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Making Connections

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Talk about like minds. Members of the community can exchange recipes, post pictures of dishes they’ve whipped up and discuss just about all things food-related on the forum. They’re not alone, either; some 10,000 consumer-oriented brands have launched or are launching online communities, says Matt Moog, CEO of Viewpoints Network, a Chicago-based social technology and media firm.

The convergence of content, commerce and community has received much attention over the past decade. The objective for retailers is to make the outcome effective enough that it will promote customer activity and loyalty. In the end, that should translate to sales.

Viewpoints Network has been working with a number of retailers to help them do just that. “We transform static content and customer reviews into something that is dynamic and customer-driven,” Moog says.

Sears Holdings has been working with Viewpoints since 2008, launching and in March 2009. Some one million people now visit each month, a “good chunk” of whom are members, says Rob Harles, vice president of social media and community.

Sears began building its online community more than two years ago, Harles says. At the time, its site was more straightforward and lacked features like forums and an idea exchange.

In order to beef up the site, Sears’ employees reviewed a number of third-party technology providers and also considered building the platform internally. Viewpoints’ technology offerings matched Sears’ requirements, Harles says -- particularly Viewpoints’ ability to bring together elements of an online community like blogs, forums and surveys. Viewpoints had already developed its own two-million-strong online community, with members reviewing everything from car seats to movies.

As social media and e-commerce markets have evolved over the last few years, most technology providers have focused on pieces of the online community puzzle; some offer applications that help companies collect reviews, while others provide the software behind discussion boards and blogs. Few firms offer technology platforms that can drive all of these capabilities.

In contrast, Viewpoints can “collect reviews, organize them around products and help you build an online community with social profiles and other features like ‘friending’ and following,” Moog says. This enables retailers and other firms to offer a range of content and applications, truly engaging their customers.

As Sears has been working with Viewpoints over the past few years, it has gradually added capabilities to the site. The transition has been more of an evolution than a revolution, Harles says. The idea is to continually improve the site, involving the customers along the way.

Finding the right mix
The time required to launch the Viewpoints platform and achieve a “full-blown, fully functional community with search, navigation, e-mail, ad services and reporting” typically runs about eight weeks, Moog says. When a client already has some of these components, Viewpoints can take the existing data and import it to its technology platform.

Retailers can access Viewpoints’ technology on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) basis. The company is able to host and manage the entire communication platform and provide necessary services from content moderation to community management. Clients provide style guides for Viewpoints, dictating the look and feel of the site down to font type and color palette.

In working with its customers, Viewpoints focuses on three goals: driving traffic and sales, achieving product insight that can be acted upon and building brand loyalty and customer advocacy. The company uses specific metrics, including browser-to-buyer conversion numbers, to determine how its technology is helping customers meet each of these goals.

Another consideration is avoiding what Moog calls the “field of dreams” syndrome. Some executives worry they’ll build an online community that no one will use, but Viewpoints’ management and technical teams know how to engage customers in conversation. Once that online conversation has begun, it can gain more momentum and generate even more activity.

“Every brand has a core group of customers who are emotionally connected to the brand and engaged,” Moog says. Ideally, they end up fostering the interest of other, less passionate customers. If a customer has a specific question about her Kenmore dishwasher, chances are good that she will find someone through the community who can provide the very expertise that’s needed. “Somewhere in the world there is someone who’s experiencing the same thing you are,” Moog says.

Using customer insights
Equally important, online communities do not need to be built around products that are commonly assumed to generate great passion, such as cars or wine. Consumers are interested in connecting with others about even the mundane products that are used on a daily basis. After all, a greater percentage of most people’s time and money goes toward purchasing just these sorts of goods.

“Things as ordinary as grocery products are also important,” Moog says, citing the frequency with which consumers review the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser on the site. For just about any product, a savvy social media expert can find ways to engage customers.

Down the road, more retailers will be fostering three-way dialogues, Moog says, and can tap into customers’ insight to resolve service issues, reduce returns and drive sales. For instance, one customer suggested that the site provide a way for customers to connect with the stores’ buyers; the idea was implemented. Ultimately, these sorts of actions by retailers can boost customer loyalty and even prompt some customers to become advocates for the brand.

The real power of online communities lies in finding new ways to connect with customers, accept their feedback and use it to improve business operations each day, Harles says. After all, the most compelling reason to open an online community is to find out what’s on customers’ minds and figure out how to address their concerns. “We’ve had lots of insights that come out of connecting with our customers.”