|What We Do: Stories|
A Web 2.0 site for B2B Customers
Tripod Data Systems (TDS) started out in 1987 making software for surveyors, and it has since expanded into making rugged handheld computers for outdoor applications. Trimble Navigation (Trimble) bought TDS in 2000, and depending on the market, its products are sold under both the TDS and Trimble brands. Sanda Communications (Sanda) has worked with TDS for over a decade. We provide integrated marketing, advertising and PR services for TDS/Trimble, using both traditional and online media.
Over the last six months we’ve helped TDS/Trimble build a blog site for its rugged handheld computers. We started on Blogger, but later moved it to Ning, a new Web 2.0 social networking platform.
We moved to Ning to get an affordable platform that could support advanced video handling, forums, blogging, photos and other cool communications capabilities. Our idea was to exploit the advanced, easy-to-use capabilities of Ning to develop an online venue where TDS product managers and engineers could have ongoing conversations with customers and partners. And in the process, we’d build a professional network of rugged handheld computer users who could share stories, ideas and tips with each other.
We have been delighted with what Ning has to offer, as they compete with the other major social network platforms like MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and others. We wanted to exploit the killer capabilities those sites had developed for kids to talk about music, politics, dating and endlessly about themselves. But in our case, we wanted to entice field professionals to talk about using rugged handheld computers in military, construction, public safety, utility and other rigorous applications in outdoor and harsh applications.
We spent most of the first six months in site design and content creation. We helped create blogs, videos and forum discussions by working with TDS staff under the parent company Trimble’s watchful eye. Trimble naturally had legal and other concerns about building an open network for discussions using the TDS and Trimble brands outside the company firewall and without full corporate control.
We had good reason to take it slow at first. We didn’t want to hype expectations until we had a solid, functioning site with excellent content. If you’re going to throw a party or build an online conference and invite business associates over, you’ve got to deliver content that’s worth their time to view.
Of course, the real test of a true Web 2.0 site will be user-generated content. We hope that by year’s end, we will be able to push much less of content through TDS/Trimble and start having customers and members posting their own stories and videos about how they use outdoor rugged computers on the job. Oh, happy days!
We decided to promote membership on the site by offering Trimble-branded hats and jackets for the best comments and posts. We shot a funny video of Dale Kyle, the rugged handheld product manager, who has been the main video host for the site. In Dale’s videos, we have a running gag of throwing or dropping things on him to highlight the ruggedness of TDS/Trimble handhelds. For the video promoting the hat giveaway to new members, we dumped sand, ice cubes and cold water all over Dale and his Trimble hat to promote the kind of torture tests TDS/Trimble puts its rugged handhelds through. The video was our first hit, generating hundreds of views in the first weeks. We also had a surge in new members, and it looked like the damn thing might just take off.
We then had an original notion. TDS had been developing a new rugged handheld—to be called the Nomad—over the last 12 months or so, and we were getting ready to do a traditional PR and advertising launch on July 17. The ads were designed and placed, the PR copy was ready to be sent to our large list of online and print media contacts, and first reviews were arranged with important trade magazines. And then we thought, “why not do a live introduction of the new Nomad rugged handheld computer on the OutdoorRugged site?”
This idea was actually based on some previous experience. Back in November 2006, Sanda had run an experiment at the Software Association of Oregon’s Software Showcase Conference, held at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland. We shot videos of a number of demonstrations at the event, edited, processed and posted the videos in almost real-time on our Blogger site, then used our projector to show a 20’ image of the just-shot demos on the OMSI wall. People love seeing themselves on TV. And all this was done using a simple camcorder, our laptops and a WiFi connection to the Internet. It was pretty cool.
What we proposed to TDS/Trimble was a similar process for an online launch of the Nomad, only on a slightly grander scale. Why not invite a number of important media, customers and partners to join us at TDS headquarters on July 17—in person or by phone—then videotape their comments, questions and responses to the live introduction and hands-on demonstration of the new Nomad. We’d post the videos on OutdoorRugged.com, giving visitors to the site an almost real-time introduction to the Nomad, Trimble’s most powerful and versatile rugged handheld computer to date.
We knew going in there would be several challenges. The first would be getting people to come. As nice as Corvallis, Oregon is in July (usually), it’s a bit off the high-tech media circuit. Even getting local business and high-tech editors from Portland, an easy 90 minutes away, would be tough. Still, we managed to get 13 publishers, editors, reporters, bloggers and partners from around the world to call in for the Nomad launch at 1 p.m. PDT on July 17. And we got a handful of people to come to TDS for the event.
Another problem was timing. Who releases a major new product in the middle of summer? People are on vacation, news is slow, etc., etc. Maybe the engineers had finished this kick-butt new product early and couldn’t wait till September to release it. Or maybe it was ready a little later than they had planned. That sometimes happens, too. So we didn’t have much control over the timing of the product launch. But the nice thing is any time is the right time on the Internet. You don’t have to wait for a major trade show or in-person event to launch a new product. Fire when ready, Gridley!
Plus, the exuberant people who run the Ning platform are continually updating, improving and changing it. Features that were there one day would morph or disappear entirely the next. Most of the changes were for the better. But they added to our uncertainty.
Then, there was the challenge of building an audience for this online event. For one thing, our audience—field professionals—tend to be older and less chatty online than most of the kids using social networks. But to make this online event work, we needed to have people online on the launch data asking questions and making comments. So we sent out an e-mail to all the members of OutdoorRugged.com, as well as to subscribers of Trimble’s Rugged Road newsletter, to join us for the launch of an exciting new product on July 17.
Finally, we had no previous experience to go on. No one—to our knowledge—had ever heard of such an online, near real-time event to launch a new product. We would have very little time to explain and promote this integrated, online, live and teleconferencing event. Could we pull it off, without embarrassing ourselves and the client or stepping on corporate toes because of the need for speed?
We also decided to reduce risks where we could. Rather than rely solely on videos shot, edited and posted during the launch event, we pre-recorded three key videos the week before the event so they would be ready to go for sure on July 17.
Sounded like a grand plan, with the gut-churning edge of flying by the seat of your pants like the early days of live TV. Playhouse 90, Rod Serling, are you watching?
What went right
We were afraid that having thirteen call-in attendees would be too many people. But Julia Oliver, our media relations person, did a great job keeping the callers happy and in line while waiting to call in. Julia, a long-time Sanda staffer, still works for us even though she moved with her Air Force family to Guam. The telecom equipment also worked well at TDS, even though some of the questions were hard to hear.
The presentations that the TDS crew put on were superb. Dale did a great job as host and lead responder; the engineers and product managers were knowledgeable and articulate; and Amy Urban, TDS’ marketing communications manager, did a splendid job managing the event and coordinating the Q&A from callers and members. The Sanda team also did a good job capturing the event with our two cameras without getting in the way of the event.
Best of all, we got good coverage by the online media with articles and requests for demo units. As of July 26, 2007, we found 22 online articles about the Nomad, including Smartphone & PocketPC, enGadget, CBS Marketwatch and Yahoo! Finance. One of the attendees who called in, Kevin C. Tofel from the blog jkOnTheRun, had his blog notes posted before we left the meeting room.
One thing to keep in mind is that OutdoorRugged.com is not a mass-market site. It’s designed for a select group of mobile professionals who use handheld computers in the outdoors and other harsh environments. That makes it a very narrow market niche with a very limited number of likely participants. Outdoor Rugged appears far down the long tail of vertical market segments. But it is a tasty morsel worth digging for; sales in this market niche are estimated to reach more than a billion dollars this year, and that figure is likely to double by 2010. So we won’t draw the traffic of a social or celebrity site like Will Ferrell’s Funny or Die. But if we can establish a critical mass of customer’s conversations, we’ll have accomplished our mission.
We had 42 people sign-up as members of the Nomad Launch Group on the site, even though only a handful actually asked questions or made comments during the Nomad Launch Show. We increased the number of members on the site from around 40 to over 160 as a result of the event. And as we had hoped, most of the people who have signed up on the site are people who actually use rugged handheld computers in outdoor applications.
One of the unexpected benefits of recording the event was that the day after the official launch, a large number of TDS people heard the in-house buzz about the event, and many of them went to the OutdoorRugged site to watch the videos. Not only did we inform media people and partners around the world about the Nomad, we informed and excited TDS people in the next cube! We had others tune into the event from outside the industry. However, if you’re not interested in handheld computers it’s pretty dry stuff, and as well as the managers and engineers did, they are not Will Ferrell and Pearl.
The traditional PR and media relations push for the Nomad is going very well. No surprise here; each quarter we fill a couple of big notebooks with the press clipping we get for TDS/Trimble products. This online event will add to that and add zip and synergy to the effective print campaign.
Because Ning has a basic way of statistically tracking site and member activity, we could track exactly how many people were watching what videos on what days. We also gained useful information about our members who volunteered what they wanted from the site.
What went wrong
Then our video plans went askew. The interaction and questions by the in-house guests transitioned too quickly into the questions from guests calling in. Josh Hammer, our lead cameraman, didn’t think there was a good place to stop shooting and hand-off his tape for posting, so he changed plans and kept shooting.
We also saw a huge spike in daily page views immediate before and after the Nomad Launch Show:
Membership at OutdoorRugged also spiked at the time of the Nomad launch:
What we learned
I’m glad we didn’t over promise how many people would call, comment or attend. Overall, we were gratified with the anecdotal and statistical results. Time will tell if partners and customers will use the OutdoorRugged site to help promote TDS/Trimble products and how many new Nomads we can help sell with the site. Although the principle objective of the site is to encourage open conversations with customers and partners, the reason we want to do that is ultimately to sell more stuff. Compared to the conventional Trimble and TDS Web sites, there is much less “corporate-speak” and direct sales pitches on OutdoorRugged, but the objective remains to build better, more profitable relations with our customers. It is, after all, still marketing, albeit marketing 201.
Kudos from the marketing community
"Sanda's innovative use of a Web 2.0 social network platform for business clients is a great example of where marketing is heading."