Why Sam’s Club’s Media Biz Rebranded From Advertising To ‘Member Access’

Sam’s Club, the membership-based retailer owned by Walmart, recently rebranded its advertising business as the Member Access Platform (MAP) as it charts its own course alongside other emerging retail media platforms.

The notion of “member access” is what sets Sam’s Club apart from other retailers that are focused entirely on advertising as a way to monetize customers, said Lex Josephs, a VP at Sam’s Club and GM of the MAP business.

“Those words are super intentional, that it’s an access platform, because we intend to not just be advertising but have multiple business models,” she said.

Even so, at least for now, the MAP business is close kin to other retail media networks (RMNs). Advertisers can purchase sponsored search results or product listings on the Sam’s Club site and app. And Sam’s Club is working with The Trade Desk on audience extension campaigns to target members across the web – the same arrangement The Trade Desk has with Sam’s Club parent company Walmart.

But the plan is to grow MAP from primarily an online advertising platform to an omnichannel way to reach Sam’s Club customers in the real world or other environments. For back-to-school marketing, for instance, Josephs said the club environment provides more direct and creative ways to reach the right shoppers.

Rather than Kraft or Whirlpool increasing their bid activity in August because college-goers are stocking up minifridges and mac & cheese, those brands can use the in-store “club environment” so that shoppers can get a sense of how the merch and layout will work in their actual dorm rooms.

Other RMNs are also connecting programmatic campaigns to in-store activations. Walmart or Sam’s Club advertiser budgets often come from the same teams that purchase particular shelf space or cardboard cutouts for a store aisle. But Sam’s Club’s membership data is a major differentiator.

That same college-bound shopper perusing the Target website may search for items like a mini-fridge, a new floor lamp and a toiletry kit, which gives a strong impression that they are off to college. But since Sam’s Club is a membership model – every customer is logged-in, because they must pay a fee and have an account in order to shop there – it isn’t guessing and modeling an unknown user on behalf of advertisers, Josephs said. Sam’s Club knows the age, demographics, whereabouts and the entire shopping history for that member or their family.

“Membership data is very different than other first-party datasets, mainly because everything is 100% traceable,” she said. “It also gives us a nice understanding of the arc of what members are doing in their lives.”

Marketers are losing their ability to understand individual customer journeys in light of privacy changes on Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android and within cookie-based web browsers, Josephs said. Other retailers may know that a sponsored search listing led to a purchase, but still can’t place that purchase within a single, known customer journey over time.

A Sam’s Club membership is also, essentially, a subscription, which makes Sam’s Club an interesting media partner for brands, she said. Currently, Sam’s Club packs its membership with added value and perks such as fuel discounts, credit card partnerships for extra points back and discounts on items like glasses and pharmaceuticals. Those are fairly typical retail loyalty program tie-ins, though.

The next phase for Sam’s Club could be analogous to how subscription-based media companies use their monthly or annual fees for partnerships. Amazon Prime members can bundle in a discounted Washington Post subscription, Spotify and The New York Times have partnered on joint subscription promos and Netflix comes free with the priciest T-Mobile contracts.

Target and Disney have a huge strategic marketing partnership. But if Target was a subscription-based company, the two could forge an even deeper connection by offering, say, a free year of Disney+ to its members.

Sam’s Club has a few other noteworthy distinctions from standard RMNs, according to Josephs.

For one, it embraces third-party verification on its attribution reports. Part of the MAP rebrand is an enhanced partnership with IRI, which attributes sales based on impressions served by MAP or The Trade Desk on behalf of Sam’s Club. For now, IRI is the only vendor for third-party conversion attribution on the platform, although eventually Sam’s Club may add other measurement partners, she said, as well as other DSP and identity partners. On the DSP and identity front today, its only partners are The Trade Desk and LiveRamp.

Sam’s Club is also looking to hire a head of data strategy measurement and insights monetization, Josephs said. (In case that sounds like you.) That new role is part of a broader expansion into data and analytics beyond simply serving ad units and attributing last-click sales or add-to-cart actions.

In the future, she said marketers working with MAP could dive into Sam’s Club data in a privacy-safe environment (ahem … LiveRamp is their clean room partner) to understand their own customers and their shopping behaviors beyond the context of optimizing an ad campaign. (Kroger has begun a similar project to offer its data as a standalone analytics asset, built on the Snowflake cloud data and clean room product).

“What we’ve noticed is that there are a lot of businesses in retail that lead with their advertising,” Josephs said. “But they don’t necessarily lead with their customer.”

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