Element14 – a B2B online community

Yesterday I travelled to Birmingham to be guest speaker at a meeting of the PR and marketing committee of a UK construction trade association. I talked about how social media can be employed in a wide variety of ways to supplement (and in some cases, replace) existing communication channels, opening up new ways of reaching and creating dialogues with different stakeholders.

I was thinking about them this morning when I came across this article in the Financial Times: Premier Farnell turns to engineers’ Facebook. Discussing the latest financial results of an electronics components supplier – which, like many businesses, is suffering during the recession – it focuses on the company’s latest communication ploy:

Earlier in June, Premier Farnell launched element14, an online community for electronic design engineers that will allow them to share information, collaborate on designs and buy components. “Element14 is our Facebook for engineers,” said Harriet Green, chief executive.

“Regardless of age and gender, they come on to element14 to do work, to chat, to ask each other things and then they can very easily click to buy products,” she added.

“So we see them doing what I guess Web 2.0 was invented for, which was for people to work as communities. And they can do that on our site.”

element14 was launched on 1 June 2009 (news release) and allows users to customise and personalise their own homepages with widgets of the applications they use most. It uses Google Translate to try to break down language barriers, and users can participate by posting comments, podcasts and videos, and use referral links to raise awareness of themselves or their organisation. Browsing the site earlier today, I could join groups, post status updates, read blogs, read documents posted by users, take part in discussions, review forthcoming events, etc – in short, just about all the things you would expect in a professional knowledge-sharing network.

An element14 insight

I talked to Shannon Leano, the strategic project co-ordinator for element14, about the community.

First, I asked whether element14 was going to be linked from the main Premier Farnell corporate website. Shannon said element14 was being run as an “arms-length” project which was being kept separate from the corporate site after research showed that successful online communities needed to be independent (the news release is one of the few references to element14 on the corporate website).

To help maintain the independence, beyond a ‘light touch’ approach enforcing terms of use conditions on appropriate behaviour, Premier Farnell people are not moderating what users post onto the site. Most users are professional electronics engineers who were looking to network with other engineers and so could be relied upon not to do anything “unethical”. If users posted comments saying something bad about a Premier Farnell business or something good about competitors that was perfectly acceptable: “that’s what the users may want to share with other people on the network,” she said.

So if it’s not linked from the corporate site, how is element14 being promoted? Shannon said they were doing a lot of “viral work”. In addition to some PR work and advertisements in trade magazines, element14 has a Facebook page (with, to date, 222 fans), a LinkedIn group (67 members), and a presence on Twitter (84 followers).

So far, the community has attracted over 2000 members, and judging from the lists of the updates and materials posted, is getting numerous daily updates.

An example for AEC organisations to follow?

This would have made a great example to show in my presentation yesterday, for it shows that, either despite or because of the recession, some firms are thinking creatively about how they can differentiate themselves and add value to their customers – even if the direct promotional benefits remain ‘arms-length’. Here, establishing an online community that is perceived as providing a service to the niche industry sector will boost the reputation of the initiator. And as the sponsor will doubtless take a detailed interest in the material self-published by users, it will also gain insights into users’ opinions, worries, information needs, etc that may help them improve their products and services (competitors may also gain the same insights, of course, but may not monitor the community’s buzz with the same degree of interest).

I have talked to several organisations in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector about doing something similar (see post), but most have (so far) baulked at creating online communities to build an engagement with their target audiences. element14 shows what can be done, and it is a project that I will monitor with interest over the months ahead.

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  1. […] instead using Ning-based websites to engage directly with existing and potential customers (see my Element14 post); someone else added that social media was often more cost-effective for SMEs (see The internet as […]

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