Viral marketing a winner for Eforce

From a conventional timber company to an Internet pureplay in the space of months - it's been quite a trip for the Christchurch-based e-commerce company Eforce.

As creative director and co-founder of the Christchurch-based consumer e-commerce venture Eforce, Paul Fairbairn has been responsible for devising and designing both the Eforce products and its new branding.

The campaign has seen more than 20,000 people sign up for Eforce's aggregated buying service inside a month. Fairbairn talks to Russell Brown about how it was created - and about whether "viral marketing" really means "spam your friends".

What were you looking to achieve when you designed the branding?

We looked at the demographics of the audience, and the ones that we wanted to go for mainly were the 24 to 34 age group - but obviously we want anyone from any group really. So we went for a slightly hippy-retro but cool look. Something hip, but with wide appeal. We wanted a simple, strong colour, and one that would, over time, become part of our brand.

It's a sort of reassuring colour, the green you've chosen.

Yeah. It also reproduces well inexpensively too. If we ever do two-colour on newsprint it'll have the impact of full colour without the expense.

I presume choosing a new Volkswagen Beetle and and the 100 iMacs was no accident in terms of positioning either?

No. We wanted products that reflected the culture of what we were trying to build online.

Did you just go out and buy those or is there a joint marketing deal?

What got a very good price on the iMacs, based on the fact that we were going to be promoting the products.

Why did you go for the prize draw idea rather than selling the service on its merits?

We had a marketing budget to play with and it was fairly lean one to launch a new brand nationwide. And we thought because we were an online company that some sort of viral marketing campaign would be by far the best way to leverage our spend. It was also a bit of an experiment, to see how well the viral thing would go.

So we sort of came up with the idea of giving away 100 iMacs over 100 days, and the day that you join gains you entry into the draw that day, and if you want any more you have to tell a friend. That's being going very well - beyond our expectations.

There's a big chunk of people who are in the draw for two or three days based on them having successfully two or three extra people to join. So there's a snowball effect.

Where did viral marketing as a strategy come from?

It was actually my idea. I've got a company called iMagic, and I sat down with a couple of guys from around here to talk about what we could do online, and as a result of that brainstorming session, that's the idea that emerged.

Some people consider providing a Web form to email six other people just a little bit close to spamming your friends, or to pyramid schemes.

We haven't had feedback to that effect. We have reconfigured the email a little bit more so that it does come from the friend's actual email address rather than from the company, but the positive feedback far outweighs the negative with the amount of people passing through it. We don't think it's being perceived as spam.

Can you confirm that the addresses people enter into the mail form on your Web site aren't themselves held?

Absolutely not. You can read our privacy policy on the Web site. We don't hold any information unless it's permission-based.

What was the motivation for setting up public discussion forums for your members?

It's a community - we don't want to control it. It's got to be member and customer focused. So whatever they say, good or bad, let it roll. Eventually we'd like to be judged on our merits not so much as a company as an organisation that's totally on the consumer's side that organises their purchasing power in order to secure a better deal. We're not going to critique anything that's put on there unless there's foul language or something.

Do you think people may take a while to get used to the idea that they can and should share information and debate and discuss the company?

Probably. There's been lots of comment already on the forum - thankfully more good than bad at this stage. I think it projects a sense of honesty. People can see it warts and all and make their own decisions. And if members do have something bad to share - anything we've done or one of our suppliers has done - it's an opportunity to put it right.

I notice Eforce staff members also participate in the forums under their own names.

That's just happened. We don't want to be some corporate, faceless company. We want to be a company with real people who want to do good things on the Web.

Have there been any suggestions you're looking at taking up yet?

There's been some interesting suggestions. The most common is for a cellphone deal. We're chasing a good deal on cellphone minutes at the moment. And in the products we have on offer now, like the magazines, we've added titles people have suggested. The suggestions for CoBuy have been good too.

What happens after this big initial promotion is over - how do you keep the profile up?

We've got lots of exciting products to roll out. What people are seeing is just the beginning of what we've got planned. We anticipate that the opportunities and the deals we're going to be rolling out are so good that there's real, tangible value in being a member.

And it's not just going to be what you can buy on the site. If we know the demographics of a certain area when they ask for membership and we start leveraging that, we can seek products and services that we know those people will be interested in. And if we use their combined purchasing power we can get them a killer deal.

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