When a blog isn’t enough: expanding customer interaction with a branded social network

Jun 11, 2009 by

SUMMARY: Social media helps marketers create more interaction with their customers. But sometimes, adding a single element — like a blog or a forum — isn’t enough.

Read how an outdoor sporting goods brand used insights from their blog to create a social network for their customers. They share their thoughts on the value of social media to consumer brands, and offer advice on designing a network and promoting it in multiple channels.

Mountain Hardwear has a core customer base of devoted outdoor enthusiasts, says Phyllis Grove, Marketing Director. Customers are die-hard hikers, climbers, and outdoor winter-sports enthusiasts, who also want to discuss the apparel and gear that Mountain Hardwear provides for their adventures.

In March, Grove’s team added a slew of social media features to the site, giving Mountain Hardwear’s fans all the tools they need to interact there. They named their social network Expedition Republic.

The new network has increased membership, the level of user engagement, and the amount of content and discussions happening among customers. Those results make Grove confident that Expedition Republic is boosting the brand’s connection with its fans. (Since the site does not sell directly, it is difficult to measure whether the new social network is lifting sales, Grove says.)

We sat down with Grove and Dustin Clark, Web Manager, to understand why they added a social network to their website, what features they included, and how they promoted the new community to their target audience.

-> Humanizing the Brand

Mountain Hardwear’s core customers are passionate about the outdoors, and they look for high quality gear that they can depend on. The customers appreciate regular updates about products, even if the technical aspects are not always easy to explain.

“What we have been working on for the last three or four years is to make sure that we’re bringing in that human element to complement [the technical information],” Grove says. “Because if we only tell that side of the story, it can be a little cold or exclusive.”

To “humanize” the brand, Grove and her team added Web content that focused on athletes using the products. Content was added via:
o Product pages
o Athlete-specific pages
o Video
o Blog posts

Mountain Hardwear’s blog, Hardwear Sessions, launched in 2007 to feature stories and videos of people using its products in the field. Additionally, Grove’s team hoped the blog would stimulate the community into discussing their adventures.

While readership of the blog was strong, the volume of comments on posts was not as high as Grove’s team had hoped. However, the team saw that some customers were asking, unprompted, to submit their blog posts and pictures to be published at Hardwear Sessions. That spurred a new project.

-> Adding a Social Network

The team decided to provide more ways for fans to connect online by adding a branded social network to its website. A full-featured network would:
o Empower biggest fans to connect and share experiences
o Further “humanize” the brand
o Build a deeper brand connection with customers

The team started planning the network in December 2008 and launched in March with the following features:
o Member profile pages
o Member messaging
o Blogs
o Shared videos and photos
o Forums
o Grouping capability (similar to Facebook’s groups)

The community features a 3-D, interactive introduction page. Users can use their mouse to view a mountain scene in 360 degrees. Portions of the screen, when clicked, show a video of athletes climbing a mountain or enjoying the view. These videos are all created by the brand to emphasize that the products are depended on by experts.

-> Advice for Launching a Social Network

Tip #1. You don’t need to be cutting edge

Although Expedition Republic offers members several ways to interact, Clark says that it might not be necessary to build every cutting edge feature to into a branded social network.

“Build a community that you can grow into. Don’t come out of the gates with every feature blazing. Leave overly elaborate applications and chat widgets to the Facebooks of the world,” he says.

Tip #2. Jumpstart the content

You must be prepared to add content to the community, such as through employee profiles or forum posts, to help spur the community’s initial growth, Clark says.

“Provide your community with good content or value that they can’t find elsewhere, and save enough to trickle it out for the long run. You’ll need to feed your community site for quite some time before it’s consistently generating its own material and moving its own discussions forward.”

-> Promoting a Social Network

The team promoted Expedition Republic in multiple channels, including:
o Email to its newsletter subscribers (see creative samples below)
o Homepage link, icon and a description (see creative samples)
o Hardwear Sessions blog posts
o Paid search campaign in Google
o Third-party party social networks

– The paid search advertising campaign lasted just under three weeks. The team targeted keywords related to their core customers’ profiles, such as:
o “backpackers”
o “hikers”
o “climbers”
o “skiers”
o “snowboarders”

The team also targeted destination-specific keywords, such as
o “Mount Everest”
o “Denali”
o “Red Rocks”

And they targeted outdoor-related social media terms, such as:
o “Climbing forum”
o “Hiking photos”
o “Expedition videos”

– The team also promoted the network on third-party social media outlets where it maintains a presence, including:
o Facebook
o Twitter
o YouTube
o Flickr

The team repurposed videos from their 3-D interactive introduction page to share with these social media sites. The videos were subsequently republished by dealers and fans, further spreading the message.

“We retooled these teaser videos with a unique call to action driving to the site, and sent them out to the Web,” says Clark.

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