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Issue Date: March 2005

Creating online customer communities

March 2005

Internet branding becomes more than just websites and e-mail, as smart marketers realise the power of viral marketing and creating interactive communities

Companies with consumer-orientated brands can experience powerful marketing returns by using digital media to build a community of users around the lifestyles associated with their products and services.
That is the word from Ben Wagner, business ddirector at Stonewall. Wagner says brands like Red Bull, 5FM Music, Miller Genuine Draft and Jack Daniel's have turned online campaigns that combine content-rich websites with complementary interactive media into powerful marketing tools.
The ultimate goal of online branding is to forge a relationship with customers that drives return visits to the website as well as product sales or alternate business objectives.
Says Wagner: "To experience the best returns from investments into the digital channel, marketers need to keep their brands top of mind even when the end-user is not on their website. The best way to do this is to create an interactive community that offers the end-user a rich experience that keeps them coming back."
What these companies have in common is that they are selling a lifestyle as much as they are selling a product. Rich, multimedia content and attractive interactive services further the association of the brand with its core values in the mind of the audience, says Wagner.
Miller Genuine Draft ( www.millertime.co.za), for example, offers users a host of exclusive content about social and entertainment events, building the brand as the beer of choice for young adults with active social lives. 5fm's website offers a range of features and content that extends the radio station's positioning as the music and entertainment authority for cosmopolitan young adults.
The branding possibilities offered by electronic media extend far beyond websites and e-mail campaigns to tools such as interactive screensavers and live desktop environments and 'push' communication applications, Wagner points out.
Screensavers, for example, allow brands to engage with users outside of the website by combining attractive visual elements with brand reinforcement.
However, interactive screensavers can also be used to stream live data onto a user's desktop. By giving users news updates or alerting them to brand related event activity, screensavers can help to drive users to make repeat visits to the website.
One of the primary goals of digital marketing should be to build up a database of users who have opted-in to receive communications from the brand because of the value they feel they arre getting from the company's electronic tools and applications.
"Marketers today have a large arsenal of tools to use for brand messaging in the digital world - from websites, screensavers, SMS, e-cards and e-mail to promotions and competitions as well as value-added text and multimedia content. The trick is to combine the right tools into an holistic strategy tailored to meet business, marketing and branding objectives," says Wagner.
The principle of viral marketing is also important. Viral marketing is the online world's parallel to 'word of mouth' advertising: customers and users endorsing a company's products and brand to their friends. In effect, customers become brand evangelists for the company.
'Refer a friend' applications have become commonplace, but in a world where e-mail, SMS, websites and other technologies are converging, companies have a host of ways at their disposal to harness viral marketing, Wagner adds.
For example, Stonewall as part of its Phase II development for Miller Genuine Draft, is developing a birthday alert mechanic as part of a 'live' desktop that entices users to input all friends and family birthday dates into a reminder service. On the day of the birthday, a branded Miller Time birthday message is sent to the recipient congratulating them and encouraging them to utilise the service, thereby allowing more users to join the community.


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