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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Generation Bling


Social media is all the rage in digital marketing these days with companies venturing out to FaceBook, Twitter, MySpace, and even creating their own community web sites. What approach a manufacturer takes should depend on what goals they want to accomplish with social media and the brand must understand how their customers behave on the web.

One experiment is Generation Benz, an online community established for “an invited group of Gen Y netizens to open up about the brand.” In fact, when I tried to register for the site -- using my real demographics -- I was not accepted. A fellow co-worker had informed me he had a similar issue and “got in” when he completed a profile as a 29 year old. So, keep trying to sign-up if you want to take a peak at the site.

According to Mercedes-Benz USA VP/Marketing Stephen Cannon, “Our Generation-Benz community is a natural extension of our desire to broaden the Mercedes-Benz family, and establish a dialogue with future buyers to guide us with the design of our vehicles and direction of our brand."

So we know Mercedes is interested in taping into their aspirational customers and after spending weeks on the site they are doing a lot of consumer research, online focus group engagement.

Unfortunately, I cannot share content screen shots from the community due to the community’s participant legal agreement that I accepted:

In addition, except as provided in this Agreement, you may not copy, modify, translate, reproduce, publish, broadcast, transmit, distribute, perform, display, license, sell, or create derivative works from any Member Content or any other content appearing on or through the Service.


That said, I can definitely describe what content is presented on Generation Benz. Mercedes is doing several things to engage. Whether they are the right thing to connect with 20-somethings is another thing all together. There are consumer opinion polls where you can vote on how an interior palette makes you feel. One discussion asked users to share their opinion on competing Lexus and Mercedes Benz commercials currently running for the RX350 and M-Class SUVs. None of this really sounds all that compelling to a Gen Y audience but they are getting some participation on the site, particularly when it comes to new and future product content. I should state that community members can "suggest a topic".

A private community is definitely the right strategic approach for Mercedes based on the demographic they are targeting and the type of engagement they are doing. Finding the right topics though seems to be a struggle since this is a marketing organization that starts the discussions, topics are not user-generated which probably reduces usage.

One of the best behaviors on the site is the engagement from Mercedes’ staff that really participates with the community members, making the community feel they have the ability impact the brand’s decisions. Their email communications also encourage participation and repeat visits (see image to the right.)

Without access to primary data showing how effective the site is with attracting repeat visitors, it is difficult to know how well the community is doing. After evaluating all of the current discussion threads on the site, it is clear repeat visits are low and there are only two dominant users of the site with over 300 posts each, others who post tend to have less than 10 posts. Active users only appear to include maybe 20 or so participants, at least across all forum comment sections.

One way it could improve engagement is by giving users a reason to participate. “Consumers have to have some incentive to share their thoughts, opinions and experiences on a company Web site,” according to the Wall Street Journal. There is no incentive on the site. Some things that could improve that include:

The site does give users an indicator showing how many posts they have done. Post indicators provide a visual "game" on community boards which leads to an increase of usage. An indicator should also move people to new levels like newbie, contributor, expert, et cetera as a way to show degrees of engagement. Believe it or not, this stuff actually works in communities as some users view it as a fame reward.

Other incentives could include cash incentives or product promotions, which could include Mercedes lifestyle discounts for apparel. Or really encourage participation by offering a Generation Benz logo hat or t-shirt that could further promote the site to the user’s personal network, make them feel special and that they have exclusive access to the brand.

All in all, the Generation Benz web site is a good example of a community site from an automotive company with a very clear set of goals, reaching out to a target audience they want to engage. It just seems like the site moderators need to find more relevant topics for their users, and less for their marketing department's purposes. They also could benefit by rewarding users with incentives to participate more.
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