May 2, 2008, 12:00 AM

We-commerce

(Page 2 of 4)

“I realize via social networking I may only communicate with 25,000 people this year. But to me those communications allow for a much richer relationship,” says Cindi Bigelow, president of Bigelow Tea. “I can do an e-mail campaign or direct mail piece to millions of consumers but never establish a direct relationship that creates a tighter bond like I can with social networking.”

Bigelow Tea’s Facebook and MySpace pages showcase videos and pictures of tea lovers and products and facilitate customer interaction and feedback. On Facebook it has 140 “fans,” users who link to businesses’ pages, and on MySpace it has 600 “friends,” users who affiliate themselves with a page. Facebook’s “friends” are users who link to pages of individuals. Businesses that establish social network pages typically set them up so they are visible to everyone within a social network, not just friends or fans; as a result, the true number of social networkers who visit a page can be significantly higher.

On YouTube, Bigelow Tea’s video of Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre and sports announcer Phil Simms extolling the virtues of Bigelow’s teas has racked up more than 2,700 views, and its video of Cindi Bigelow showing how to make a perfect cup of tea almost 900.

“What is wonderful about MySpace, Facebook and YouTube is they give us the opportunity to get our story out in a big way while also connecting directly with consumers,” Bigelow says.

An outside builder

To design and create its Facebook and MySpace pages, Bigelow Tea turned to its marketing and public relations firm, Creative Concepts Consultants, which specializes in social media. The firm worked with Cindi Bigelow and the retailer’s in-house marketing team to craft presences on the two networks. The cost for building and maintaining the social networking presences is built into Creative Concepts’ total annual marketing and public relations budget of between $50,000 and $100,000, Bigelow says.

The MySpace page resembles a conventional web site, with a large company logo, an ample selection of photos and videos, an area devoted to “Top 10 Tea Tips,” graphical links to the e-commerce site and blog, and information shown on all MySpace pages, including pictures of friends and links for MySpace functions.

The Facebook page includes the same kind of content but in the highly structured format of all the social network’s pages. Links on the Facebook page, like those on the MySpace page, take users to sections holding additional content and to the e-commerce site and blog.

Bigelow and Creative Concepts routinely update the tea retailer’s social network pages with fresh content, which they describe as a must for any social networking endeavor.

“If you do not keep network content fresh, you might as well not do it at all. It makes the company look like you don’t really care,” Bigelow says. “This is not an area you dabble in, because people on Facebook and MySpace are serious and you have to be a true partner with them, keeping content fresh, up to date and sincere.”

So far, so good, is the verdict for Bigelow Tea’s Facebook and MySpace pages: The number of friends and fans has been increasing by 10% to 20% every month, and these individuals are driving increased traffic and sales on the e-commerce site, the retailer says.

Man’s best friend

Tea drinkers may be passionate, but few people are as enthusiastic about a subject as dog lovers. This is why PetsUnited decided to go for a walk into a social network. It first stepped into social media with a blog and online forum. The enthusiasm of customers in those venues made it an easy decision, the retailer says, for Dog.com to branch out into social networking.

“Social networking is a natural extension of what we’re trying to do,” says Patterson of PetsUnited, which also operates e-commerce sites for other pets.

PetsUnited launched a social networking page in fall 2007. It has since gained more than 9,300 friends, who post a massive amount of pictures and videos of their canine best friends. The retailer went with MySpace-though it plans to launch a Facebook page-to reach out to young people, a demographic found more on MySpace than Facebook.

“Our core demographic is females 35 to 50 years old with a household income above $75,000, so we’re not doing this for sales today, we’re doing this to prime the pump for sales tomorrow,” Patterson explains. “We want MySpace users to come away from our page with a strong feeling for Dog.com so we will be top of mind as they age.”

The majority of Dog.com’s MySpace page, which took a week for programmers and design staff to build and takes three hours a week for a staff member to monitor, is dedicated to a seemingly endless list of friends’ posts that include pictures and videos. On top are links to the retailer’s blog, online forum and e-commerce site, along with a featured product of the week, a Free Swag contest, and the Daily Howl, often silly thoughts from the staff at Dog.com.

“One of our younger staff members who is very adept at social networking does the writing for it, going after the younger audience,” Patterson says. “What’s nice is we don’t have to take ourselves quite as seriously in this vehicle.”

Adding applications

Like PetsUnited, most retailers in social networks today are creating pages or channels. The big dog, however, is taking a much different approach.

In March, Amazon.com Inc. launched two applications, Amazon Giver and Amazon Grapevine, on Facebook. Social network applications enable all kinds of sharing and interactions and are listed in their own section of a network. Facebook and MySpace users can download an application into their pages; downloading automatically notifies friends of the addition and allows users to invite friends to download the same application.

When friends have downloaded the same application, they then share the functionality of the small program. Applications run the gamut, from sharing content including photos and videos, playing games together, listing apartment rentals, selling unwanted event tickets, comparing movie reviews-the list goes on. Facebook and MySpace offer thousands of applications designed by users, companies and consulting firms that specialize in social network application building.

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