In today’s guest comment, Richard Longhurst, co-founder of leading UK online sex toy retailer Lovehoney and winner of the reader-voted-for Internet Retailing Award 2013 at the Internet Retailing Awards, discusses the importance of building online communities for etailers.
The dedication of Lovehoney’s customers never ceases to amaze me. This week they uploaded about 30 pictures of themselves in their underwear (and half a dozen of themselves out of their underwear). They submitted 150 incredibly detailed (and sometimes eye-wateringly frank) product reviews. And they posted another 1,200 messages in the Lovehoney discussion forums.
This would be an incredible level of engagement for any company, but it’s all the more remarkable for Lovehoney given that our customers are sharing the most intimate details of the lives, metaphorically and physically. It’s one thing uploading a review of a CD that you just bought from Amazon, it’s quite another to tell the world of your latest sex toy purchase.
The Lovehoney Community started life back in 2005 as The Orgasm Army, a separate site at orgasmarmy.com. We had seen customer reviews and comments become popular on Amazon but while we wanted to do them on Lovehoney, we were nervous of the reaction. What if nobody had anything nice to say? What if everyone slagged off all our products? What if the site turned into a two-bit pick-up join, a sort of poor man’s Adult Friend Finder?
We needn’t have worried. Within three months of Orgasm Army launching, we knew we were on to a winner. People were delighted to find a place where they could discuss sexual matters in a sensible, grown-up environment without fear of trolls, Viagra shills and penis enlargement scams. Amazingly, they felt comfortable not just asking each other for advice about which products to buy, but also sharing sex tips and discussing how to introduce sex toys to their relationships.
But best of all, Orgasm Army members submitted detailed product reviews – not just throwaway one-liners, but long, considered screeds that left the reader in no doubt as to the efficacy (or otherwise) of the item. We realised that this was not something that we should keep at arm’s length – this was fantastic customer validation and wonderful content that we should embrace and make part of the Lovehoney DNA.
So we rolled orgasmarmy.com back into the Lovehoney website and started the Lovehoney Community. We now have more than 47,000 members who have created a profile, which you need to do in order to post messages to the forum and upload product reviews. We now have more than 50,000 product reviews, covering everything from crotchless knickers to jiggle balls. The 90:9:1 rule holds true (90% lurk, 9% contribute occasionally, 1% contribute a lot) – not everyone wants to join in, but they’re all welcome to come and read, enjoy and learn.
Community members get other benefits. They receive Lovehoney Loyalty Points on purchases, which they can trade in for free products. They get exclusive offers, sale previews and discount vouchers on their birthdays.
Customers play an integral part in product development through reviews, feedback in the Lovehoney forums and our unique Design A Sex Toy competition. Soon to be relaunched for its fourth year, Design A Sex Toy offers a £1,000 prize for the best idea for a new sex toy submitted by a customer. If the winning design (or, indeed, any of the designs) go into production, we negotiate a royalty with the inventor.
The biggest success that we’ve had is with Sqweel, the unique oral sex simulator. It’s a wheel of 10 silicone tongues that rotate at varying speeds to imitate cunnilingus (not a word you expected to read in Internet Retailing today). Sqweel has been a massive success worldwide and from the off we made sure that the inventor Trevor Murphy shared in the success. When he submitted his design, he was living in a knackered caravan next to a burned-out cottage in Ireland. Thanks to six-figure royalties from Sqweel he has now emigrated to Canada – where he lives in a slightly posher caravan that’s not next to a burned out cottage.
This is how you do it for real. It’s not rocket science, but it’s amazing how many companies can be too mean or short-sighted not to see the bigger picture. Or they simply do not know how to behave. If you engage your customers, ask them for ideas and then use their ideas, you should share the success with them. For Lovehoney this is not a one-off public relations project, this is a continual way of doing things, a way of being.
That is the key thing when you thinking about building a community and trying to engage with your customers. It should be everything that you do, genuine from top to bottom, not an afterthought or a bolt-on for a TV programme. Every part of the organisation should be geared towards engaging customers and all staff members should be empowered to do so.
This is not cheap or easy. It takes commitment from the top and staff time, dedication, intelligence and effort. Lovehoney has a big customer care team who have no other instruction than to make our customers happy. We have writers, bloggers and buyers who all read and post in our forums.
Ultimately what that means is money – a big hit on the profit and loss without any precisely measurable, tangible benefit. That is uncomfortable for many companies, especially for online retailers like Lovehoney who are used to sales attribution models that let them know to the nth degree and to the umptieth decimal point how much revenue they generated from each channel or cost centre.
Throw away the spreadsheet, this is about something bigger than numbers. This is about how you want to be perceived and about what is the right way to behave. If Lovehoney was a person, it would give up its seat for an old lady on the bus. It would give up its seat for any lady on a bus. It would give up its seat for anyone on a bus. We do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because there’s something in it for us. Of course, it just so happens that there is something in it for us, but what price can you put on customer loyalty?