Artful Home Mines Customer Forums to Decide Web Strategy

Toni Sikes, CEO and founder of art retailer The Guild, faced some tough choices as she planned a new design of the company’s flagship site, The Artful Home. Launched in 1999 at the dawn of e-commerce, has weathered both flush and lean times, and with the redesign Sikes hoped to grow traffic further. However she wasn’t certain what her customers really wanted.

The Guild represents 1,200 artists and markets their work through its site, catalogs, books and a retail trade show that recently debuted in New York. While Sikes and her staff felt they had a good grasp of their customers’ demographic and psychographic makeup, they also knew that purchasing art can be a very subjective experience. And since The Guild is a medium-sized company, Sikes had limited resources to expand features. She decided to let her customers determine the site’s direction.

Easier said than done. Sikes first tried some traditional means of garnering customer opinions, including focus groups and surveys, but had limited success since, as she put it, “purchasing art… for one’s home is an emotional purchase.” And she was shy of Web 2.0-style customer interaction systems. While product reviews might help customers and staff understand what’s most popular on the site, Sikes worried they might also damage the company’s relationship with artists themselves.

“Our business is built on partnerships and relationships with artists,” she said. “We’re selling a product that someone has put their heart and soul into, and it’s not something made in a factory in China, so a negative review… has the potential of damaging our relationship with our suppliers.”

Sikes and The Guild eventually turned to Networked Insights, which offers a managed customer forum system for monitoring user discussions. Officially launched November 7 with The Guild as one of its first customers, Networked Insights operates online communities where customers can interact and ask questions of other customers on a site. The company then presents site owners with activity logs that show where customers are interacting the most, and which areas are of less interest.

Networked Insights installed a forum on in October, and the results surprised Sikes. Based on her team’s expectations of their customers’ primary topics of interest, The Guild created several discussion areas, including Ask the Artist Community, Gift Giving, Share Your Own Artful Home, Interior Design & Decorating, For the Collector and others.

In October, the forum on accumulated 536 members, who engaged in 13,850 total interactions and started 87 discussion topics. Average visit time in the community was 28 minutes, 45 seconds for the month. Examples of questions posted to the forum included “How do I decorate my office at work?” by a user named B2Bisp, who wanted something to compliment his Asian heritage, and a follow-up recommendation for Blik wall graphics from another user named Metahari.

Sikes had expected the option to connect directly with artists would garner the most attention. She was surprised to see that the majority of her customers were interested in something else.

“Far and away the home decorating category has pulled in the most number of conversations and the majority of discussions,” she said. “It’s like 90 percent of the conversations… As a result of what we learned, we are going to focus first on ideas for home decorating.”

As The Guild approaches its 2008 site redesign the plan is to post to its site a library of articles on home decorating that it has included in its newsletters over the years. It will also create a visual aid tool to allow people “to place a piece of artwork behind a sofa with a color behind it so they can get an idea of what it will look like,” said Sikes.

“Those features have been on our list of things to do for awhile, but they got pushed to the front of the list,” she added.

Sikes said Networked Insights’s use of graphically expressive charts and reports helped her understand and rank positive and negative discussions. “I’m incredibly impressed with the thought that has gone into the back-end report,” she said. “None of us have time to sit around and look at reports we can’t do anything with.”

By providing an area for her customers to interact with each other on topics that are important to them, and then mine those discussions for their own marketing needs, The Guild has managed to gather the customer insights it craved without prompting them to join a survey or focus group, and without alienating its suppliers.

According to Sikes, using the product “is like walking into a room with 500 of your customers sitting together and listening to their conversation. What a gift that is.”

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