By Lou Dzierzak
Debbie Williamson, a senior analyst at New York City- based eMarketer, an Internet market trend research firm, reports that 44 percent of all U.S. Internet users will visit social networking sites regularly this year. She also points out, “Seventy-seven percent of teens will look at social networking sites. Its become the way young people want to interact with their friends and communicate with each other. They explore the Internet through the prism of the social networking sites they use. Since teens and young adults are spending so much time with social networks, brands need to look at social networks as a place to put advertising. Thats where their audience will be.”
According to eMarketer, companies will spend an estimated $1.6 billion to advertise on social networking sites in 2008. Although accounting for just a fraction of that total, outdoor and action sports brands including Quiksilver, Timberland, Timex, The North Face, ProBar, La Sportiva and Timbuk2 are exploring ways to use social networking to reinforce consumer relationships and leverage other marketing efforts.
Bob McKnight, chairman, president and CEO of Quiksilver, believes social networking is important to the companys target audience.
“To begin with,” McKnight explains, “board riding and action sports such as surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, motocross and wakeboarding have come to represent much more than an activity to a generation of kids and young adults. This group is adventurous, curious and technologically savvy, searching the Internet, watching videos on YouTube, posting blocks on MySpace and playing video games over the Internet with friends in other countries. And they are connected-connected to the lifestyle, the latest fashions, new music, the language and their own sensibilities.”
Action sports brands that thrive on buzz created by word-of-mouth have benefited from social networking. Mark Nardelli, brand director of Zoo York, offers a historical perspective.
“Over the past decade, the flood of new media and social networking platforms has had a major impact on action sports. The popularity of blogs and sites that host user-generated content has significantly sped up the dissemination of information, trends and images on a global scale,” says Nardelli. “When I was a 15-year-old skater growing up in New Jersey, Id hit a local spot and friends would tell me how so-and-so did such-and-such a trick the other day, and it would become this mythical story because no one was there to witness it first-hand. Today, the minute something goes down, a video is posted on YouTube and everyone can check it out for themselves. The message is essentially the same as it was when I was a kid. The only difference is that now there are new and improved vehicles that get the word out faster and to a much larger audience.”
Sarah Gallagher, senior manager for interactive marketing at The North Face, comments, “People are constantly changing the way they interact with each other and with brands. Personal communications are taking place more and more via social networks rather than e-mail, and people use their social networks as an information hub for their personal connections as well as for news and interests.” Just as importantly, she adds, “Brands are realizing that there is more they can do to take advantage of the Internet as a lean-forward medium, and are moving from one-way, message-based advertising to engagement campaigns and creating value for the consumer.”
Kevin McSpadden, chief marketing officer at San Francisco, CA-based Timbuk2, believes consumers are ready for brands to make an approach through social networking.
“When you are in a product category where people are passionate, they want to share, they want to find people just like them and they want to get advice and give testimony,” says McSpadden. “The Internet allows them to do that without borders and without time restrictions. Its a great way to tap into the natural passion people have in the category you are in and the products you have.”
Timbuk2 is using social networking to enhance product design and improve customer service. The company, which recently launched the Traveler luggage collection, relied heavily on feedback from a core consumer group.
“Weve been very open with our customers in our product development, particularly in our new luggage line,” explains Timbuk2 CEO Perry Klebahn. “We are asking customers for their input at the very beginning of the process. We put our best end-users in a position of incredible power at the beginning of the product development cycle for Traveler, very much like a wholesaler would go to REI to ask for their input. We got input from 20 key customers at the very beginning, and now we can go back to those customers and allow them to test the luggage. It gives us an incredible connection to the marketplace.”
When a consumer uses the Timbuk2 website to post a question, the query is distributed to everyone in the company. “We made public what is traditionally part of customer service,” notes Klebahn. “Now, with the forum getting broadcast, its hard for me to go through a week without an interaction with a customer directly. Its a very powerful tool. It does change the kind of day I have because I have to engage directly with that community.”
McSpadden sees other benefits, as well. “If you are clear about who you are as a brand and what your product stands for and how it competes, then allowing customers and fans to participate broadens your perspective. Its about creating a sense of dialogue, involvement and participation and a kind of co-creation of the product.”
Research into social networking use shows one-third of 9- to 17-year-olds reported spending at least 10 hours a week on social networking sites.
Pia Baker, brand director of Timex Outdoor in Middlebury, CT, observes, “Its definitely been explosive. Its something that probably a lot of us have dabbled with in our personal lives and a lot of companies are getting involved with it.”
Baker continues, “Social networking and social media are vast terms. Rather than pushing a flat message out from manufacturer to consumer, were trying to shift that to having a conversation and actually talking to consumers in a way that they hear and perpetuate the message. Its very intuitive. If you hear about a product from a friend or a family member, its much more trustworthy than hearing from the company directly. If you can get people to participate in sharing your message, it really is an effective tool.”
Williamson of eMarketer agrees. “Information spreads from person to person and friend to friend. The connections are very important. Marketers are exploring how to take advantage of those connections and how to interest one person so they will pass it on,” she says. “In a social network environment, its an ongoing conversation. If someone raises their hand and says, I want to become a friend of your brand, you have to keep interacting with them to keep their attention. Its no longer about putting a banner ad on a page and hoping someone will click on it. Its about putting an application in front of someone so they interact with it and send it to their friends.”
Over the summer, Timex launched a web-based initiative called “Return to the Outdoors.” The campaign consists of six short films that use outdoor industry personalities to promote outdoor recreation. The first three films feature mountaineer Conrad Anker, rock climber Steph Davis and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard.
“The idea behind the campaign came from the insight that people are spending less time outside,” explains Baker. “We thought Americans were de-prioritizing getting quality time outdoors. It was an important issue for us as a brand. As fewer and fewer people connect with the outdoors, that would impact our business. The films were meant to inspire people. We hope the relationship will continue after the films are watched. We focused more on inspiring people and getting credible, wonderful icons from the outdoor industry to participate in the films. One of the key points of this was to raise awareness for the work the Conservation Alliance was doing.”
A contest element invites people to contribute stories about their own outdoor experiences. Explains Baker, “Its a conversation starter. After seeing the films you want to learn more, share the films with your friends, and go to the website and share your own story. Its a little bit longer of a relationship than a single one-hit impression. We invite them to come to the website to share their stories about why the outdoors are so important to them.”
Nardelli endorses the idea that social networking nurtures relationships with loyal consumers, and points out that such connections also help make the company more competitive in the marketplace.
“Online applications allow us to give our fans a much more personal, inside look at the brand and the athletes that make it all happen,” Nardelli says. “Compared to standard print ads that come out monthly, it lets us reach our fans on a much more regular basis, with a more focused and adaptable message. Since our fans have access to the same technology in many cases, and can put out their own videos and blogs, it keeps us on our toes and really pushes us to be innovative and fresh to not only stay ahead of our competitors, but also our fans.”
This year, The North Face launched a widget platform to test the format to deliver short videos and drive traffic to a snowsports micro-site. The company is thus far pleased with the results. “The execution was relatively simple and the feedback was outstanding,” Gallagher notes. “Engagement and traffic metrics outperformed more traditional display ads.”
Gallagher adds, “It is a more active presentation; it allows a level of user control that the target audience hasnt had in the past. It allows consumers to take the brand with them by placing a widget on their own website or social network page, and using it in their own context rather than just the brands.”
Kendall Card, social media director at Basecamp Communications in Jackson, WY, believes that building connections with bloggers can spread brand messages in dramatic fashion. When ProBar introduced five new flavors, Basecamp found vegan bloggers who were very active, and 50 agreed to test and write about the bars.
“We were able to see a large return in the number of people who were talking about the brand. We were able to hone in on a small niche of the customer base. You are creating people who are so passionate about your brand that they become an extension of your marketing,” Card says.
Moreover, Card believes that feedback generated through social networking conversations can be used to tailor marketing messages. “Because you are able to enter the conversation where people are finding their information and participate with them, the measurement aspect of it is much more precise,” he says. “Were promoting the brand, reaching people who are interested in our message, and they are responding. We have the ability to better understand how the brand is perceived and is resonating with consumers, and to work backwards and build messaging that speaks directly to what consumers envision the brand to be.”
Social networking blogs and forums open lines of communication between company and consumer. The discussions can range from professions of love for a brand to harsh criticism. According to eMarketings Williamson, “In a social network environment, there is only so much control that you, as a marketer or retailer, have over how your brand is perceived and talked about. Marketers have to walk a fine line between guiding and fostering conversation about their brand, but at the same time know that they have to step back if the conversation turns negative. Its open communication. Getting an understanding of how people talk about your brand, good or bad, in a social networking environment can be very valuable.”
In some instances, consumer negativity can actually be beneficial. Timbuk2s McSpadden believes that, “The reason people get upset is because they care. It is the root of intense loyalty to your brand. If you work as a staff to hear, respond and involve that person or group in the solution, then you are going to have some of your best salespeople out in the world. Its only a moment in time. A brand that is strong will endure. Other posts will be layered on with other comments that are positive and constructive.”
Baker is also careful to put networkers opinions into perspective: “Social networking and social media offer some huge benefits to a brand, but you have to be aware that you have a lot less control, as a brand, over your message than you do with traditional media. That comes with the territory. You have to be honest with yourself and ask if this is something you want to do with your brand.”
At Timberland, it is now important to monitor online channels where the brand appears and, when appropriate, respond to messages and comments. As a new entrant to social networking, Timberland is using such media to learn new ways to communicate with consumers.
“We knew we were treading in new territory with the social networks when we entered the arena,” reports Margaret Morey-Reuner, Timberlands values marketing manager. “We knew we would be throwing ourselves out there in ways that are very open and overt. We do have some sense of vulnerability in doing this, but its not a risk-its an opportunity to learn. It provides us with insights that we really need and keeps us steadfast in our conviction to do the right thing in the right ways.”
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
Social networking is a rapidly growing way for sporting goods and action sports brands to connect with their target audiences. As these companies continue to explore strategies and methods, it is possible to track the results-which tend to be both profuse and nebulous.
“Theres a host of different metrics that people can track in a social network environment,” says eMarketers Williamson. “The problem is that its not clear which metrics are the most important. Theres so much information to track, but its not clear what is the most valuable information.”
In fact, its often difficult to predict exactly what will spark a response from social networkers. As an example, Baker points to reactions to the Timex campaign: “When people come to see the films, we definitely see high traffic to the featured product pages. Its working, even though we arent pushing product in the films.”
Nevertheless, theres no doubt in Gallaghers mind that new technologies can be accurately evaluated. “Without question, you can measure video views, widget downloads/placements, click-throughs or view-throughs from the widget back to the site. Any online/display metric youre using to measure ROI of Internet campaigns can be used to evaluate the success of widgets,” she states.
Nardelli concurs. “Online applications are definitely far superior to measuring results with traditional print and broadcast media because its based on hard numbers. Theres no need to estimate how many people a magazine is passed along to, or how many people in a given household may have watched your ad. Instead, its listed right there in front of you on the screen with unique users, page views, downloads, click-through rates, et cetera,” he explains. “And with YouTube, results are displayed on each video so the viewer and the poster are simultaneously exposed to the videos status which, in a sense, levels the playing field.”
Morey-Reuner asserts that embracing social networking doesnt require building proprietary platforms. “Were not so presumptuous to think that if we build a new platform to engage consumers, they would come to visit us,” she says. “We thought a better tack would be to go to where [consumers] were communicating, and communicate with them on their terms in those spaces.”
In addition to appearing on Facebook and YouTube, Timberland launched an Earthkeepers blog to share the companys position on environmental issues as they pertain to Timberlands products and corporate perspective.
“[The Earthkeepers blog] is a place where we can really engage in a more serious manner,” says Morey-Reuner. “While YouTube is a little more fun, the blog is a place where we talk more seriously, and we invite the experts to participate in the conversation with us. We developed the Earthkeepers [blog] to get consumers engaged in the conversation around the environment, the outdoors and climate change.”