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 :-)