Customer Service

Competing for Affection: Brands Tap Into Social Networking

I own an iPod. Do you? If so, do we have anything in common? Apple is hoping that we do, and it’s providing plenty of room for us to find out at the iTunes Store. There, music lovers can write and read reviews of artists’ recent, and not-so-recent, releases. Perhaps more commercially important, they can provide recommended playlists to each other and those seeking good music can buy one track or an entire playlist in a dizzying array of categories. Maybe you like Fergie? You can buy a collection of her 11 favorite songs by other artists.

Following in the footsteps of pioneer Amazon, retailers both online and off are embracing the capabilities of Web 2.0 and exploring how social networking can enhance their brand images and perhaps even boost sales. In fact, the position of “chief social media officer” has joined the pantheon of executives in the C-level suite, according to Richard Feinberg, director of the Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Purdue University.

“Businesses that don’t participate are going to be left behind,” he told CRM Buyer. “It may not be critical yet this year, but it’s going to be in the future.”

Home-Grown Networks

Like Amazon and iTunes, many organizations are trying their hand at social networking first on their own corporate sites. Blogs have become the de rigueur vehicle of the Web-savvy marketer. If your company executives aren’t producing those polished thought-leadership pieces with some regularity, your company is already considered behind the times, according to Feinberg.

The problem, though, is how to create a social networking feel on a corporate site without jeopardizing authenticity, Jeff Zabin, research fellow with Aberdeen Group, told CRM Buyer.

“It’s very tough to create affinity groups from scratch as a home-grown solution,” he noted. Thus, customers are being bombarded with supposedly spontaneous messages that smack instead of a PR firm’s well-vetted text. As a result, customers are unlikely to participate in associated discussions and idea sharing on the site. It just seems all too contrived.

Well-Defined Niche

One area where company-sponsored social networking is doing well, though, is in the realm of the special-interest activities: endurance sports, for example, and crafts. Nike has built a large social network at its Nike Plus site.

Users purchase a small, inexpensive “bug” that fits inside their running shoes, and with it they can record miles, speed and distance and transmit the data to the Nike Plus site through an iPod. At the site, customers can track both their own training progress and that of friends. Through screen names, users share their own goals and favorite runs and sometimes challenge each other to particular mileage or events. So far, users of the Nike Plus network have logged a combined 40 million miles running.

KnitPicks is a mid-sized company that’s capitalizing on its in-built affinity group to strengthen its brand cache. The division of Crafts Americana Group caters to people interested in knitting, a fast-growing hobby among crafters.

KnitPicks owner Kelley Petkun told CRM Buyer that about 20 percent of the company’s Web site visitors are involved in some kind of knitting-related social networking. That’s about 50,000 people per month. The company produces a podcast in addition to Petkun’s blog and the discussion boards on the site for knitters looking for answers to question or just conversation with people with similar interests.

Out of Bounds

Where the real action happens for most companies, though, is off-site, said Zabin.

“The most successful strategy that I’ve seen, and that a large number of companies are embracing, entails identifying where customers are congregating already on the Web and trying to plug into those existing conversations,” he explained.

Of course, large and well-established social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are on the list when companies look for customer interaction. They might identify “influencers” — people whose opinion on particular subjects or products carries substantial weight with others. Then, they might provide specialized information to those influencers or perhaps even supply them with products and advance notice of releases or new items. Microsoft, noted Zabin, has been involved in this type of social networking since the early 1990s, even before the advent of the Web as we now know it.

Often, though, conversations whirl around the big and small networking sites and blogosphere too quickly for companies even realize that they’re happening, let alone try to guide them. For example, KnitPicks recently released a set of specialty knitting needles made of wood laminate and featuring interchangeable tips — a big deal for those crafters who struggle with a box full of unweidly needles and cables in a 20 sizes all tangled together.

“When we introduce something new, it’s amazing how quickly word is spread throughout the Internet community,” said Petkun. “The Harmony needles got great reviews and tremendous reception among knitters. We exceeded our initial revenue projections by over 100 percent. When you have a noteworthy product, the networks get the word out faster and better than any paid advertising.”

Brand Eavesdropping

So, what’s a company — big or small — to do when faced with the whole of Web 2.0? Sometimes effective monitoring is the best to hope for, said Zabin.

“A bunch of technology providers monitor the universe of social media, rate and rank it, and companies can use them to join the dialog,” he noted. Buzzlogic is one; Visible Technologies is another.

The most difficult issues, though, rest in policy and not technology. Different companies have different philosophies about social networking, Zabin noted.

“Some say ‘we should remain passive and just monitor.’ Others are very much of the mind that they need to actively participate in the conversation,” he said.

However, to jump right into a conversation, countering negative product information, for example, “smells of corporate oversight,” he noted.

“Instead, many companies are using individual information sites with the specific purpose of providing information links to those all-important influencers,” Zabin explained.

“If a company feels that a discussion is unfair or completely off base,” he noted, “rather than start providing lots of content to the social networking discussion, which may not be well received, they’re finding that just by setting up a simple link, they can avoid the whole idea of ‘big brother’s listening to us.'”

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