A year ago, a Best Buy board member heard Barry Judge talking about Twitter and thought Judge had invented the word.

But these days Judge, the company's chief marketing officer, is doing a lot more than talking. He's using Twitter, Facebook and other online social networks to lead one of the most ambitious social media campaigns during the holidays.

"Social media is a great way to show off our culture," said Judge, 46, a soft-spoken executive who joined Best Buy Co. Inc. a decade ago. "That's really all we've got. We sell the same stuff, generally, as anyone. We're competing against the low-price leaders, the Internet and everyone who's pushing a value proposition. But it's our people, our culture, that differentiates us. Social media lets you show who you are -- the good and the bad."

To amp up for the holidays, the Richfield-based retailer began rolling out videos, interactive games and gift finders on its Facebook page this week, aiming to connect with existing customers and reel in new ones. There's plenty of high-tech attitude -- a Hint Helper seemingly hacks into pages of potential gift-givers; a Christmas morning simulator, expected to launch Dec. 6, spins out how the holiday will go. (How about that Elvis cologne dispenser?)

Some of the Facebook applications heavily push a sale. Others are image-builders that are merely fun to play with. Judge hopes all will go viral -- spread quickly among networks of friends.

"When you look at Secret Santa, the Hint Helper, those things are going to build business because consumers are going to be engaging with us," Judge said at a media briefing in New York this fall. "To us, it's getting at a deeper, more visceral level of communication than even our television does."

Best Buy, the nation's largest consumer electronics retailer, has seen profits fall in the past year as consumers have cut back buying discretionary items and profit margins on personal computers and televisions have narrowed as the retailer has lowered prices to lure buyers. Even though Best Buy picked up market share after Circuit City closed its doors, competition has been steady from discount retailers such as Costco, Target and Wal-Mart as well as Amazon.com.

Best Buy expects annual same-store sales to be flat or down two percent from a year ago, and the holiday season is key to lifting sales to that mark. The push is on to compete on price and to portray superior customer service. Judge believes that's a sweet spot for social media.

"That's how we build our community, that's how we build our fans, that's how we get more people engaged, that's how Best Buy becomes top of mind," he said.

Best Buy relaunched its Facebook page this summer and went from 28,000 fans to nearly 1 million in 45 days. Apple also is charging hard into social media, with more than 2 million Facebook fans. Target was an early adapter of social media, and has about 700,000 Facebook friends. Costco, with about a quarter million, uses the site mainly for promotions. Wal-Mart's push to date has been modest.

Judge admits he wasn't naturally wired for social media in the early days. But curiosity -- and teenage kids -- helped. He aimed to be lighthearted in personal posts, while taking seriously the Internet's ability to help him do exponentially more of everything: get ideas, promote the brand and talk to customers.

"Here it is -- the first post," he wrote on Aug. 27, 2008, his initial blog entry. "Whew glad that's over."

Now, Judge is part of a still-small class of Fortune 500 executives who actually type those 140-character messages on Twitter, or break company news on their blogs.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is one of the more notable executives who channels tweets on a regular basis. Former AOL honcho Steve Case is also a favorite on www.exectweets.com. Judge's boss, Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn, has a Twitter account that he uses mainly for thank-yous and kudos for good work and ideas.

Still, Judge hasn't updated his blog since early October. He said he wants it to be meaty and hasn't been free to talk openly about new initiatives. And one does wonder how he gets through his Twitter home page by following 1,436 people.

Judge said he has learned lessons from the wild-West nature of the digital watering hole. He regrets getting "irritated" in an online exchange with a customer complaining about different prices in the store vs. on the website. Judge tried to start a discussion about whether the prices should be the same, got a lecture from the customer, who, it turns out, was a former Circuit City employee. Judge abruptly ended the conversation, which then was posted and reposted around the Net. "I learned you can't always respond, because it feeds on itself," Judge said. "I learned to just grin and bear it."

And under the "it seemed like a good idea at the time" category, a job description Judge posted on his blog in July quickly turned on him.

The position for "senior manager, emerging media markets" required, among other things, a graduate degree and 250 or more followers on Twitter. The blogosphere erupted. Two days later, Judge acknowledged "bumps in the road" and decided to "crowd source" the job description -- in other words, let the public write it. After an online contest and internal vetting, the recasted job description went live three weeks later without the Twitter condition. (Best Buy ended up hiring from within -- the person who wrote the original job description.)

In a postscript to what he now calls the "buzz" created by the post, Judge announced another opening, for a senior manager of Search Marketing. "We won't," Judge wrote in parenthesis, "be crowd-sourcing that description."

Judge began building a new division this summer to focus on new media marketing. Known as the "interactive marketing and emerging media team," it is organized around four key areas -- digital brand strategy, mobile marketing, social and emerging technologies and marketing and media.

Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst with marketing research firm NPD Group, said the company's commitment to social media isn't surprising, given that most of its customers are teenagers.

"Social media is just one cog in the wheel," Cohen said. "They're adding more lifestyle products, like fitness equipment. In recent years they've added home appliances, washers and dryers. They're constantly finding ways to engage with the consumer. They're constantly reinventing customer service. Their biggest challenge, from a connectivity to consumers perspective, is Apple Stores."

Its Twitter help desk

A centerpiece of the holiday campaign online and in TV ads involves the Best Buy Twelpforce (think "Twitter Help"), which launched last summer. More than 2,500 Best Buy employees have answered at least 25,000 Twitter queries about everything from standard return policies to the pros and cons of netbooks vs. notebooks.

Judge calls it "Customer Service 2.0" and said Twelpforce epitomizes his views of how social media fits into Best Buy's "Never leave you hanging" strategy.

"It's about finding conversations people are having and participating in them," he said. "It's not always about money. It's about reinforcing our helpfulness."

To that end, Twelpforce has stretched beyond the keyboard for the holidays. Gift-giving solutions will be sung in six-part harmony on Facebook and elsewhere. The Twelpforce Carolers, chosen from more than 500 Best Buy employees in eight cities around the country, turn more than a dozen Christmas carols such as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Jingle Bells" into online and TV pitches for such things as e-readers, computers, gaming and digital cameras.

Best Buy also is hitting mobile advertising hard. In late September it launched a mobile version of BestBuy.com that allows sales and also offers text messages of daily deals. The retailer will buy display ads in food courts and outside of movie theaters at malls in the top 50 markets with a Twelpforce carol and a pitch for how to get mobile texts.

Original content, such as "15 gifts in 15 seconds," will get promoted on Hulu and other places where people go for video content, including Xbox LIVE.

"Hopefully, it's going to be real hard to miss Best Buy this season if you're online anywhere at all," said Brad Smith, director of interactive marketing and emerging media.

Judge said he predicts the half-dozen holiday offerings will double or triple the number of Facebook fans. And that's just the beginning.

"If you want to engage with customers, you go to Facebook and Twitter. Because that's where they are. Two years from now, they might be someplace else. But for now, let's go find them, and let's go participate. That's our strategy."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335