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Case Study: How Branded Social Communities Help Sony Increase Consumer Engagement, Loyalty... and Sales!

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Company: Sony Electronics
Contact: Mildred Center, Director of Web Services at Sony Electronics
Location: San Diego, CA
Industry: Personal electronics, B2C
Annual revenue: $2,147,500,000
Number of employees: 26000

Quick Read:

About half of all Americans say that companies not only should have a social media presence but also should interact with customers via social media, according to a Cone survey conducted in late 2008.

Sony Electronics rolled out a series of online, community-focused features in 2008, including electronics-related courses and tutorials, forums and discussion boards, contests, and more—all aimed at providing value for, and making a connection with, personal electronics users of all brands.

The endeavor is already paying off with high usage rates, increased insight into consumer preferences, consumer loyalty and advocacy for Sony products, and month-after-month growth in product sales.


Challenge

Some 59% of Americans who use social media (approximately 60% say they do) report that they interact with brands via social media, according to the Cone 2008 Business in Social Media Study fielded by Opinion Research Corporation in September 2008.

Moreover, 41% say they prefer that companies solicit product/service feedback via social media, 56% say they feel better served when they can directly interact with brands via social media, and 37% say companies should develop new ways for consumers to interact with their brands via social media.

In 2003, Sony Electronics debuted the Sony 101 learning center, an informational Web resource featuring six free online courses on general digital imaging, personal computing, and home/personal entertainment topics. The ultimate goal of the site was to convert customers and drive purchase consideration through value-based content that did not tout Sony products specifically but, instead, aimed to build trust and forge consumer connections with the brand.

In 2008, after several years of growing success, Sony endeavored to enhance the site (which by that time had been renamed "Backstage 101"), in order to achieve the following five strategic initiatives:

  1. Transforming the site into a branded social community and increasing awareness
  2. Engaging more consumers, growing member registration, and increasing return visits to the site
  3. Retaining high-value global segments such as "innovation enthusiasts," who desire the latest technological features and highest performance
  4. Bolstering consumer loyalty and advocacy
  5. Providing increased value to the Sony Electronics business and its retailer base

Campaign

Sony worked with Powered, a social-media marketing firm based in Austin, Texas, to create and launch the following in 2008:

Backstage 101

Backstage 101 was re-launched in April 2008 as a branded community and social-networking site with dynamic content and community features. The site now includes more than 100 interactive courses and tutorials, plus articles and videos, for four areas of interest: personal computing, home entertainment, digital photography, and digital video.

The content is non-promotional, designed to appeal to everyone from beginners to savvy users, presented by industry experts, refreshed quarterly, and selected based on community feedback (through forums and discussion boards, user interactions with course instructors, and feedback provided via two annual user-based studies and routine surveys presented to users upon completion of a course or tutorial).

"Our content is shaped around what users need...something that benefits them personally," said Mildred Center, Sony's director of Web Services, adding that, for instance, "Cannon owners can get the same benefits."

In addition, registered users can rate and review any of the content offered; participate in forums and individual course discussion boards; tag other users' reviews or discussion posts; share content on Digg, Delicious, Technorati, etc.; add the site's and forum's RSS feeds to their RSS readers; invite friends to the site; and more.

Sony has also created modified versions of Backstage 101 to be incorporated into retailer Web sites and included on the company's CyberScholar site, which is used as an online training and certification resource for Sony sales associates.

Digital Darkroom

In August 2008, Sony launched its "Digital Darkroom" community within Backstage 101's Digital Photography 101 section.

The Digital Darkroom is a community space for users to upload and showcase their photos; view, rate, and comment on others' photos; compete for Sony gift certificates in a monthly photo contest; participate in forums and share techniques; access best-practice videos, tutorials, and articles; take on photography assignments designed to hone a user's skills; and attain advice from other enthusiasts, professional photographers, and Sony.

Frontline Community

Sony's Frontline Community, launched in October 2008, allows registered users to access insider blogs, test Sony products, and help shape future Sony products by providing feedback directly to the Sony product development team through polls, surveys, and discussion/focus groups.

(Sony also plans to roll out the Electronics Blog Community, planned for January 2009, which will cover Sony product news, announcements and events.)

Results

In line with the company's five strategic goals for 2008, Sony has been able to achieve the following:

  • Transforming Backstage 101 into a branded social community and increasing awareness: The company's addition of rich media and community features has garnered media coverage by the likes of Brandweek and 1to1 Magazine, in addition to attracting consumers.
  • Engaging more consumers, growing member registration, and increasing return visits to the site: Year over year, in 2008 Backstage 101 experienced a 388% increase in the number of user engagements, 34% growth in member registration, a 31% increase in unique visits, and 179% more repeat visits.
  • Retaining high-value global segments: Return visits accounted for 20% of all traffic in the first half of 2008, compared with 10% for the first half of 2007. And 15% of users who registered on the site prior to 2008 remain active. Currently, 90% of users match Sony's target user profile, and 53% are considered "innovation enthusiasts." In addition, 79% of users say they plan to purchase a consumer electronics product within six months.
  • Increasing consumer loyalty and advocacy: The program has a 90% user-satisfaction rating, and 78% of users report that they are more likely to purchase a Sony product as a result of Backstage 101. Sony's NPS (Net Promoter Score) for 2008 came in at 44%, with 59% of users classified as "promoters" who are likely to recommend Sony electronics to a family member, friend, or coworker.
  • Providing increased value to the Sony Electronics business: The number of users claiming to have purchased a Sony Electronics product grew to 36% for the first half of 2008 (prior to the launch of Digital Darkroom and Frontline Community), compared with 20% for the first half of 2007, and Center reports that sales on the Sony Web site "continue to increase month over month." In addition, survey completion is up 12% this year, providing Sony with valuable additional consumer insight. And retail syndication along with the addition of Backstage 101 to the company's CyberScholar site are allowing Sony to better support its retail relationships.

Lessons Learned

Sony's campaign illustrates several of the Web services' best-practices for social media marketing as cited by Gartner:

Magnetic

Gartner states that a social-media campaign's purpose should be to lure people to participate and provide them with something of personal value. Sony's program provides direct value to users with content that (a) can be appreciated by Sony users and non-Sony users alike, (b) is offered by industry experts in laymen's terms and varying formats (video, text, etc.), and (c) evolves to consistently reflect current user interests.

"It's really important for us that the communities reflect the 'what's in it for me?' for the consumer," said Center.

Community-driven

Sony ensures that significant value also comes directly from the community itself, by leveraging user feedback as well as behavior to determine content, and by allowing users to choose their activities, share their stories, and advise or learn from others... all on their own terms.

"Once you let consumers make the decisions in terms of what they want to learn about and research, then you're likely to get a better return on your money," said Center.

Measurable

Sony uses biannual user studies, regular surveys, user ratings and reviews, and backend metrics to determine which features provide the best value for both community and business.

"Our biannual user-base study and routine surveys provide insight into how successfully we are achieving our objectives and how to better optimize our sites by providing insight into site behavior, ongoing custom research, and voice-of-customer data," noted Center.

Aligned

Sony was careful to also support its own business needs in developing the consumer-centric program and used Forrester's POST method to ensure a well-defined purpose and comprehensive approach:

  • People: Through surveys, user studies, and the moderation of forums and user interactions, Sony is able to both better understand its customer profile and stay on top of consumer preferences. "We are getting great consumer insights," said Center. "We're finding out how we need to shape our business and what products we need to provide and improve upon."
  • Objectives: Sony did not overlook the importance of defining its business objectives and tailored its content and features to carry those through. "Our Backstage 101 custom content plans are aligned with Sony's marketing objectives to drive loyalty and advocacy and influence purchase through engagement," noted Center.
  • Strategy: Sony partnered with a social-media marketing agency that has as its core competency the creation of relevant engagement between users and brands. It then worked closely with that team to develop a program that would "talk with [and not to] the consumer" and deliver "value-added content that educates and aids the consumer in their purchase decisions."
  • Technology: Sony developed scalable Web 2.0 features that can both support its expanding user base and easily adapt to others uses (such as the retailer and sales support sites) for indefinite growth.

(Have you recently embarked on your own innovative social media marketing campaign? Tell us about it at CaseStudies@MarketingProfs.com.)

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Kimberly Smith is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. Reach her via kims@marketingprofs.com.

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