July 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Getting Together

Some e-retailers are jumping into Web 2.0 with online forums, aiming to create customer loyalty.

Four married couples in the U.S. all met at the same place. They weren’t high school sweethearts. They didn’t find each other in college or at church or at a bar. They met in the online forum of Bodybuilding.com.

“Opposites attract” is not the rule in online forums. The goal of a forum operated by an e-retailer is to bring together people who share the same interests and in turn create a customer base so loyal it rivals the strongest marriages.

Bodybuilding.com built its online forum just two months after it opened shop in 1999, and the forum now has more than 1.1 million members who create 1.3 million posts and 67,000 discussion topics, or threads, every month.

“It’s about becoming the place where people come to talk and learn and meet,” says CEO Ryan DeLuca. “We want to be known as the destination not just for product and content but also to meet others interested in the same things. If I had to pin our continued growth as a company on one thing it would be on building our community online.”

Retailers like DeLuca who have created online forums say they generate traffic, provide valuable customer feedback and build loyalty. They are relatively inexpensive to build, and successful forums are not costly to maintain, in large part because engaged forum members take responsibility for monitoring content.

But forums aren’t for every merchant. They have proven most successful for e-retailers that sell products to people with a passion-pet owners, for example, versus office supplies buyers.

“Enthusiast businesses have a more passionate relationship with their customers,” says Jon Holmquist, chief marketing officer at J.C. Whitney & Co. and general manager of its Stylin’ Trucks e-commerce business, which is testing an online forum and plans an official launch in the fall. “Still, every business has a relationship with its customers, and customers want to have a voice, and businesses need to hear that voice. Online forums are a way to accomplish this.”

Before the dawn of the Internet, people looking for others with similar interests had limited options. Guys into bodybuilding could make acquaintances at the gym. Quilters could meet through a local quilting club.

But the web made possible discussion boards, forums and social networks that attract likeminded people from around the globe This ability to bring people together is at the heart of online forums, which are read by 28% of consumers on at least a monthly basis, according to Forrester Research Inc.’s 2007 Social Technographics Online Survey, which canvassed more than 10,000 U.S. Internet users.

Forums are inexpensive to build and maintain, retailers say. The build is easy because the structure of an online forum is inherently uncomplicated-text entries that branch out from other text entries with slots for uploading images.

Fabric.com paid what it describes as a minimal amount for forum software from vBulletin to create its Sew to Speak online forum. Ongoing costs primarily are a bit of time each week from staff sewing experts who monitor the forum and provide answers and guidance. “The forum has not been a drain on financial or human resources,” says Laurie Eady, marketing director at Fabric.com, which launched its forum in early 2006 and averages 20 new threads and up to 100 new posts a month.

“Overall it doesn’t cost much at all,” Holmquist says. Stylin’ Trucks used software from ONESite Inc. to build its forum. “We have to devote some resources to it like staff monitoring and I.T. maintenance, but this amounts to a very small amount of money.”

Because it runs one of the largest online forums, Bodybuilding.com spends more. About $50,000 a year goes into I.T. maintenance, staff time and additional servers. DeLuca says the gains a retailer will realize from an investment in an online forum can only be measured over an extended period.

“When you’re helping people find what they want and understand what they need to know and meet new people, you’re creating goodwill that you just can’t measure,” he says. “This is a long-term investment that will take some time and a relatively small amount of money, and it’s worth far more than you invest.”

Building a community

When launching a forum, there are many ways e-retailers can prime the pump to elicit participation by customers. First up is promoting the forum on the e-commerce site and in e-mail marketing, retailers say. From there, in-house staff must take the lead by seeding the forum with content as well as questions.

“In the beginning we had employees start a lot of threads, especially about controversial topics to get people talking,” DeLuca says. “One topic was: ‘What do you think about female bodybuilders?’ That got people all riled up.”

Bodybuilding.com then reached out to pros and industry experts, asking them to create topical threads and be active members of the community. “This only helps them because it gives them more of an audience to show their expertise,” DeLuca explains. “The audience benefits from that expertise, which helps fulfill our mission of helping people reach their goals.”

Fabric.com launched Sew to Speak without a name. It decided it would let customers name the forum as a way of creating buzz and getting the ball rolling. Results exceeded expectations, Eady says.

“We used different spots on the web site and in e-mail marketing to advertise the contest, linking customers to a spot in the forum where they could suggest names. Then we set up a poll in the forum where people could vote for the top five we selected. Letting customers name it gave them more ownership of the forum,” she says. “We primed with posts, as well. Our expert sewers on staff got in there and did seeding.”

During the test phase for Stylin’ Trucks, 100 staff members, family and friends are using the forum, seeding it for when it launches to the public in the fall. It also plans to promote the forum on its MySpace page. Additionally, it will be pressing the flesh.

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