Thursday, 22 November 2012

Marketing (Outdoor Gear) in the 21st Century pt. 1

I think anyone whose advertising of any sort of outdoor gear (although I think it applies to a lot of things) is limited to ads in magazines is putting themselves in a customer awareness deficit. An advertisement in a magazine or even a website in most cases is merely a monologue. Participating in forums or interacting with bloggers is a dialogue.

Being active on a variety of forums and interacting with a bunch of bloggers has proven to me that the way to market a product has shifted. Drastically.

An ad in say a, bicycling magazine, may serve to make me aware or curious about a product, but that’s it. Then I quickly go looking for info about it online. Either to see what people are saying about it on forums or if any bloggers have done a review. A review by a real world user is worth gold to me. I’m not talking about copying the press release and generic ¾ view of the product. I’m talking about photos the user has taken, from every angle, inside outside, top, bottom. Does the review pass the sniff test? Nothing but effusive praise about a product, every product they review, sounds suspicious. Do they identify what they perceive as a shortcoming about the product, as well as what they like? That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the company behind the product. It merely shows that a real human being, not a lapdog reviewed it. Not every product is perfect for every person. That’s fine. “I thought the shoulder strap was a bit short.” Not a deal breaker for most people, but I appreciate being told that. I’ve seen company reps getting defensive about minor points that a reviewer didn’t like. It’s to be expected. It’s okay.

Successful companies have their own forums and blogs, and participate in forums and respond to blog posts.

Let me cite an example. Kifaru. I own a bunch of their packs. Totally happy with them. Their forum features other happy users. Many prospective customers come there to inquire about their products. “Hey, I have a ........ and it’s this big and will it fit in .........” And the brigade of happy users often answer the questions before the staff does. I’m one of those people. Their users post pictures and reviews. I can imagine the company is thrilled that their good products and good service have created a legion of unpaid sales people and customer service reps. Notice the all important key of having great products in the first place and that their customer service being second to none. Those are the all important building blocks. But if you can then back it up with your fans shouting your praises – that’s golden. And the forum also serves as a great place to announce new products, interact with (and be seen to be interacting with) customers who have a mixed up order, a problem with a product, questions about the product, etc.

Being active on forums devoted to a variety of topics, I see daily how well companies do that have their reps active on those forums. Answering questions about products, heading off customer problems with polite offers of help can pay major dividends. And I see how companies that don’t communicate with their potential customer base, or communicate badly with their existing customer base do. It often takes little more than a few lines, “Hey this was missing that, or item Q had Y malfunction?”
“No problem give me a call on this number and I’ll get you squared away.”
And then two days later the forum poster comes back and raves about what great service they received from such and such company, and how quick they got a replacement. Seeing that tells multitudes of customers and potential customers that the company is responsive and genuinely cares. It makes people realize that of course things can go wrong. One out of a million parts can break, the assembly line might not spit that one part out of the feeder into the box. But if the company is there to respond and rectify the situation, it shows they’re there to help and stand behind their product and their brand. And I’ve witnessed how wrong it can go when customers come on forums to complain about the lousy service they got from XYZ company and no one is there to help, or when company reps antagonize customers. That customer may well be in the wrong. But seeing a company representative calmly try to rectify the situation, is the important thing for everyone else to see.

By the same token, reps finding reviews on blogs and responding, answering questions, correcting erroneous information, offering to help, all those things can pay dividends. Throwing a bone to the blogger who went to the trouble of photographing your product or making a video or writing a review, is also a small gesture that can build goodwill. Offer them a pre-release product to review to help build awareness when it comes out, a T-shirt to wear when they review your next product - simple gestures that make the company look like actual humans work there.

And the important thing to point out is not to be anonymous. Forum posts from shills might work once or twice, but people quickly see through them. Be up front. Post your name and what you do and how to contact you below your post. Blog posts from companies that masquerade as independent reviewers will quickly backfire. Be sincere. It pays off in the long run.

Forums do cost money to run, and some forums might not appreciate a company coming on to essentially advertise their wares. A company might well have to take out an ad to help defray the cost of hosting that forum. But the cost of that, to essentially find some of the most targeted marketing out there, to be able to speak directly to your customers, is a bargain compared to what an ad in a magazine would cost.

I’m sure ads in magazines may help to some degree to help build brand awareness and let people know about new products. But I feel the days of spending most of an advertising budget on that medium are waning. Besides a web site, companies need to spend time and resources on interacting with end users on forums, acknowledging bloggers for their reviews, finding bloggers to slip a product to to review, etc., etc. Consumers place far more stock in a relatively unpolished review by a genuine end user, than they do in a review from a glossy magazine that never says a bad thing about anything they review. A review that is often little more than a rehashed press release. Customers instinctively realize when someone knows what they’re talking about, and when someone is little more than an unctuous salesperson.

I think companies ignore the new paradigm of how to market their wares at their own peril.

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