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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Brand Initiated Automotive Online Communities In Practice


Forrester Research’s Jeremiah K. Owyang released a whitepaper last week titled “Community Launch Checklist: Creating A Pragmatic Approach To Launching An Onine Community.” It covers some strategic recommendations on how a company should best prepare before embarking on an online community.

There really isn’t anything revolutionary in the white paper, nor should there be, since it is meant as a simple checklist. It’s your typical stuff:

  • Define clear business goals and benchmarks to track success or failure
  • Prepare the organization so it knows its responsibilities both time and budget.
  • Research your competition
  • Define a process for participating and/or monitoring the community
  • Find the right technology implementation that fits your business objectives
  • Promote the community similar to how you promote any new product launch

Unfortunately, the article is light on any examples of companies using online communities. It does, in passing, mention Mattel’s “The Playground”, Microsoft’s Channel 9, MGM’s Facebook group, Dell’s support community and MyStarbucksIdea.

The good news for readers of this blog is that I have been actively engaging with three automotive brands that have started some very elaborate online communities. The three are Mercedes Benz’s Generation Benz, Hyundai’s Think Tank and Saturn’s ImSaturn. Here is a chart breaking down some differences and similarities across the communities:


As you can see from the examples, different companies make different content choices -- hopefully based on different strategies. It is also important to note that only one has a relatively significant media buy to promote its community, and that is ImSaturn. The Hyundai and Mercedes communities were promoted (from what I can gather) through invitations from their customer data, email-marketing data, and they allow members to invite friends. ImSaturn is promoted through their CRM data too, but they also have had media placements and promoted their content on social networking sites like Facebook where they also have a related Fan Page and Facebook application promoting the site.

Goals, Goals, Goals

Let’s get this out of the way now. The number one objective of all these sites should be to sell more cars or accessories. That doesn’t mean you measure sales against site membership numbers; rather, the sites should be about brand building by getting people more engaged with the brand through content, relationships with company staff and other enthusiasts, and should energize members through event promotions or exclusive chats. All of these activities strengthen the relationship between the customer and the community’s membership, which in turn should result in more purchases from a brand the community members have built a stronger relationship with thus leading to better loyalty retention numbers.

All three sites are clearly trying to energize their members to become vocal advocates for the brand; though, at different levels. And, by definition, if the sites create stronger advocates for the brand they will share their experiences with others, buy more products from your company, and hopefully persuade their social network to consider the brand.

Other goals include traditional market research objectives. Here Mercedes and Hyundai implementations are more aligned to these activities. They are leading the conversation through polls, discussions, and activities. Much like a virtual focus group, the two communities gather feedback from members and use that research outside of the community or they participate in discussions by responding to member comments. I tend to look at this type of effort as a way to do quick research without all the hassle of having to setup focus groups, which can be quite expensive and time consuming. Instead the benefit here is that you have this group you can bounce questions off of, provided they are the right target(s) you are wanting to engage with and provided there are enough that stay active in the community.

Saturn’s Ning

Saturn has made a stronger push to get owners to communicate with each other by allowing friending, member photo galleries, and most importantly letting members start their own groups and discussion topics. The ImSaturn site is modeled after a Facebook social community approach. Why do I say this, because the site has a very similar layout to a social community site like Ning. It also is big in creating social networks within the community; whereas, Mercedes and Hyundai are more about members being led into discussions with a company’s staff. Saturn is essentially trying to create its own social network that borrows from things that make automotive forums attractive: photo posting, public profiles, comments on member pages, having your own mailbox, and getting members to create friendships with others.

I haven’t researched the level of activity on Saturn auto enthusiast forums but they do exist. I was originally a bit surprised ImSaturn was built the way it was. It seemed to me Saturn could’ve just joined a large Saturn community that already exists and engage that way, basically Listen.

When I joined the community it had 600 members so it seemed like a lot of effort and cost to grow a community to a critical mass. Fortunately, they do have a decent size community that is now over 5,000 members, but it has taken nearly two years to do that and I’m sure at a decent cost. Seems to me they could’ve just plugged into existing communities and engaged that way at a lesser cost; though, they would’ve lost some insights, though that depends on what they were looking to get from ImSaturn and that I don’t know since I’m not part of the internal team.

Going back through my communications from the ImSaturn site, there is really nothing more than some public relations communications and some event promotion. All of this could’ve been done through their Facebook site and by engaging with existing online Saturn fan forums. So, it is unclear what strategic advantage the ImSaturn site really provides.

Consumer Insights at Your Fingertips

Mercedes and Hyundai are clearly building virtual focus groups where they can gather quick marketing insights from their members. This is very different from the social community approach of ImSaturn, where the emphasis is on social. Most interesting, Generation Benz has a particular membership requirement and that is you must be under 30 years old, since they are interested in aspirational opinions about their brand and products. Hyundai is open to all ages. Neither community restricts non-owners; even though, a lot of the content on Hyundai is very owner focused. I’m sure they divide poll results by owner/non-owner as well as other demographic data.

The company’s marketing representatives also lead both communities. The moderators start all discussion topics. When you enter either site, you are required to respond to survey questions that look to get feedback about new products, possible future products, and/or get your thoughts on current marketing efforts.

Even though the two sites are marketing department driven and are really about getting research to help assist marketing plans, they do try to energize their membership. One way that is done is through having fun polls or questionnaires that try to get more psychographic profiles about members. Sure this is used by the marketing team, but it is also a way to make the community appear more fun. Does it work? Possibly, I’m way too much of an industry person to be objective.

What’s In It for the Members?

So what keeps people coming back? Of course there are many reasons, but there are several that exist.

  • First Finder Fame: Getting exclusive information before others outside the community.
  • Brand Relationship Factor: Establish a personal relationship with a brand you like
  • Community Friendship Factor: By establishing “friends” within the community, engagement with like-minded people keeps people coming back
  • Rewards: Special offers. Hyundai recently gave members a special code for buying their cars at discount.
  • Support Reasons: Look to communities as a way to get support information for the product they own or are interested in owning.

It is interesting looking across all three communities and seeing how people interact within. Harvard Business Review did an excellent article on how people interact within communities identifying 18 roles, and those same behaviors exist on all three of these sites. There are a couple roles that dominate these marketing based, company-sponsored communities.

Every community is full of “Learners” who seek out information to improve their knowledge of the products. “Storytellers” permeate membership also as many share their ownership stories through words or photos, especially on a site like ImSaturn that encourages such behaviors.

But it takes regular engagement and the creation of fresh and interesting content by community administrators to keep the conversations going. Mercedes and Hyundai are enabling new conversation topics all the time, the only issue I see is that the discussions are more for the brand marketing team’s purpose and less for the benefit of the members. Most activities involve watching commercials and this of course can get boring quickly and cause member drop-off; hence, the idea of giving content to appeal to first find fame by letting the membership see content only available on the community before releasing it to the public, but this is a rather weak benefit that only appeals to hardcore brand advocates.

To involve more than just the hardcore members, Mercedes’ site will actually send out reminders via email saying inactivity will get you removed from the community and that one needs to login soon to remain a participant. Other sites like Hyundai’s sends out email communication that are less threatening. They simply invite me to see new content or invite me to participate in a coming product chat that hopefully appeals to my interest. I have participated in chats with product specialists on both sites and there seems to be only about 20 or so members on Mercedes chats I’ve been on. Hyundai, because it is open to a larger audience, has a slightly larger turnout, but not much better.

Direct, Responsive Access to People Inside Your Company Is Your Advantage


Engaging with the community is an active process. The people who join a manufacturer’s community expect fast responses and respect for information they seek. One member of the Generation Benz website made a statement after a moderator switch occurred last month. Referring to the prior moderator, he was highly satisfied with the moderator’s quick responses and how he would respond to any question no matter how crazy.

It takes a serious commitment of time and knowledge from the company to find the right people to actively engage with the community’s users. Owyang talks a lot about developing proper processes for positive and negative events that will happen. Knowing how to respond before something does happen will lead to a more effective experience for everyone.

The users expect engagement and this personal relationship with brand representatives is an appeal the enthusiasts’ forums don’t provide, as a brand this is your community's strategic advantage. Use it well and you can build a great reputation with your participants.

In Closing

Before embarking on a community site, brands would benefit from the Forrester article (and the Harvard Business Review article too.) There are some fundamental items you need to consider before engaging with existing communities or starting your own online community space. Oh, and don’t forget to have a strategist as part of your team.
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2 comments:

umair said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. I welled up at the end. Very powerful stuff.
van leasing

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