The rewards for creating a customer-focused online community are huge. But success comes at a price, as recent issues encountered by Nike's Nike+ running site illustrate. Matt Scott investigates.
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Sportswear manufacturer Nike's Nike+ is a running aid that uses a sensor in its running shoes to measure the pace and distance of a user. Data can be uploaded to the Nike+ community site, allowing people to keep track of runs and compete with other members of the Nike+ community in running competitions.
The site has been a big success, but this has led to usability problems. Nike+ members recently received an e-mail apologising for a number of problems over recent months. Some users have been unable to log in, sync devices, share runs or edit their profiles.
The e-mail stated that Nike+ is not "about the excuses" and focused on what solutions are in place.
Unhappy customers can damage your brand
Instances like this can be very damaging to the brand of the company involved. Instead of offering an inclusive user experience, Nike decided to offer an exclusive and controlled environment, but that means taking full responsibility for problems.
"Individuals in the social sphere can be your best allies, or your worst enemies - and both can easily slip over into the other camp," said Quocirca founder and analyst, Clive Longbottom. "For example, a great, supportive customer who suddenly feels they have been dealt with as if just a number can suddenly turn bad and cause your brand a great deal of damage. Likewise, if a customer who feels that they have been badly treated is dealt with correctly, they can become one of your biggest supporters."
Longbottom said that the majority of social media problems are encountered because companies deem social media to be something entirely new, when in fact it is just a new way of dealing with customer interaction. "By being logical and ensuring that basic underlying approaches and processes are in place, social media can be a very powerful tool."
Social media platforms must be secure and stable
Although it is unclear which platform the Nike+ community is built on, the company has decided not to build it on top of one of the established public platforms such as Facebook or Twitter.
Dale Vile, CEO of Freeform Dynamics, said companies tend to shy away from more public forms of social media because of the perceived privacy and compliance issues.
He said that there are two types supplier: the likes of IBM, Microsoft and Oracle, which tend to offer a basic social functionality, from a traditional standpoint; and myriad start-ups, which run technology on a shoestring budget and often use non-enterprise-ready systems.
The non-enterprise-ready systems can often lack robustness, performance, security, scalability and ability to monitor, manage and maintain, according to Vile.
"It is this that often leads to people being caught out in terms of downtime. Things are getting better because venture capitalists are ploughing more funding into the sector, but you still have to be very careful if you are going to rely on these systems," he said.
Those who decide to risk creating their own social space have to be prepared to deal with demand and deliver a constant, smooth and uninterrupted service, mirroring the social media giants.
More worryingly, success in a company-run social media site may make the site a target for hackers, such as the fiasco with the Sony Playstation Network.
New Nike+ site to launch in 2012
Ryan Greenwood, Nike head of PR & communication UK, said it has been working to address issues with logging in, syncing devices, sharing runs and editing profiles. "These issues are not affecting all Nike+ members. However, we understand that there are still some issues with the site and our number one priority is to address those."
He said it is planning to launch a new Nike+ site in early 2012, which will be faster, more social and easier to use. In regard to the problems of using non-enterprise-ready software, he said Nike will perform "extensive testing to ensure the migration to the new site is as seamless as possible".
Current social media giants do not offer a level of corporate control, security, monitoring and reporting that meet the needs of most demanding business customers, so there are benefits to be gained from creating your own social space.
However, new social spaces need to be covered within the overall marketing strategy, as well as being thoroughly researched and tested to make sure they match the expectations of users.
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