Maid to order – iRobot shows how to cash in on customer creativity

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When Bedford, Mass.-based iRobot Corp. released their circular vacuum robots to the market, they expected customers would use the Roomba to clean their homes, not name them and teach them how to do tricks.

But iRobot is just one example of how companies are being surprised by their customers’ response at a time when feedback is flowing over the Web’s social networks.

Technology author Paul Gillin told attendees at an interactive marketing conference in Toronto they need to tap into their customers’ creativity.

“iRobot realized they hadn’t introduced an appliance, they’d introduced a new type of family pet,” Gillin says.

Once the company realized their robots were being named and dressed up like a house cat, they reacted on the trend to cash in. They now sell accessories and even attachable robotic arms for their robots over their Web site.

“People have now programmed their Roomba to go to the fridge and get a beer and bring it back to the chair in front of the TV,” Gillin says.

iRobot was able to capitalize on a customer-driven trend they wouldn’t have known about without listening, the author adds. More companies can stand to benefit by turning their ears to socially-driven sites on the Web.

Customers are talking directly to one another about products on social networks and bloggers can be just as effective at distributing a message as traditional media companies, if not better.

Companies can use these tools to their advantage and realize they’ve changed the rules of the game, Gillin says.

“For the last 20 years we’ve cut down on our customer service, we’ve put people out there who are the least trained to put a positive image on our companies,” he says. “Customers don’t just want to talk to marketers; they want to talk to the developers and the CEO. You have to deputize everyone in your company to become a marketer.”

Gillin’s message is particularly important in Canada.

Canadian Internet users are the most likely to access social networks, and also spend the most time and view the most pages on average, according to Reston, Va.-based comScore Inc.

“Canada is a Facebook nation,” says Bryan Segal, director of business development at comScore Media Metrix Canada. “Some people think it is just for college students, but they are actually wrong.”

Almost 85 per cent of Canadians access a social networking site at least once a month, Segal told the crowd at the event hosted by Montreal-based Infopresse Inc. On average, Canadians spend nearly 350 minutes a month on the sites and look at 828 pages.

People across all demographics use the sites, including 70 per cent of people over 55.

Yet there remains a gap between enthusiasm levels displayed by Canadians using new media, and the efforts made by advertisers capitalize on this passion, Segal adds.

“One of the larger questions as an industry we have to answer is how do we make money off it,” he says.

The answer to that question lies in a style of marketing that is less about piping out the message to a mass audience and more about grassroots-style reputation building, Gillin says. With cheap technology giving customers direct access to one another, companies must get used to having less control over their messaging.

“Influence in this sphere is determined by very different factors,” he says. “It’s not about marketing, it’s about content. It’s about referrals, comments, citations and word of mouth.”

The tools can be used to a company’s advantage if they get involved in the communities where their products or services are already being discussed, Gillin says. A company can create groups in the networks and treat them like affiliate programs and should never edit or sensor what people discuss.

“Sometimes your customers will tell you what they want and you just have to listen to them,” he says. “This is a difficult step for a lot of companies to take, that you invite someone to critique your product in your own territory.”

Still, many companies are taking the plunge and allowing shopper to add reviews of products displayed with the product to all shoppers. Receiving feedback in this uncontrolled way might seem scary, but it’s worth doing, says comScore’s Segal.

“As marketers we really have to learn to take the punches,” he says. “It is sometimes better to hear people talking about your brands. A consumer sharing a negative experience in a branded site at least gives the company the opportunity to respond and learn from the feedback.”

Once a company has tapped into their fan base online and established their community space, they can get more people involved with discounts, giveaways and contests, Gillin says.

Then there’s a real opportunity to tap into a customer’s innovation and grow your own product.

But don’t forget to listen, the author says – even if customers tell you that you’re really selling them a robotic pet, and not a vacuum.


Experts discuss how marketers can take advantage of social media platforms.

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