"If your toddler can walk, your toddler can ride a Strider." That's a message that Strider Sports, a Rapid City, South Dakota-based maker of balance bikes-tiny, sporty looking vehicles that eschew pedals in favor of a kid's own feet-felt wasn't getting out to enough parents.
The company recently completed a branding campaign on Mothering.com, an online forum for parents interested in "natural family living" that draws about three million unique users, to rectify that. The campaign involved a focus group, comments from mothers on the community and a follow- up set of ads that included video, a poll and a contest to win a balance bike.
Strider and other companies are seeing the advantages of interacting with segmented groups of potential customers via specialized online communities, which are essentially the 2.0 version of the online forums of yore.
"People love to connect around a passion," says Dan Gill, CEO of Huddler, which makes software that connects online interest groups and helps brands to structure branding campaigns on its communities. "These are places where passion and products intersect, which provides a fertile environment for brand interaction, if it is done thoughtfully."
Huddler, which focuses on consumer-oriented communities with at least 250,000 users, has developed a way for brands to interact with potential customers that involve more of a soft sell than the typical online ad campaign. The idea, Gill says, is to connect brands with influencers to generate conversation and feedback, which can at best serve as the basis for future advertising on the forum, and at worst give the company some much-needed feedback.
Specifically on Mothering.com, Huddler has developed similar campaigns with Strider, as well as others such as Hyland's, a maker of homeopathic products, and baby carrier maker, Boba. It also is working on such campaigns on its other communities including home theater platform avsforum.com (4.6 million unique visitors), techie forum Overclock.net ( 4.3 million uniques) and BackYardChickens.com (1.1 million uniques).
Besides running focus groups and conducting campaigns, brands can also pay for the right to post on the communities. But they have to adhere to posting guidelines, never interrupting an online conversation between enthusiasts with a hard sell message, for example. In the past, some brands would try to "sneak" their presence onto such online forums, but this ended up only damaging the brand. What they can do is respond to complaints or feedback, for example, or make new product announcements.
"This gives them a voice on the site, helps them learn what customers think and enables them to be get in touch with influential voices in the community of users," notes Gill.
In the case of Strider, the bike maker wanted to reach more mainstream moms and dads, according to Kyla Wright, Marketing Manager at Strider. It also wanted to get out the message that children who use them develop balance and other skills that make it easier to quickly learn to ride a bike, allowing them to forgo a tricycle or bike with training wheels.
"We traditionally market our bikes through our dealer network at motorcycle and bike shops," says Wright. "If you don't own a motorcycle, you are less likely to own a Strider," she says.
From August through December of last year, Strider worked with Huddler to reach members of Mothering.com. First, Huddler recommended three moms who were active on the site and had children between two and four years old, to test the Strider bike on. The moms were sent the bikes and tested them on their children for two weeks, in exchange for writing detailed reviews with photos about their experience.
That feedback was incorporated into an article about the bikes posted on the site by Jennifer Ockelmann, who serves as Huddler's liaison between Mothering.com and its brands. A thread was also begun on balance bikes in general, with other moms posting their comments.
In this case, the feedback from the three mothers was very positive (and if it had not been, the company could have chosen not to publish the results of the focus group).
"Even though my three year old has a bike with training wheels, he seems too way up high on it, like he could fall off at any moment. With this bike, he was lower to the ground and had better ability to steer and turn at will... My three year old was very happy and proud of himself after riding the bike," wrote one mother on the board.
To amplify the results to the rest of the Mothering.com community, the article was then posted on Mothering.com's Facebook and Twitter pages, which Huddler says reaches more than 150,000 moms. The content was also added to its weekly newsletter.
To supplement this, Huddler also created custom co-branded rich media units that featured quotes from the Mothering moms about the Strider bikes as well as a video showing toddlers demonstrating the bikes' use, and others with an interactive poll. Strider also ran a contest to win a Strider bike that received hundreds of entries and generated additional discussion about balance bikes.
The result, says Huddler, was that 4 percent of the Mothering.com community engaged with the ads in some way, which is well above the industry average.
Beyond being greatly pleased by the feedback, Wright says Strider realizes it must continue to get its message out. Says Wright: "A lot of people had not even heard of balance bikes. We have a lot of work to do."
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Mary Lisbeth D'Amico is a freelance writer based in Jersey City who frequently covers digital marketing, social media, tech startups, and venture capital. She has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Red Herring, and Real Deals. Find her on Twitter at @mldamico.
March 19, 2014