How a Global Distributor’s Online Community for Engineers Pays Rich Dividends

Building a thriving online community around your social media strategy takes a lot of hard work. Sometimes it feels like you are operating in a vacuum where nobody seems to be listening or responding to your initiatives.

It is heartening then to read about an industrial company’s success in building an engineering community, which in turn generates leads, produces sales and increases the company’s awareness among its target audience.

A recent article by Paul Gillin (@pgillin) and published in BtoB Online, caught my attention because it talks about how engineers can have fun while doing serious business.

In “Who says engineers don’t know how to have fun?” Paul reports on the phenomenal success of element14, an online community for electronic design engineers.

The company behind this social community success story is Farnell (part of the Premier Farnell Group), a UK-based distributor of electronic, electrical, industrial and maintenance, repair & operations (MRO) products and Newark, their U.S. distribution arm.

Element14 is a global information portal specifically built for electronic design engineers. The naming of the site is very clever branding in my opinion. It is named after the 14th element from the periodic table, which is Silicon (Si) – the building block for semiconductors, electronics and many other industrial applications.

If you visit the site, it will become very apparent that a lot of planning, effort and resources went into building this online community.

Early on in the development of the online community, the company realized that their customers (engineers) could go to several different online sources for technical information but there were very few, if any that they could rely on for peer-to-peer feedback and recommendations. In addition, their target audience wants volumes of reliable information that they can use to make their daily work easier.

Farnell decided they would fill this real need and thus, element14 was born in June 2009. It provides product data, design tools, access to experts and uses the entire gamut of current social and online tools to make it easier for engineers, customers, hobbyists and suppliers to collaborate with each other and share information freely.

Last fall, they introduced the “The Ben Heck Show,” featuring Benjamin J Heckendorn, a console “modding” Internet Celebrity. Modding is slang for modifying a piece of hardware or software to perform functions it was not originally designed for.

The show consists of a series of entertaining videos (a new one is released every two weeks) where Ben and his friends build and mod a host of amazing community-inspired electronics using parts that Farnell and its suppliers sell.

Here are some of the past episodes:

And the results of all this hard work?

According to Paul’s article, traffic to element14 doubled shortly after “The Ben Heck Show” debuted and page views increased 5X – to more than 500,000 a month.

Membership went up by 4X since the middle of last year, and 80% of customers making a first-time buy come in through the community. About 15% of people who come to the community visit their online store.

“One key to success has been to stop thinking of the site as an extension of our brand and start thinking of it as a community,” said Jeff Hamilton, director of design engineer marketing at Premier Farnell.

Although many of the experts are Premier Farnell suppliers, being a supplier doesn’t automatically qualify them. “They have to demonstrate significant expertise in their area,” Hamilton said. “This is not about advertising.”

The company didn’t set out to build a site for generating new leads. Instead it found a genuine way to connect and engage with its customers. Yet, within a short period of time, the social community has driven real sales and built a huge base of loyal customers.

Social media marketing done right does produce real business results!

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