Are Brand Websites Better?

Are Brand Websites Better?
Comfort brands are reaching out through their websites

The comfort community is bringing the online conversation back home.

While social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter continue to be important for brand building, footwear companies are embracing the interactive abilities of their own websites, which allows them to ask consumers for information about themselves, as well as gain direct feedback.

Comfort players including Naturalizer, Dansko and Rockport all maintain interactive websites that feature everything from personal stories and bios to contests and product reviews. And while some marketing experts may disagree about the benefits of such sites, the companies said they help reach their target customers and make the shoppers feel they have more personal access to the brands.

“It’s a great way to have an intimate conversation in a digital world,” said Hope Horn, SVP and GMM of specialty retail and buying at Naturalizer, a division of St. Louis-based Brown Shoe Co. “You can get personal with [the consumer]. And she can tell us about herself and her shoes.”

Naturalizer, she said, has found that its loyalists feel as though they’re talking directly to the brand on the website. “[We think] consumers believe it’s more authentic,” she said.

At Dansko.com, consumers share their favorite moments in the footwear and post photos of themselves. The website also frequently hosts contests through which fans can win shoes. This month, people can enter to win a dinner prepared by chef Brian Malarkey at his new Herringbone restaurant in San Diego.

“Even if they’re not winning a pair of shoes, people like to share,” said Cara Corridoni, PR promotions manager for West Grove, Pa.-based Dansko.

Indeed, the personal connection has made a difference in traffic on the site, she added. The number of people who shared their stories with the brand increased 100 percent in the second half of 2011, compared with the first half.

Reviewing product also has become a popular feature on many brand sites.

In fact, shoe reviews are an integral part of Naturalizer.com, where customers can post in-depth comments about a particular style. To post, members must go through a three-step process that requires the creation of a personal profile that includes their age range, fitness level and favorite Naturalizer memory. In addition to writing comments, customers can upload photos of themselves and include a short bio.

“[When] customers can see a little about [others, they] connect and empathize with them,” said Horn. “It can further enhance believability [for consumers].”

Horn said the review process also has helped Naturalizer when it comes to building future product. “We use it for feedback, such as whether shoes are too tight, big or wide,” said Horn. “We listen carefully. When we get one of these [negative] reviews, I’m on the [phone] with the line builder.” And, she added, the more reviews about a particular style, the more pairs sold.

In addition, Rockport.com’s “Rate & Review” section, which went live about a year ago, asks consumers to post a product review and brief bio. To encourage participation, Rockport last month launched a three-month giveaway inviting users to provide feedback in exchange for the chance to win a pair of shoes. In the first month of 2012, traffic on the site rose 60 percent over the month prior. (The company did, however, promote the contest on Facebook.)

While Rockport maintains a Facebook page where it posts on everything from celebrities spotted in the brand to sponsored events, the company values its own website as a place for more product-driven information.

“Consumers go to our site with purchase intent, compared with Facebook, where they’re interested in the [overall] brand,” said Emmanuelle Accad, director of global PR and events for the Canton, Mass.-based company.

Added Kim Correia-Hunt, director of e-commerce for Rockport, “The Facebook wall is more general. The site [reviews] help customers make a good purchase decision.”

As the drive to increase traffic on company websites continues, branding experts said there’s more to the practice than meets the eye.

Timothy Robinson, managing director at CoreBrand, a New York-based consultancy, noted that unlike Facebook, companies can control the content on their own sites, allowing them to paint a more positive picture. “It allows for interaction and freedom [among consumers] but in a controlled environment. Brands can present themselves in the best possible light.”

And today’s consumers, he added, are savvy enough to understand the difference between brand and social media sites. “Consumers [think] that social media tools have unbiased, unvarnished conversations.” But, he added, consumers take others’ comments seriously. “Even though it’s [the brand’s website], there’s more belief than disbelief by a good-sized margin.”

Alex Mendoza, a partner at Stylophane.com, an interactive marketing agency for fashion, predicted that while brands will continue to operate their own sites, they’ll focus mostly on e-commerce.

“These [social networking] activities do no harm to the brand’s website,” said Mendoza. “However, they lack the interconnectivity that social media sites have to offer.”

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