August 27, 2008, 12:00 AM

Education and entertainment

(Page 2 of 3)

Shoemaker Vans’ worldwide cult already is highly engaged with the brand. For example, customers give their favorite shirts to the retailer, which turns the shirts into shoes. Artists paint the shoes and resell them. Vans decided in October it was time to create a space where Vans fans around the globe could congregate to see the latest designs and hear others’ shoe stories.

“There’s a strong emotional connection to the brand,” says Doug Palladini, vice president of marketing. “This emotional connection led people to begin posting content online on their MySpace and Facebook pages and on their own blogs.”

So Vans, which keeps an eye on how other bloggers and social networkers are mentioning the brand via social media monitoring services firm Cymfony Inc., picked up the ball its customers had already put into play and ran with it. It uses the Blogger.com free service for its blog.

Marketing coordinator Nikki Scoggins writes the posts. About one-third of her time is spent on the blog-scouring the Internet for consumers’ Vans stories, working with others in the company on product and design news, communicating with customers to get post suggestions and photos, and attending company-sponsored and other events to interview aficionados in the field, where she blogs via iPhone.

Finding bloggers

Palladini placed Scoggins in charge of writing blog posts because he was confident not just in her writing skills but also in her knowledge of the company, its products and its customers.

“The most important thing a retail blogger should have is an intrinsic understanding of why your customers value what you sell,” Palladini says. “That is far and away the most critical part.”

Like Vans, Muttropolis uses its marketing department to manage its blog. And like Palladini, McCulley says retail bloggers must know the brand and its products inside-out. But Muttropolis also plans to go outside the company for some blog posts. It will be asking veterinarians, trainers and holistic pet practitioners it partners with to be guest bloggers.

Whether in house or out, the persons blogging for a retail organization must want to be doing it in the first place, says Johnston of Garmin. “These have to be people who do not see it as a chore but instead as a fun thing to do that’s personal to them on something they’re passionate about,” he says. Garmin found seven volunteers within the organization to routinely blog.

“You would be able to see it on the blog if it came through as drudgery,” says Jake Jacobson, senior media relations specialist and one of the bloggers. “If someone felt it was only part of their job requirements and didn’t have enthusiasm for it, the tone would come through.”

Writing right

What’s exciting for the writers must also be exciting for the readers. The art of crafting an engaging blog post is critical to the success of a retail blog. Garmin, Vans and Muttropolis all say that while blog post subjects must vary, the best are personal.

Garmin, for example, gives some of its bloggers regular features. Peg’s Posts on Fridays gives one Garmin staff member, a tri-athlete, a venue to discuss fitness and sports-and how fitness-related GPS products can help. In addition to talking about her own training and experience with GPS products, she profiles customers and athletes.

“We actually talk to the readers instead of treating them like customers,” Jacobsen says. “We tell stories. There’s usually a product tie-in, like a fitness watch. But because it’s a real person telling their own story, it’s not advertising-speak. It’s coming from someone people can relate to.”

On Mondays the retailer features Ask Garmin, where it lets readers guide content. Readers can e-mail Garmin questions they have about products, previous posts or any subject related to GPS. Garmin blogging staff sorts the questions, judging which would be of greatest interest to a wider audience by identifying themes.

Scoggins at Vans strives to get customer stories on the blog. She asks for input from blog readers, seeks stories from fans on Vans’ MySpace page, scours individuals’ blogs through search engine Technorati, and visits with customers at special events, such as snowboarding competitions. At one event, Scoggins met a young woman who looked like she really could use a new pair of shoes.

“She had the most ratty, beat-up pair of Vans. She said she had them for 10 years and told me this long story about what they meant to her,” Scoggins says. “Then I found out she was an artist and she filled me in on some of the things she was working on. So I had a great story that was a glimpse into the life of an artist and how she has grown up with her one pair of shoes.”

Scoggins adds that pop culture and the Internet itself show that being personal on blogs is key. “When you look at the rise of things like reality TV and social networks,” she says, “you easily see that people like to hear stories about other people.”

Don’t be pushy

Whether it’s an educational post about how people use GPS technology as part of their fitness routines or an entertaining post with an unusual video of dogs and cats in action, retailers with blogs advise not to push products too hard. Including a link to relevant products is fine, they say, but blog readers should not be presented with sales pitches.

“We have an unspoken rule: The blog is not for pimping products. It’s about educating, entertaining and engaging pet parents, our customers,” McCulley says. “When we identify there is a need-increased awareness about allergies with certain foods, what can I do to stop my pets chewing, or behavioral issues-we do a blog post about the issue and mention some available solutions. But the selling is not the gist of our posts.”

Garmin’s Jacobsen wrote a post on how a GPS fitness watch helped with his marathon training, but the focus was on the training, not urging readers to buy the watch.

“You have to write from a user’s perspective, not a seller’s perspective,” he says. “For the fitness watch, I wrote about how I used it in training and how it helps me reach my personal goals as opposed to rattling off the same features you would see in advertising copy.”

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