June 15, 2009, 12:00 AM

Social networking proves positive but challenging for GiftTree.com

Measuring the results of social networking is not easy, says co-founder and CEO Craig Bowen.

More than a year after launching social networking, online gifts retailer GiftTree.com is finding the marketing strategy a positive, yet challenging, experience, says CEO and co-founder Craig Bowen.

Bowen, who says he is accustomed to judging the success of traditional marketing campaigns on metrics such as sales and web site visits, finds that measuring the results of social networking is less precise.

"It`s harder to get information and metrics from this type of activity than most people think," he says. "It`s almost downright impossible. And it drives someone like me crazy."

But the insights gained from customer comments on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media have proved invaluable, Bowen says.

"I read as much as I possibly can from the dialogue and interactions we have with customers," he says. "That`s why I keep saying, `Okay, we`ll continue with this,` because sometimes it`s so insightful."

GiftTree, No. 405 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, has a staff member dedicated to social networking, aided by other employees who post comments, product information, contests and videos on the retailer`s blog, competitors` blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networks.

"We go to Facebook and talk about customer experience, new products, products that customers have developed and why," Bowen says. "We will talk, for example, about Mother`s Day, why you love your mother, what`s special about her, what you`re going to give her, and just trying to get people to talk about emotional things."

But it`s often difficult to swing emotional discussions about Mother`s Day back to talking about specific gifts, he says.

However, consumer comments on GiftTree.com`s blog and other social networking sites have alerted Bowen to previously undiscovered minor technical problems with the site, frustration with some of GiftTree`s processes, and suggestions and concerns about products.

In one case, a customer comment led GiftTree to add the option of personalization for wind chimes so customers could send messages of sympathy or bereavement. "It`s been a great seller," Bowen says. "Wind chimes aren`t typically sold to be engraved. In trying not to be the typical gift company, these types of things are very valuable to us, help us separate ourselves."

Despite the challenges, Bowen says he focuses on the long-term goal of building relationships with customers. "I read the comments sometimes and I`m surprised at how engaged people are," he says. "It has been positive."

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