Rules of Engagement

4 Helpful Tips To Connect With Customers Through New Media

Rules of EngagementDistributors are boosting their sales by utilizing innovative means to better engage with and market to clients.

In a survey of more than 3,000 consumers, consulting firm Bain & Co. recently found that customers who engage with companies over social media spend 20% to 40% more money with those businesses than other clients.

Such stats are not lost on Brand Fuel (asi/145025). The Morrisville, NC-based distributor has made engaging clients through social networks a significant priority. And one of the ways that Brand Fuel drives engagement on its Facebook page is through the use of "gamification."

Broadly, it's defined as the use of games and game play dynamics in traditionally non-game settings to compel certain behaviors (in this case, customer engagement). In practice, it involves everything from earning points to winning contests while browsing places like business websites and Facebook pages.

"A study by Social Media Today stated that 65% of people on Facebook connect with brands for contests, games and promotions," says Danny Rosin, co-owner of Brand Fuel. "We are investing in that insight."

The results are more than just fleeting fun. The growing use of online gamification is just one of the innovative ways distributors are fueling greater customer engagement. From smartphone apps and mobile websites to Web-based surveys and creative videos, distributors believe these tech-powered marketing tools help achieve the goal of customer loyalty.

"The longer a customer does business with a company, the more that customer is worth to the company," reads a recent report by Protiviti, a risk and business consultancy, on challenges facing businesses. "This type of customer buys more, requires less time to service, is less price-sensitive, has no start-up cost and may even bring in new customers."

Here are four ways that distributors are successfully marketing to and connecting with customers through new media and innovative strategies.

Game On
For Brand Fuel, gamification centers on running weekly contests on its Facebook page in which participants compete for branded rewards and prizes. In the "What Am I?" contests, the distributor posts obscurely cropped images of products and challenges people to guess what the products are. These posts routinely receive an outpouring of comments. Winners receive the product in question and Brand Fuel-branded merchandise.

Rosin says the most popular "What Am I?" contest involved Alexander Manufacturing's (asi/34040) "Take A Seat," an eco-friendly foldable stool. "The item was new to the market and pulled in client inquiries about costs along with hilarious back-and-forth banter," says Rosin. "Our fan base continues to grow, and our posts are often conversation-starters with our clients and our sales team."

While social media platforms provide a perfect setting for gamification, brands are also working it into their websites. With the help of game software solutions developed by Bunchball, the 2011 MTV Europe Music Awards' official event website was turned into a "MegaFan Competition," resulting in a massive upsurge in views. Once users registered for the site, they earned points by voting for audience choice categories like Best Pop Act, viewing "photo flipbooks" of past shows, and more. Real-world prizes were rewarded to users with the most points, including a grand-prize giveaway trip to the EMAs. As a result, EMA-related page views on MTV's U.K. website shot up 530% year-on-year. Similarly, MTV's mobile and tablet app downloads surged 159%.

Video Makes a Marketing Star
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then maybe a good video is worth a million, especially when it comes to brand-building and engaging customers. While companies have been using videos as part of their marketing strategies for years, industry businesses have of late expanded the quality and scope of their videos in an effort to better engage, educate and entertain.

Few in the industry are leveraging videos with the degree of business-building success attained by Ryonet (asi/528500). The Vancouver, WA-based supplier of screen-printing equipment and supplies has a YouTube channel that has received more than 7.5 million views. "The number-one thing with our videos is customer education," says founder and CEO Ryan Moor, whose YouTube channel is filled with screen-printing education videos that are easy to understand. "If we can educate our customers on what a product does and how to use it successfully, then they will be successful using it, make more money, and hopefully return to us to buy more of it."

While the educational and customer testimonial videos from Ryonet are a hit, what distinguish the company are the elaborately themed – often hilarious – videos that do everything from promoting a sale or event to conveying the company's convivial, customer-centric culture. Often generating many thousands of views, these videos are exemplified by "Go Back to the Future With Ryonet's Yesterday Air".

As the title suggests, the video's concept is based on the Back to the Future movie series. The video (with a bite-sized 2:39 running time) begins with the movie theme music playing as Moor hitches a ride to work by holding onto the back of a truck while he skateboards – similar to the movie's lead character, Marty McFly. Dressed as Marty, Moor, a member of the 2012 Counselor Hot List, arrives at work and fields a call from a nasty customer named Biff – the villain of the movies – who wants screen-printing ink delivered "yesterday."

Ultimately, Moor meets up with the off-kilter scientist Doc, who, like his counterpart in the movies, has turned a DeLorean into a time travel machine. Moor uses the physics-modifying ride to travel back to yesterday and deliver ink to Biff, who is informed his order was delivered the day before by Ryonet's "Yesterday Air." The video concludes with a voiceover saying, "Yesterday Air from Ryonet and silkscreeningsupplies.com: Getting you products when you need them, even if it's yesterday."

With the video, Ryonet creatively conveys it is a company with a positive, fun culture that is committed to doing whatever it can to meet the needs of its customers. That message resonates with screen printers.

"I wish there were a screen-printing supplier over in the U.K. that was so much fun and provided us with this massive range of products," wrote one Britain-based poster on the video's YouTube page. "Ryonet, come to the U.K., my Canadian friend is getting tired of me ordering my (stuff) for him to send over."

The lesson? When customers start viewing their vendors as a likable, relatable partner rather than just another company, chances are they're going to continue to spend their cash there.

Survey Says …
It seems like common sense: Want to know what clients are looking for? Ask them. And yet, companies across industries are notorious for focusing more on pushing product or what they think clients want, rather than finding out what customers need and delivering it.

But as distributors compete in a marketplace where consultative service has become the key distinguishing factor, there has been a sea change in such thinking. Distributors are increasingly discovering the source of what clients truly need to meet their objectives.

To gain that knowledge, many are using surveys to collect valuable customer feedback. It ultimately enables them to build on their service strengths and, if need be, tweak their approach to better provide for clients.

In the past, Overture Premiums and Promotions (asi/288473) had intermittently sent out customer surveys. But the Vernon Hills, IL-based company has become more focused in its surveying over the last year, consistently sending customers an e-mail with a link to a survey seven days after the buyers have received their orders. Containing general service-related questions as well as questions specifically tailored to particular clients, the surveys ask customers to rate Overture's performance and invite feedback on how the distributorship can better meet customers' needs.

It often happens that the surveys are filled out by employees of companies for which Overture provides an online store stocked with apparel and other products. Fortunately, the feedback Overture gets is overwhelmingly positive. What's more, that praise is quantifiable. The surveys allow for an overall rating to be attached to Overture's performance. The distributor can then show that data to the main procurement person it works with, demonstrating that employees buying the products the distributor provides are satisfied. And, crucially, if there are areas where Overture can improve, the distributorship shares that too with the primary contact, creating a refreshing air of transparency.

Additionally, Overture can show that firsthand feedback from the employees buying products indicates that certain items should be added to the online shop. "Since we've become more consistent with our surveys," says Tej Shah, vice president of marketing and e-commerce, "we've seen a general trend where sales have gone up."

APP-ointment Buying
It's a mobile world. And that isn't about to change. By 2014, analysts predict that global smartphone sales will top 1 billion. Meanwhile, International Data Corporation, a market research firm, predicts that sales of mobile tablets will reach 172.4 million units in 2013 and 282.7 million units in 2016.

Given stats like that, it's not surprising that ad specialty businesses are increasingly focused on connecting meaningfully with clients in the mobile realm. From launching apps to creating mobile-optimized websites, distributors want clients to be able to engage with their products and services from phones and tablets.

Priding itself on being at the forefront of technology, Westbury, NY-based Motivators (asi/277780) created an app to make it easier for customers to access information about the company's products and services while on the go. Downloadable from both iTunes and the Google Play store, the Motivators app allows users to browse a gamut of products, from all categories of apparel to hard goods like mugs, pens, luggage and more. After clicking on a product image, users get a description and pricing information. Once on a particular product's page, users can click on the "$ quick quote" or "add to cart" buttons, which route them to a Motivators site where an order can be placed.

"The app gives our customers the flexibility and choice to shop the way they are most comfortable, whether that's via the app, on our mobile site or on the Web," says Kimberly Laffer Nick, director of strategic development for Motivators.

Since Smurk Creative (asi/328698) launched its mobile website, the San Diego-based distributorship has received thumbs-up from clients. "People want information then and there," says CEO Donny Michel. "The site loads quickly and displays just right for a mobile phone or tablet."

On the site, customers can do everything from learning about the distributor's services to checking out products and viewing testimonials. "This year, more than 50% of website traffic will be mobile," Michel says. "That's a lot of people I want to make sure have a good experience on my site."

–E-Mail: cruvo@asicentral.com; Twitter: @chrisr_ASI