Thursday, June 14, 2007

Trialogue brands

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Last week, I wrote about how the emergence of the trialogue is fundamentally altering the dynamics of engagement online.  This three-way exchange between consumers and with brands has made itself felt right across marketing, influencing the way that price, distribution, promotion and even the product itself is created.

This is the point where user-generated content meets brands, and it’s an area fraught with difficulty for the unwary and rich with opportunity for the creative.

Most of the focus on user-generated content has been on the media phenomenon it has created.  Google buying YouTube for £850m was the richest of a series of UGC media brand acquisitions that have included Flickr (bought by Yahoo), MySpace (NewsCorp) and (CBS).

Other media owners have watched with envy as audiences have flocked to these sites, and brands have looked on perplexed – knowing the value of that audience (they’re hard to find elsewhere) but conscious that this isn’t simply a medium in which you can just advertise.

And whilst some have exported familiar techniques from the traditional armoury, running quizzes and competitions on MySpace, others have taken a radical approach, building the trialogue into the very fabric of their products.  The products I’ve chosen here are about as far from being digital as it’s possible to be – you don’t need to be virtual to take advantage of the trialogue.

When I was a kid, Lego was a fantastically creative toy that inspired endless innovation – you could build anything, as long as it was essentially square.  But now Lego have built the trialogue into their brand.  Lego Factory allows web users to design their own kits and order the parts, even customising the packaging.  But it also lets them share their designs and discuss them, building a community that helps Lego to stay close to their enthusiasts.  

Whilst running is a competitive sport, most training is done alone.  But Nike+ has turned a solo activity into a social phenomenon.  A sensor placed in your shoe sends data on your run to your iPod, which shows your distance run, calories burned and so on.  But when you synchronise the iPod with your computer, it uploads those details to the website, where it’s shared with thousands of other runners.  

When I looked last night, over 35,000 runs had been recorded in the past 24 hours, and people were mapping their routes, challenging each other and competing in vast global 10k runs.  As you’d expect, music is integral to the experience, and the iTunes playlists of top athletes can be bought from the store, whilst charts are compiled from runners’ favourite powersongs.

Any retailer will tell you how hard it is to predict demand for individual lines.  Regardless of the sophistication of predictive models, trend-spotters and other sooth-sayers, there are always things you thought would shift like hot cakes but instead just take up shelf space.  Less frequently, but just as frustrating, are those at the other end of the scale – surprise hits that customers just can’t get enough of, and inevitably are on a six-week lead-time from the Philippines. 

How great it would be if you just sold things that people like.  Better still, if you only made things people like, and knew they’d buy them.  Threadless, the online t-shirt store, carries only designs its users have uploaded – and manufactures only those that get a critical mass of votes.  You won’t see them having sales to shift that unmovable stock. 

A clothing brand, a toy, a sports shoe.  Each has empowered a community of its consumers, and by connecting them together has itself benefited.  But these aren’t just ‘soft’ benefits.  They’re driving new revenue streams, repeat purchase and real engagement – consumer relationships whose strength is founded not in the transient moment of a product need, but in the enduring nature of humans to be social animals.