Branded social networks help bolster consumer connections

With more than 15 million TV viewers weekly and the same number of monthly visitors to its Web site, World Wrestling Entertainment watched as fans turned to online sites like Facebook and MySpace to create pages celebrating WWE and its personalities.

With more than 15 million TV viewers weekly and the same number of monthly visitors to its Web site, World Wrestling Entertainment watched as fans turned to online sites like Facebook and MySpace to create pages celebrating WWE and its personalities. Still, the entertainment company wanted to find a way to connect directly with its fans online.

"WWE fans really tend to aggregate online and find places to connect," says EVP of digital media Brian Kalinowski. "We thought, 'If anyone could really do a social network well for WWE fans, it would be us.'" In July 2008, the company launched WWE Universe, which currently has more than 590,000 members.

Though it takes time, money, and effort to launch a branded social network, industry pros say it can be worth it. The key is to not just follow a trend, but also to analyze audiences to see if a branded community is the right option.

"The question is build versus join. And yes, companies have to do both," explains Jeremiah Owyang, partner at consulting firm Altimeter Group. "They might be on social networks where friends are, but as they get closer and more attached to a company's products, some might become advocates or might want to be closer to the company."

"We went out there and looked at what our fans were doing after they left our site," Kalinowski says. "We also looked at what our competitors were doing in this space." WWE saw consumers going to Facebook and MySpace both before and after visiting the site, and noticed that competitors' message boards were very popular. "We knew there was a demand out there for it," he adds.

Valuable conversation

In May 2009, Sears Holdings launched MySears and MyKmart, two social networks connected to the company's e-commerce offerings. "We needed to connect with our customers more," says Rob Harles, VP of social media and community at Sears Holdings. "They want to have a bit of social interaction. We really push to understand what's the value of the conversation itself."

Since the launch, more than 400,000 people have signed up as members and they provide reviews on products and services.

Launching a company-hosted social network can provide "deep emotional engagement and commitment with that audience," says Jennifer Houston, SVP and global lead of WE Studio D. "By creating those sites and really passionately delivering true value to those audiences, over time you get closer and closer to that one-to-one relationship with the brand."

Providing that bond is one goal of Sony Community, launched at CES 2009. The site developed out of a blog from Sony, and includes "neighborhoods" where consumers can discuss certain products from the brand. The most trafficked neighborhood is for Sony's notebook brand, Vaio.

"We wanted to better communicate with and really engage fans and tech enthusiasts in a two-way dialogue," says Marcy Cohen, senior manager of communications for Sony Electronics. The company plans to expand its network this year, connecting more to outside social networks and bringing together some of the neighborhoods. The main goal is to add customer value, she says.

Sony allows some community members to do product reviews; Sears lets customers interact with each other while shopping online; and WWE's site promotes its talent with their own profiles and hosts live chats. Even highly regulated industries, like financial services, can benefit from this trend, Owyang says, citing American Express' OPEN forum for small business owners.

"Every industry can benefit from these," he adds. "You just have to be creative."

The benefits of a branded social network Deeper interaction
Consumers go to Facebook or Twitter to interact with friends, but true fans of a brand want to interact with a company more than those sites can offer Customization
Social networking pages for different companies can look very similar, but a company can customize its own social network Better integration
Companies can incorporate social interaction into other elements of the site, such as e-commerce

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