4 Best Practices to Leverage Niche Social Networks for Conversions
Perhaps it's a bit of an inside joke, but National Instruments Corp. is accustomed to using graphic language with its customers. So when the Austin, Texas-based graphical programming software company decided to create a proprietary social network, its consumer base also made its affinity for the business and its products as clear as black and white.
More than 125,000 community member fans of the picture-based programming language later, Deirdre Walsh, NI's community and social media marketing manager, boils down the secret to best leveraging niche social media networks for conversions: "We provide more of a, I would say, trusted adviser role than we do a guard dog role."
So—coinciding with the "300 percent increase in the number of companies that plan to measure social media's impact on conversion in 2010," according to a December 2009 survey from Austin, Texas-based social media marketing firm Bazaarvoice—Walsh and others are providing advice to direct marketers.
Context matters, says Tommy McClure, owner of pug owner social networking site PugzMugz.com. Much like Dogster.com and Catster.com (owned by Dogster Inc.), PugzMugz.com provides content that's relevant to pet owners and only allows advertisements on the site that are about relevant products and services—such as pet insurance. McClure thinks marketers profit from this practice more than they would if he allowed elements to clash.
"We're thrown so many things that really don't even apply to our lives," McClure says. "And to have a social networking Web site like PugzMugz ... have anything else on there that doesn't relate to the audience of that Web site would be, I think, detrimental to the Web site itself. ... I really do think [advertisers] wouldn't do well if [consumers] didn't relate to the content."
If the social network already is clearly providing products and services in the proper context, as is the case with NI's proprietary community, Walsh says direct marketers can continue to drill down to provide relevance. In NI's case, its members have created niches within the NI community niche—more than 200 groups.
"They're very similar to a Facebook group," she says. "Engineers can self-group based on geographic location, or product interest, or application area. So one thing that makes our company unique is that no one industry represents more than 15 percent of our revenue. So for us, it's really, really important that we connect like-minded engineers."
Ben Kiker, chief marketing officer of Portland, Ore.-based social business software provider Jive, points to an exclusive community created by online investment firm Charles Schwab. The firm decided to hone in on those making more than 36 trades a year or with more than $25,000 in assets to invest. "The way that they target active traders to join the community is they basically send them an e-mail that links back to a persona-based demo of what it would be like if you were in that community," Kiker says. Using the recurring theme of allowing traders to exchange tips and tricks with "people like you," Charles Schwab now has 10,000 active members of that invitation-only community who make 365 trades a year versus 200 trades a year from the active traders who aren't in the community, he says.
Integrate Channels and Disciplines
"We have built this virtual social media team, where we have representatives from the more traditional marketing functions like direct mail, events, public relations," Walsh says. "And their role is really twofold: It's to ... work on the ... social media projects ... [and] to evolve the more traditional marketing functions."
For instance, for a conference, members of the NI team will create direct mail pieces that provide information about how to follow updates on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the NI community.
All of the leads gathered during conferences receive e-mails inviting them to join a customized niche social networking group that's specific to the show they are attending. The pages, of course, include NI case studies and product information. "But they'll also see things like 'Check out all the demos that you just saw at that trade show. You can see the demo in a YouTube video, and then you can actually see a customized parts list of all of the NI products used in that demo,' " Walsh says. "So once there, then they can take the next activity and drive to the customized price list and then, hopefully, convert."
Moving outside of its network, NI updates its pages on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube because the company wants to "play where our customers play, and then re-engage them," Walsh says.
To that end, NI also seeks out those blogging about it and tries to connect with them through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. "Embracing all of the other things and integrating them in will make your community really successful," she says.
NI also ensures the network lives outside static Web pages. "Every month people ... see 'From engineer-to-engineer,' " she says of the e-newsletter feature. "Real content, real code, real discussions, real blog posts, real applications."
Listen First, Then Engage
With forum discussion titles like "Dynamic Signal Acquisition," the NI Developer Zone support community is a product-oriented network that is integrated into the company's infrastructure. While Walsh says this community provides peer-to-peer support half the time, an NI engineer steps in and answers unsolved questions after 48 hours.
On the zone's more "energized community" side—the area of the social network that Jive helped create—Walsh says NI's input depends on the group. Some are self-sustaining. For instance, a geographic-based group might need only a local salesperson to answer a specific product question. "But we're not going in there and pushing a whole lot of marketing messages," Walsh says. At the most, NI may insert itself in more specific niches, such as medical or robotics groups, and provide links to new products with a request that the community evaluate it and provide feedback.
Kiker says similarly, other clients come up with unique ways to engage customers. "I think one of the great ways to drive conversion is to get the power of the community involved in whatever you're doing," he says, citing a photo contest for members of the Intercontinental Hotels Group's Priority Club Rewards loyalty program. IHG experienced a 24 percent uptick in e-mails-to-bookings after incenting club members with rewards points for taking pictures of their 10 top dream destinations, which they'd had the good fortune to actually visit. Then the hotel group used the images in direct marketing campaigns for its new hotels.
Provide Usable Information and Accept It, Too
"We have, through the community, a number of technical blogs that they can read," Walsh says. "They can go and download over 10,000 pieces of code to get them up and started easily with their latest applications."
Communities help NI with several business objectives, she says: "Everything from cooperating on peer-to-peer support to helping increase awareness and loyalty of new and existing products, to getting really good product feedback. So we connect our community directly with our engineering developers. And then, of course, at the end of the day, it also helps with sales."
NI is already implementing some of that feedback into its software, she says.