Specialized's Riders Club

I've been following Sean Moffitt's Buzz Canuck blog for a while now -- Sean's a smart guy and the site's always a good read. There's a great post from last October that has an interview with Chris Matthews -- Global Marketing Integration Manager for Specialized Bikes -- about their own online community, the Specialized Riders Club.

The site has a few different features -- people can create profiles, post their favourite rides using Google Maps, keep a journal, etc. -- but at the core, its goal is to help you find cycling routes in your area. Nice, simple, and very useful. And, like many other user-generated sites, the community gets richer as more people join and post their own content. I searched for Vancouver, Canada and found two in my area. The cool thing was that one of the routes was posted by a local bike shop, Velocity Cycles, that has their own ride twice a week, inviting anyone interested to join them. It's amazing how a big company's marketing exercise could have a trickle-down effect to a small shop wanting to get some local exposure. As luck might have it, among other brands, Velocity Cycles also carries Specialized. Best case scenario, someone thinking of upgrading their bike will start showing up for these weekly rides, get to know and trust the folks from Velocity, and when it's time to crack open the wallet, they'll choose to go with Specialized. Worst case scenario, that same person finds a decent route in their neighbourhood, starts posting a few of their own, maybe meets some other cyclists in the process, and all with Specialized's help. That's not a bad place for a brand to be.

And that leads to my favourite part of the interview. Chris says that when it comes to this online community, their objective is "simple, and really honest: we want to help people ride more, more often". I don't know if that's Specialized's overall brand vision, but it would be cool if it was. Because a company that wants to help you get out there on your bike more often and get some fresh air in your lungs, gradually starts looking less like a "company" and more like a group of people you wouldn't mind meeting up with for a ride and a beer (or protein shake). And if they're that passionate about cycling, well then they can probably build a decent bike, too.

I love this approach to marketing. In fact, I'd love it if Specialized went even further. What if instead of being an offshoot site, the Riders Club community was at the core of specialized.com? Right now, the mothership site is so down-to-business, leading straight into things like bikes, components, shopping cart, etc. Now, all of those things are necessary and it's good that they're easily reachable from the homepage, but it's like jumping right to the sale as soon as I walk into your store -- it's very impersonal. On the other hand, the Riders Club site is all about personality, but it has very little information about Specialized as a company or their product. If the online community was the main metaphor that the rest of the site revolved around, a lot of people would come to specialized.com before even deciding that Specialized is the brand they're interested in. And as a byproduct, the company would get gallons more Google juice from all of the cycling-related conversations happening within the community.

The challenge at that point would be to figure out a strategy that incorporated Specialized product into the site. One option would be to add a "my gear" option to everyone's community profile. This wouldn't necessarily have to be limited to Specialized bikes, but those that did, could directly link to the online catalogue for more detailed product information. And given that a good number of the community members are Specialized employees and sponsored riders, you'd get a lot of great cross-promotion. Of course, all of this would be supported by a traditional navigational structure leading to all of the same content, but it would be interesting to see which path actually generated more qualified leads.

Before I stop rambling on about this, I think there's one more benefit to this approach. I came across yet another Specialized site today. This one is iamspecialized.com, and from the copy in the "about" section, it appears to be dedicated to featuring athletes sponsored by Specialized. If the same effort went into integrating this content in the Riders Club community (which would actually be the backbone of specialized.com) everything would be integrated under one umbrella, and Specialized would keep building equity in a single URL (can you even remember the other two URLs?), and they wouldn't have to keep spending the time and resources to maintain (at least) three (expensive looking) sites!

Alright, enough back-seat driving from me. I'm sure Specialized has thought of all of this at one point or another and they have their own reasons for doing what they're doing. As for me, I'm going for a bike ride :-)


On Figuring Out Cluetrain

As I'm working away at figuring out our interactive strategy, one of my goals is to take advantage of social media as much as possible. In some cases, it's for pure, functional, "why reinvent the wheel" reasons, like using Flickr to manage and share images with our customers. On the other hand, a brand like ours has a ton of potential for social media engagement, and even without us doing much in this arena, there's already a good amount of online chatter -- most of it positive -- about us.

In the few cases where we've launched something to see how it would work, the response has been great. It seems as if there's a desire to talk to -- and about us -- and as soon as something appears to address that need, it's very well received. For example, a couple of months ago, we launched a simple blog. We didn't see it as a huge risk since we were investing a bit of money for set-up and our own time to update content. In the two months that we've been up, we're averaging about five new posts per week, traffic has gotten to a nice daily average, we've received over 600 comments, and we're slowly reaching that nice area where our visitors are starting to answer each others' questions via threaded comments.

None of this is earth-shattering news and you could definitely say that we're late in the game with even something as simple as blogging. The point is that when it comes to social media, a lot things are really hard to predict. You can build something with the best of intentions but if no one shows up, if people don't start engaging with you, then it's all seen as a waste of time and money. Compared to traditional marketing, like TV or print, you don't have the same issue because you can create the ads, buy your media, and you can be fairly certain that a given number of people will see your message. I guess this is one of the challenges we face sometimes in trying to get organizational buy-in for things like social media. It's hard to sign over a budget, take a leap, and hope that people show up.

Then again, maybe the best way to approach this is small and slow. As with our fledgling little blog, you try something, see if it works, and if it does, you do a bit more. This is what made me think of the cluetrain manifesto on my way home the other day. I've read it a few times now, and for years I've had a tough time really understanding it. I mean, on paper it sounds fantastic. Especially for anyone in this industry, you read cluetrain and nod your head knowingly as you go along. Then, you consider putting the same ideas into practice and getting sign-off from your CEO and the nodding slows down a bit. I guess it's because the ideas in the manifesto challenge the way that business has been done for decades, if not centuries.

So here's the thought I had. Maybe "figuring out" cluetrain isn't about sitting down and crafting a social media strategy that takes full advantage of all these media and audience shifts. Maybe it's a pipe dream to have one of these strategies sail right through C-level approvals. Maybe it's more like learning a new language. If you didn't grow up speaking English, you wouldn't jump straight into reading Shakespeare or Chaucer -- you'd start with "Jane has an apple" and move on from there. Maybe the best approach for us is to launch a handful of these small "Jane has an apple" initiatives over the next year; measure and tweak along the way; try to directly learn as much about (and from) our audience as possible; get the rest of the organization more comfortable with our presence in this space; and take another run at "King Lear" twelve months from now.

What do you think? What's been your approach to figuring out how social media fits into your marketing mix?