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Sep 23, 2008
How To

How to Grow a Customer Forum into a Social Media Site: Add Hands-On Tools

SUMMARY: Online forums are so five years ago! They're a great starting point for dialogue, but today's consumers want more – think social media sites.

Find out how a lawn and garden products company turned a forum-based community for customers into a social media site that's building customer interest, awareness and traffic.
Cruising social media is a valid way to find out how consumers feel about your company. But finding, monitoring, and participating in an overwhelming number of relevant sites can use up a lot of resources.

Rather than chasing conversations, Kip Edwardson, Manager, Interactive Marketing, Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, and his team created a user-friendly platform that lets consumers discuss lawns and gardens, find advice and share tips and photos – all on the Scotts website.

The community has grown into an interactive, consumer-service resource that helps Scotts four ways:

o Attracting more web traffic
o Listening to and connecting with consumers
o Empowering brand advocates to spread their message
o Building gardening interest and expertise

Discover which elements Edwardson and his team added to the Scotts website and how they keep consumers coming back for more.

Adding Tools to Build Community

Scotts has seen robust participation in its forums for about five years. But before launching the community in February, many people were calling customer service with how-to questions that weren’t product-related, like the best ways to lay grass seed or plant a tree.

So Edwardson and his team decided to launch a full-fledged Web 2.0 site to give consumers a Scotts-branded environment to go beyond simple questions and answers.

"We like to refer to it as a virtual fence. You lean across the fence and you ask your neighbor, 'What are you doing in your yard to make it look so nice? I’d like to be able to steal some of those ideas.'"

To ease communication, Scotts added the following tools:

o Interactive profile pages

Every registered visitor is given a profile page where other members can see their recent activity, comments, photos, blog posts and leave a message. The profile pages organize most of the user-generated content across the network.

o Photo sharing

Registered users can upload their photos to be viewed from their profile-pages and in the site's photo gallery. The gallery is organized into 12 categories and allows for commenting, recommending and emailing photos to a friend.

Showing off is a "legacy" of the Scotts company, Edwardson says. Even before the new features were added to the site, people emailed unsolicited photos of their lush lawns and gardens. The photos help drive the community. They’re one of the most popular new elements of the site, says Keri Butler, Director of Public Affairs, Scotts Miracle-Gro Company.

o Dynamic articles

The site is loaded with articles and videos covering topics ranging from lawn care to birds and wild animals. Consumers can rate the articles on a scale of zero to five stars, write a review or click to recommend the article to others. The educational and interactive content informs prospective customers and contributes to community growth.

Tools also help consumers find quick answers to their questions, such as which bugs are in their gardens or what is ailing their plants.

o Blogs galore

Blogs on the site are authored by three groups:
o Members -- Every site member can create their own blog
o Staff -- Some Scotts employees are active bloggers
o Experts -- Adding to the wealth of content, expert bloggers post to the site daily

o Product reviews and ratings

Scotts also added the ability to rate and review products. This option is separated from the other interactive elements. Allowing customers to provide their opinions on products furthers consumer knowledge, builds customer satisfaction and helps the Scotts team learn more about customer preferences.

o Forums

Forums were in existence years before the other interactive features and they are still the most widely used community feature, Edwardson says. This area of the site laid the foundation for the community, and it continues to grow, due in part to the new features.

Make Sure to Monitor the Community

Allowing consumers to easily post comments, blogs and photos does not come without risks. Free services can be open invitations to spammers and know-it-alls who might offer bad advice. Here are some ways the Scotts team keeps the community from being corrupted:

o Employee participation

Scotts' customer-service and research and development employees participate in the community. They answer questions, provide advice and point out inaccuracies, Edwardson says.

"Rather than always having the company response coming from the ivory tower that gets approved and routed and 'This is the way we say things,' [we encourage employees to] be very conversational. If your neighbor asked you that question, how would you respond?"

o Enable self-policing

Inappropriate photos, comments or blog posts can be reported as abuse with a few clicks. If a piece of content receives three complaints, it is automatically removed and reviewed by a Scotts' employee.

Scotts strives to be as off-hands as possible when regulating the community. It depends on active members to report bad content and correct inaccuracies, Butler adds.

Anticipate Launch Challenges

The Scotts team hit two snags while launching their full-fledged social platform. Here are tips for avoiding similar problems:

o Usability issues

Shortly after launch, Edwardson and his team discovered that many members were accidentally clicking to recommend an article. The button looked too much like a hyperlink that took users to another page.

Any service aimed at the general public should be straightforward and easy to use. The best way to predict how easily consumers will navigate your site is to hold usability labs and test relentlessly.

o Tool confusion

Edwardson sees a lot of potential but not much traction in the site’s user-created blogs. This might be due, in part, to a lack of user understanding of the platform.

A blog is best used to document and discuss a person’s ongoing experience with gardening and lawn care. But some users are creating a one-time blog post to ask questions, for which a forum is better.

"So, someone will create a blog and ask, 'Look, I just bought a house, it has tons of weeds and where do I start?' That's not really what a blog is intended for," Edwardson says.

The best way to eliminate tool confusion is education. Explain clearly what each tool is best designed for and then make it easy to put to work.

Useful links related to this article

Scotts Community Screenshots:

How to Build Viral Buzz with a 'Revolutionary' Web 2.0 Community

Pluck: Agency that helped with the launch

Scotts Miracle-Gro Company

See Also:

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