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Companies are turning to to build a personal communication with consumers.
 
What do 's , Cadbury India's and have in common with Coca-Cola, Harley Davidson, and LEGO?
 
All are highly dependent on brand communities, which give consumers an online platform to express their views, opinions, exchange information based on the brand, its features or any other related experiences.
 
Already immensely popular internationally, social network marketing is fast catching on in India as well. Tapping into consumer peer groups who communicate regularly through the Internet is proving, in some cases, to be even more effective than mere advertising, by creating loyal consumer bases and providing real time consumer-to-consumer interaction.
 
It's not just blogs and virtual communities where customers can exchange notes; interactive websites that centre on specific brands are also being created that entice both brand loyalists as well as curious potential customers.
 
"At present, all products offer features that are almost the same as others. To gain strong brand loyalties, companies are looking at the online space to develop value that is different from other brands," says , vice-president, Ogilvy One, Ogilvy & Mather's online marketing arm.
 
International brands realised the power of online communities several years earlier. Which is how the LEGO, Harley Davidson and Coca-Cola communities gained currency.
 
In India, though, the revolution didn't start until around a couple of years ago, when virtual communities like myspace.com and batchmates.com started catching people's attention.
 
The last few months have been particularly busy, though, with online initiatives becoming the medium of choice for several Indian brands.
 
Brands like Cadbury's Dairy Milk, TVS Apache, Chevrolet SRV, Coca-Cola India and so on have turned to the Internet either to promote their latest ad campaigns or for feedback on their new launches.
 
"The web is fast moving from a publishing mode to a participation mode. It is a medium where community participants are opinion leaders who help in adopting brand values by sharing personal experience, views and suggestions with other members," says , marketing director, General Motors India.
 
, vice president, marketing, TVS Motors, agrees. "The innovative use of the Internet is an example of how companies can meet brand expectations by keeping the content relevant and enhancing brand features so that the audience can learn more about the product and relate to it at the same time," he says.
 
Now, even better
e-marketing has been around for a while. But now, it's moved on from just banner advertisements and optimising search engine traffic to content development.
 
Granted, present spends on online initiatives are less than 5 per cent of the marketing budgets of most companies, but marketers are confident that this figure will grow hugely.
 
"With minimum investments, the response is much higher and faster than other media. We plan to make the web a mainstream medium of communication," declares Narasimhan. TVS has received over 170,000 enquiries for its new Apache bike following the launch of its interactive website in February 2006.
 
The enthusiasm for motoring-related websites extends to General Motors India. Since July 2006, when it launched its new hatchback, Chevrolet SRV, the company's website has played host to over 40,000 visitors and 250,000 page views.
 
"Instant response from consumers is a marketer's dream. But if they want to draw the maximum effectiveness, companies need to be more aggressive with content," says , COO, digital business, Hungama.
 
Which is why many companies are paying attention to the content of their websites, with regular updates to keep the interest alive and drive traffic. Chevrolet SRV, for instance, is developing monthly contests where visitors can win watches, T-shirts and so on.
 
Cadbury India, too, updates the content on its website, meethamoments.com, every fortnight. Ogilvy One's Pardiwala approves. "In the initial stage of the brand community, it is important to keep the content interesting and user friendly to attract consumers and ingrain the brand's proposition in consumers' minds," he points out.
 
The medium is the message
Although essentially companies create online communities to strengthen their emotional connection with consumers, they're obviously not eliminating the idea of a potential sale.
 
After all, the greater the engagement with the brand, the better the chances of positive action. Thus, brands like Chevrolet SRV and Apache has hosted spaces where visitors can sign on for test drives.
 
Since July, Chevrolet has already had over 1,000 people click their interest in the SRV. "Features like these help us encourage loyal customers, who can not just post their opinions, but also derive value in terms of easy access to opportunities like test drives and so on," says Motwani.
 
Others are still keeping it simple, though. The Cadburys' online community, meethamoments.com, was launched three months ago as an extension of its new television commercial for Dairy Milk chocolate.
 
The chocolate company stuck more or less to the theme of the of the commercial but did extend it some what by encouraging consumers to post online their happiest memories.
 
In two months, the microsite had over 93,000 visits and more than 500 entries for the most meetha moments. "The idea was to create an emotional slot for Dairy Milk in the mind of the surfer," says Pardiwala, who created the site for Cadbury.
 
In many cases, the social networking opportunity is also being used to gain feedback about the product and the brand. Posting that information on the site is also considered good practice: you are likely to get better engagement if you can get people to communicate with each other on your territory since it will be considered more credible.
 
TVS Apache, for instance, now plans to incorporate consumer feedback on its website in a bid to build a stronger relationship with customers and get more direct and honest responses. "This way consumers treat the brand as their own brand, and not just another bike," says Narasimhan.
 
Getting ahead
Indian companies aren't charging ahead with social marketing initiatives just yet. They're not advertising them aggressively, relying instead on word of mouth publicity or lead-ins through other websites to drive the target audience.
 
"A zone becomes popular when people talk about it, and thus become self-sustaining," points out Motwani.
 
However, based on response, some companies are planning online co-promotions. Right now, TVS Apache is running a co-promotion offer with MTV, where visitors to the sites stand a chance of winning a bike.
 
"Such offers drives more traffic to the community. Customers, too, live the essence of the brand though content that reflects the brand proposition," says Narasimhan.
 
General Motors India, too, is looking at developing such co-promotions if the online community drives more interest from the consumers.

 

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