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Case Study: How Low-Cost Conversation Starters Built Community, Generated Leads

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Company: Open Kernel Labs
Contact: Marti Konstant, Vice-President of Marketing
Location: Chicago
Industry: Software
Annual revenue: Confidential
Number of employees: 50

Quick Read

Virtualization-software developer Open Kernel Labs wanted to attract 1,000 members for its branded community. That may seem like a modest goal, especially when you consider the volumes of users that networks such as Facebook and Twitter manage to pull in. However, the entire global audience of Open Kernel Labs consists of fewer than 20,000 people.

Finding and attracting these select users was only part of the challenge. The other was a sparse marketing budget, requiring that the company be resourceful and creative instead of simply relying on traditional, proven channels.

With the help of social-media specialist Cerado, however, the company had no trouble in achieving its goal two months ahead of schedule, and generating more leads than its sales team could handle.


This case study details the low-cost measures the company relied on to achieve those results.

Challenge

Open Kernel Labs (aka OK Labs) is the developer of open-source virtualization software for mobile devices, consumer electronics, and embedded systems. Because the software is actually designed into mobile solutions, the company's target market consists of a niche group of embedded-systems developers who work on the front end of the product development cycle—for example, to optimize the performance of mobile phones and make them more secure.

Beginning in late 2007, OK Labs sought to monetize its open-source initiatives by generating brand and product awareness among the members of that group, identifying their needs, understanding their commercial desires, and finding a way to be considered in their design decisions.

"[O]ur company depends on engineers' researching us and learning about what we bring to market," said Marti Konstant, the company's vice-president of marketing. "As the head of marketing, I needed to understand the behavior of these key influencers. How do they use technology? What sources do they tap to get product information when designing a handset?"

So OK Labs established a branded community forum where embedded-systems developers could meet, learn, discuss, and share. It then sought to attract community members. The company set a goal of reaching 1,000 community members within one year—a significant quest, considering there are fewer than 20,000 such developers worldwide.

Adding to the challenge was a limited marketing budget, which meant OK Labs would need to heavily rely on "street smarts" and low-cost online promotions.

Campaign

To increase interest and engagement in its community, OK Labs partnered with Cerado, a social-media specialist based in Half Moon Bay, CA. After analyzing OK Labs offerings, Cerado suggested the company build a richer experience into its community, leading the company to launch the following initiatives:

A traveling mascot

Taking Cerado's advice to add social objects into the marketing mix, the company purchased several small, green stuffed-animal iguanas to serve as the company mascot, "Iggy Wanna." "Iguana" had been the codename for a previous software release by the company, and green is the company color.

Company representatives were encouraged to take the stuffed-animal iguanas with them to tradeshows and networking sessions, on business trips, sales calls, and even on personal vacations. Then, similar to the traveling-gnome prank, Iggy's travels were captured via photos and uploaded to a dedicated Flickr scrapbook.

GeekTV

Video was also targeted as a medium with viral potential, so the company introduced its own series, called "GeekTV." The videos, posted to both the community site and YouTube, featured tutorials, "chalk talks," webinars, and more on topics of community interest, including detailed product information, presented by company team members.

Company presenters were encouraged to introduce themselves and showcase their personalities as they felt inclined. Here's one example from a staff member who filmed a clip from his alpaca farm:

Using OKL4 on New Boards Version 2 from OK Labs on Vimeo

Signature uniforms

Using a phrase uttered in casual conversation that got everyone chuckling, the company made up T-shirts that read "I operate in Privileged Mode" in bold, white letters on black background so that the words would stand out ("privileged mode" is a technology term that pertains to the company's software).

The shirts were worn by company staff at trade shows and meet-ups and on GeekTV videos. They were also later given away as community contest prizes. The shirts have proven so popular, in fact, that the company has since introduced new phrases to the line, including "Separation [kernel] anxiety" and "[TCB] size matters."

(Un)Corporate blogging

OK Labs also made a push to infuse personality into its company blog by injecting humor into headlines, highlighting Iggy's travels when appropriate and offering lighthearted contests (such as "what did our VP of Product Management have for breakfast?") to win prizes, such as company T-shirts.

An ongoing feature called "Where in the World is Gernot?" was also added to track the travels of company CTO and frequent company-blogger Gernot Heiser, who in addition to extensive business travel took extravagant vacations to the South Pole and other far-off destinations.

News alerts

Community visitors were invited to opt in for email alerts related to new blog postings, company news, upcoming webinars, answers to pressing developer questions, and, of course, Iggy's adventures. Typically, the alerts included 3-4 catchy headlines with links sent out bi-monthly in an attempt to further build the relationship and spur return visits. But by monitoring and tracking clicks on these alerts, the company was also able to determine which topics most interested its audience.

Results

Aided by these initiatives, Open Kernel Labs managed to surpass its goal of attaining 1,000 community members—two months earlier than projected.

The community, combined with a now-thriving company blog, has created so much interest that the company has hired a larger sales team to be able to follow up on incoming leads. Needless to say, profitability has also increased.

Most important, however, is that the company has become the global frontrunner in mobile-phone virtualization and the only competitor in its space with commercial deployments.

Lessons Learned

Let's give them something to talk about...

A limited budget restricted much of the company's marketing activities to the Internet, but Konstant knew she couldn't just rely on search engine marketing and banner advertising, because the OK Labs market doesn't typically respond to such tactics. So she instead invested in creative PR activities that would grab attention, spawn conversation, and generate awareness organically. "Public relations is the perfect social media magnet," said Konstant.

OK Labs's success in creating that buzz came through its willingness to experiment, take risks, incorporate humor, and challenge the preconceived notions of a hardcore tech company. From captivating alerts headlines to videos starring alpacas to snarky T-shirts, OK Labs found low-cost ways to get the conversation started and to draw users in.

We all need the human touch...

These initiatives didn't just spur conversation and viral spread, they have also served to humanize the tech company, add pulse to the community, express the fun company culture, and forge more-personal relationships with users.

As Chris Carfi of Cerado explains, the most successful online communities—including Facebook and Twitter—incorporate elements that help users understand the connections between people and enable them to relate on a fun, personal level. Mundane details about staff's eating habits and features such as "Where in the World is Gernot?" (now referred to as WITWIG by insiders) gives users a friendly view into the organization and helps them feel more connected to both the company and community.

Stuffed or not, Iggy also brings personality and endearment to the community and encourages longer user visits on the site. But OK Labs also made sure that his existence extended beyond the community and into the offline world, where he can interact with customers at meetings, events, and networking sessions and further draw people in.

"Iggy is a more playful persona that makes it easy for people to approach us," said Konstant. "He represents a serious product like ours, in a fun, organic way." Konstant added that customers now often joke about whether Iggy will be attending a particular sales meeting—which demonstrates that the doll, and the personality created for it, are encouraging more congenial relationships between the company and its market.

Hail, hail the gang's all here...

For a branded community, there is no "build it and they will come." Instead, the community requires ongoing, active company engagement. Getting the whole team involved enables even small businesses to keep the conversation going without thoroughly overwhelming valuable company resources. Plus, a better product results when the initiative is embraced at all levels of the organization and individual ideas and personalities are allowed to shine through.

This approach was particularly crucial for OK Labs not only because is it a small organization with limited resources but also because the perspective and involvement of the company's engineers—leading experts in the technology—are also important draws for the intended audience.

By allowing these team members to share in the entire community-development process, the company created its own team-building initiative that employees were happy to participate in and proud to stand behind.

Share your community-building success story—email CaseStudies@MarketingProfs.com.

Related Links

Looking for more community-building inspiration? Check out Why You Are Unpopular Online: Six Ways to Doom Your Community-Building Efforts to learn the most common mistakes people make when they create online communities.


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

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