Capture Mindshare in a Time-Starved World

The current focus on consumer-generated media (CGM) and word-of-mouth campaigns underscores the need to engage consumers and provide a forum for two-way communication.

This is nothing new. Bulletin boards and chat rooms have existed since the Internet’s early days. What’s new is the potential pool of participants extends well beyond early tech adopters, with the Web’s current pervasiveness.

Cultivating and leveraging consumer sentiment can help guide your company’s strategy and image and generate revenue. Finding passionately involved users who seek interaction with your company and giving them an outlet for their interest enables you to be at the center of the conversation in your marketplace.

Consider the value of participant attention in today’s time-strapped world. In a fragmented media environment, where breaking through the clutter is a costly marketing challenge, these consumers voluntarily choose to spend time communicating with you to share their perspectives and insights.

Examples of sites that empower consumer participation include:

  • FredTalk is a bulletin board associated with the Fredricksberg Free Lance-Star, a local newspaper that’s engaged the community it serves and provided a connection that empowers users to take their interactions offline.

  • Epicurious.com launched 10 themed recipe contests and a searchable reader recipe database for its 10th anniversary. Based on past experience, it expected 300-500 entries per contest, according to advertising director Christine DeMaio. It received over 700 recipes for the Italian contest, and more than 1,100 recipes for the seafood contest. In Epicurious’ recipe database, 615 people have commented on how to boil salted water!
  • ConsumerReports.org engages subscribers through its “Ask the Expert” sections. This nascent feature has gained traction with users by allowing them to get answers to their questions from an expert, as well as from fellow participants.

In today’s connected, consumer-driven environment, if you don’t give consumers a forum in which you’re responsive to them, they’ll find other means. Consider how Jeff Jarvis’s issues with Dell, outlined in his blog, percolated across the blogosphere. Rather than ignore postings by a single, but very influential, commentator such as Jarvis, Dell’s marketing and customer service areas should track company-related buzz and respond quickly to neutralize such complaints.

Online forums enable marketers to initiate dialogues with current customers, prospects, investors, the press, and others. To connect with target consumers, organizations must provide forums for like-minded individuals where they can come together for reasons that meet their needs (not yours). Useful information and a conduit to facilitate conversations between participants, as well as between your company and consumers, are important.

Discussions can take a variety of formats, including consumer postings, expert engagement, special customer sections, bulletin boards, chats, blogs, and Webinars. You can do this on your site or sponsor online community venues targeting your audience.

Extend existing forums to engage consumers. Make blogs outwardly focused to connect with readers and encourage postings. Webinars, often used to educate users about a topic, can also be used as forums. I’m surprised more media companies with high-visibility columnists don’t create forums in which readers can interact with these personalities to generate revenues. At a minimum, ask users for input and comments on every page of your site.

Challenges of engaging users include determining how open the forum should be and the extent to which participation and content should be moderated.

Consumer engagement forums do the following:

  • Drive traffic to connect with existing and potential customers.

  • Expand branding efforts with contests, postings, chats, Webinars, an event on your site, or sponsorship of a relevant forum hosted on another Web site.
  • Increase revenues through subscriptions or through advertising and sponsorships on sites. For example, AOL provides community forums for advertisers.
  • Gather information through the use of surveys to get customer feedback and test new product ideas or special promotional offers.

Determine whether you want to engage with all your consumers or only specific segments. Then, consider how to drive targeted users to a dedicated area of your site. At a minimum, cross-promote the functionality on site, in footers, and in email. Important events can be publicized with RSS (define) feeds. Remember to add registration, email-a-friend, and feedback functionality.

To measure the strategy’s outcome, analyze the following:

  • Track users, time spent in the forum, visits per user, and referrals to determine engagement level. Assess traffic to these areas relative to other sections of your site, as these are the most involved users.

  • Employ branding metrics. Strategic use of targeted offers and surveys enable marketers to track and measure the effect of the engagement.
  • Evaluate content resulting from customer engagement. This feedback can be used not only to improve your site but also to support on-site sponsorship and advertising.
  • Monitor profitability. Collect all relevant costs, including development, systems, monitoring, and related promotional costs. Compare this to the total value to your site. This can include the value of the traffic generated by these forums, consumer time spent on the site, and the direct revenues, either from subscriptions, sponsorships, or advertising.

Consider how to engage consumers on your site to extend your relationship with them. This can be a great source of consumer input, helping give direction to your site and your marketing. The users who choose to interact with you are among your most involved visitors. Learn how to make the most of the relationship.

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