February 17, 2010, 12:00 AM

GNC designs an online community to better engage customers

GNC launched an online community two weeks ago that allows its fans to discuss GNC’s offerings—and how its products fit with fans’ regimens. The goal? Increasing consumers’ engagement with the site.

GNC, a multichannel retailer of health and wellness products, launched an online community two weeks ago that allows its fans to discuss GNC’s products-and how those products fit with fans’ regimens. The site also features ratings and reviews and a space for consumers to post questions and answers to those questions.

The goal? Increasing consumers’ engagement with the site.

"The supplement space is confusing," said Christy Clark, GNC senior vice president, e-commerce, at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability 2010 Conference, in a session entitled "Case study: Creating a community and more." "And we have regulatory restrictions in terms of what we can say and respond to," she added. "The community is a way to allow consumers to talk to each other about their regimens, successes and failures, which is very valuable. Maybe even more valuable than we as a corporation could tell them."

The data backs up Clark’s claim. A recent comScore survey found that nearly one-third of consumers said that social media played a part in their buying decisions.

Getting people to post content, such as questions and answers, or their supplement regimen, isn’t hard-as long as you’re seeking information that is relevant and rewarding for the consumer, said Dorian Sweet, vice president and executive creative director of TrueAction, part of GSI Commerce Inc.

The impact of the changes is that when customers seek information, such as answers to questions about a particular product, they do so within the walls of GNC, said Sweet. "It’s not about Googling to find an answer," he said. "It’s right there in the GNC environment."

Despite the potential benefits, building a community can be challenging because the retailer loses its ability to control what is said on its site. "On the Internet, nothing is sacred, so you have to be cautious but you also have to be courageous to engage in the conversation," Sweet said. It’s worth that risk, however, because it’s better to be involved in the conversation-so you can act on shoppers’ feedback-than to fail to know or understand what shoppers are thinking.

That being said, it’s difficult to measure its return on investment, said Clark. But, she added, if they are more engaged with the site and return to the page’s community features more often, it should ultimately boost the bottom line.

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