February 28, 2007, 12:00 AM

Birds of a Feather

(Page 2 of 2)

The strategy is part of the retailer’s emphasis on “entertainment marketing,” says David Seifert, director of operations and direct marketing. In stores the concept takes the form of enormous fish tanks and other outdoor-related spectacles; online, it’s a chance to trade fish tales and equipment suggestions with fellow outdoors enthusiasts.

The forums are six years old and a cornerstone of the library. Regular library visitors generate significant BassPro.com traffic, Seifert says. “They frequent the site almost twice as much as regular shoppers who come in to browse,” he says. “If you’re just a shopping site, people come only when they want to buy something. We’re not just a shopping site-people come for the content. But the retail navigation is available everywhere in case they decide they want to buy something.” BassPro.com spends 20% of its web advertising dollars and uses ad space on its site promoting content.

BassPro.com forums don’t score high on natural search because of search limitations in the merchant’s forum software, Seifert says. The company is switching to an IBM platform that helps search engine spiders better crawl content; that should raise natural search results based on forum content, he adds.

Having seen the power of shopper-generated content, BassPro.com and PetsUnited are launching major forum revamps later this year. BassPro.com plans to integrate forums with customer ratings and reviews so discussions on picking the right equipment, for example, link directly to product reviews of items being discussed.

Further, both retailers plan to transform forums into more elaborate social networking vehicles, with sections to post pictures of the latest catch or videos of pets in training. “We want to be a one-stop shop,” says Patterson of PetsUnited, “for whatever your interests and enthusiasms are.”

Elizabeth Gardner is a Riverside, Ill.-based freelance business writer.

A forums forum

The question: What advice would you offer fellow e-retailers considering adding forums? PetsUnited, Bodybuilding.com and Bass Pro Shops agree on some general guidelines:

- A subject that inspires passion. Wine, yes. Coffee, maybe. Milk, not so much.

- A subject for which there’s plenty to discuss: the subject itself (especially ones involving collecting or connoisseurship); equipment and supplies; and common problems where multiple heads are better than one. Anecdote-friendly subjects (pets, children, sports, travel) also supply fertile discussion ground.

- A sponsor that makes itself scarce. While forum participants are happy to buy stuff, generally they don’t want input from a sponsor. It’s important to avoid both overt commercialism and the temptation to censor negative comments about the retail operation.

- Volunteer moderators to keep discussions on track and avert flame wars. A forum that doesn’t need oversight probably is one that’s not getting enough traffic to justify its existence. Retailers can enlist a strong community member in addition to or instead of an employee.

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