Three ways marketers can keep brand fan sites strong and consistent.
Meet Jules (not her real name).
Jules runs a site that should make every marketer sit up and take notice. Ikeahacker is one of the most amazing things on the Web.
One reason it's amazing is the content. Another reason is the fact it exists in the first place.
The content is simple: Ikeahacker is a blog featuring projects people have engineered using Ikea products. Someone used a Sniglar baby changing table as the base for a wicked cool Blue Man Group style musical instrument, for example. There are tons of projects like this on the site. It's the perfect resource for the DIY crowd. Each starts with a product you can buy off the shelf and includes step-by-step instructions to turn it into something completely new.
And these projects aren't all created by Jules. She's the moderator. Most of the projects are created and submitted by the community. Jules just posts the best ones.
Clearly, Jules is a fan of the Ikea brand. According to her "about" page, she has no affiliation with Ikea and isn't getting any money directly from the company. The site is its own reward for her. As she jokes on her site, "Finally, I am of service to mankind (heh)."
Really, Jules has built an amazing asset for Ikea. It's a classic case of a consumer creating new value for a brand. The good news is at least one Ikea employee has noticed and posted some words of encouragement in the comments. But there are a few other things on Ikeahacker that hint we're on the verge of a wide-open market for fan sites to grow and prosper.
Let Brand Fans Profit
Online brand fans have, for the last few years, represented an important strategic opportunity for many companies. Marketers now understand the power not only of CGM (define) but also of product reviews from peers and the incredible distributive and persuasive power of a YouTube video.
Most brand fans see content creation as its own reward. This is certainly great and amazing, but we must be honest: this drive can only last so long in a person. There are piles and piles of dead sites, blogs, and forums out there, and many are dedicated to a particular brand. OK, someone created a fan site for your brand back in 2003 but hasn't updated it since then. A potential buyer stumbling across it from a Web search will likely be underwhelmed.
But that needn't be the case. In fact, a key plank in your strategic platform ought to be to make sure brand fans' content remains fresh. You need to ensure brand fans' content is as dynamic and motivating as that on your own site.
There are three things you must do to ensure brand fans' work stays strong and consistent.
This seems obvious, but make sure you consistently scan the CGM space to find any and all mentions of your brand. Technorati is good for this, as is Google Blog Search, BlogPulse, and a score of other services. Use the tools available on social networks like MySpace.com and Facebook as well to help find people who talk positively about you. If someone mentions you once, keep a note. If someone mentions you consistently, reach out to her.
Open the Info Spigot
Treat all brand fans like the media. Don't lose sleep over philosophical debates about whether a blogger and a reporter are the same. If you have something to say, say it to the brand fans as early and deeply as you can. Give them FTP access to your marketing assets server. Let them listen in on conference calls. Whatever you can do to get them behind the curtain, do it.
Help Them Profit
This is the single most important aspect of the brand fan strategy in terms of keeping their sites alive and the information flowing. There are a lot of options for small publishers to generate revenue from their sites. Contextual ad networks like AdSense are ridiculously easy to set up, and there's a whole new crop of widgets that can be installed directly from the Movable Type blogging interface. No publisher need be without a revenue source, unless they choose to be.
Of course, you need to have a solid line drawn. Don't pay them for their content. Instead, make sure they're able to get paid. I've consulted with a few organizations about hiring a person to actually work with brand fans to help them get their sites working for them. This person doesn't build the site and certainly doesn't post. But she does help them get ad networks installed, works with them to understand affiliate marketing, and consults with them on using free tracking tools.
A Positive Brand Fan Environment
Right now is an amazing time to be a brand fan. The ease of publishing, the nature of collaboration, and the availability of revenue is unprecedented. The only thing that's really in short supply is motivation. Smart brands will focus on this, working like mad to make sure motivation stays as high as possible.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
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