was nothing if not well-executed.

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