What good is using social media if it winds up being the tail that barely wags the sleeping dog?

Anybody can set up a Twitter or YouTube page and hope the traffic links in from there. What if you could construct your own online community that could live within your company’s site – as simple as, say, “community.yoursite.com” — where customers could talk to one another as well as the brand, and the brand hands out content ranging from coupons to videos? (Go ahead, put a link to it on your Twitter page and prove that platform has tangible sales value after all.)

Tim Ross at the Solution Set blog figured that concept might be of interest to Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies that have already been Facebooked to death…and not been inclined to like it. Here are Ross’s seven ways that CPGs can take advantage of customer communities to drive results:

  1. Transform customers into salespeople – all those testimonial-type ads must be effective, or the approach would have long ago gone out of style. Really, what could be a better advertisement for your product or brand than an unvarnished, down-to-earth endorsement of its benefits for – and from — regular folks? One example cited by Ross: The Beauty Talk community from Sephora, which claims to have discovered that the average BT user actually spends 2.5 times more than non-community members. And with the content all on your own site, you can upload as many videos as your server/host can hold – without any added social media stigma (not that we’ve ever seen anything unsavory on video sharing sites…that we’d admit, anyway). One favorite: How-to’s that show customers the best ways to use your product…all without ever having to leave home to ask an expert.
  2. Grow into a trusted and valued resource – as noted, you can link to other social media and, hopefully, sit back as users find their way to your community site. They’re less likely to continue visiting, though, unless there’s something of value for them, usually something that changes or is re-useable – like coupons, exclusive deals or customer use stories that connect with everyday people. Pampers Village, Ross points out, has been doing just that for about the last five years, providing info to expectant moms and also hosting campaigns to supply care packages to those in neonatal intensive units. And the site features plenty of offers and coupons.
  3. Step aside (almost) and let your customers become marketers – for a prime example, look no further than Recipes.com, a site operated by food giant Kraft. Moms on the go or singles with too much time on their hands, and everyone in-between, can post and exchange recipes that fit specific schedules, budgets and lifestyles. Posted recipes are also subject to comments and ratings, turning a simple recipe site into more of a travel review site, food-wise. All of it helps Kraft with fine-tuning its various branding strategies, especially as the recipes posted give the company a better idea of who’s eating and buying what, not to mention where and maybe why.
  4. Connect with taste-makers – vocal and creative community members tend to have strong opinions and suggestions that can be used to improve products and customer experiences. Mountain Dew’s Dewmocracy community serves as both a prime example and cautionary tale. The site solicited input on potential new flavors of the greenish soft drink, target of many a summer camper’s nickname over the years. The site also showed why it’s good to keep those suggestions within the branded community firewalls. When crowdsourcing a name for yet another new product, trolls took over and trumpeted names like Diabeetus to the forefront of community discussion.
  5. Turn customers into focus groups – it might fall short of fulfilling grand scientific criteria, but when a significant percentage of your community members prefer one slogan over another, why ignore the sentiment? At the very least, polling the on-site community might save time and expense when it comes to convening a live focus group.
  6. Embrace customer feedback – one of the benefits of building a relationship, whether among friends or between brand and customers, is that, as the relationship deepens, people are more willing to tell you what they really think and feel. (This maxim does not necessarily apply to the politically powerful nor to those with whom they are involved. C’mon, what does Michelle really say to Barry at night anymore…except, “And could I run after Hilary?”) Nature’s Path Organic, says Ross, is always soliciting customer feedback. Why? “A company our size can execute on 5 to 10 new ideas a year at best,” says Tom Newitt, the company’s director of brand management and research. “There isn’t a lot of room for error, and it’s vitally important that we let the consumer chime in on our ideas.”
  7. Incorporate the community into process – creating the community as an afterthought to product development is like manufacturing a DOS-based computer and then asking Mac-ophiles why they find the machine impossible to use. Nor does creating a community substitute for key steps of the process. Knowing upfront what you expect to gain by engaging the community, and for which products, will add value to your efforts. Both for you and for the customer.

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