Sometimes innovation begins with a return to basics. Community, utility, passion and engagement were the web’s building blocks long before we started counting tweets, ‘likes’ and shares. Brands are fully familiar now with the enormous potential of fans, friends and followers, but assessing the commercial value of those relationships can be an imprecise science. Sneakerpedia, the award-winning interactive site created by SapientNitro for retailer Foot Locker is, as the name suggests, an encyclopaedia dedicated to sneakers and it represents a cool, creative and highly effective approach to user-engagement and brand-building.
Launched in April 2011 and operating on the familiar wiki model, the site enables users to upload images of their favourite sneakers. Some are boxfresh, some have seen action. Some come with stories, some don’t. Like Wikipedia, it runs on the infinite power of the internet’s hive-mind: every entry can be edited by every user. The result is an extraordinary museum of the tightest kicks (quick translation courtesy of urbandictionary: ‘new shoes that are ill’) on the block: limited editions, discontinued lines, high street favourites and high fashion high-tops.
What you won’t see on the site are blaring brand ads, deals of the day, shopping baskets or a checkout button. The Foot Locker branding is purposefully discrete and, covet them as you might, these shoes aren’t for sale. Part social history, part cult convention, Sneakerpedia
is a genuine community site, created by, with and for its users. So what did Foot Locker want to achieve, and how did this vast repository of knowledge help realise that objective? Malcolm Poynton, Sapient- Nitro’s Chief Creative Officer, begins by taking a step back to consider Foot Locker’s place within the market
“The interesting part of the story,” he says, “is there wasn’t a brief for Sneakerpdia, per se. What there was, was a client who had a longstanding engagement with their audience through having a traditional broadcast media deal with MTV, where they’d run three or four ads in rotation each year. Foot Locker was established in 1974. It’s the world’s largest sneaker retailer and pretty much the only one that’s genuinely agnostic to brands. But they’d been hugely challenged by actual sneaker manufacturers like Adidas, Lacoste and Nike, who have their own flagship stores, as well as by new start-up niche retailers. How can they compete in that space? They were losing that connection with the audience in whose eyes they’d become “just another shoe store”. So, in briefing for more ads it occurred to us that we needed to ask a lot more questions. And in asking those questions we discovered a bunch of things that conventional advertising could never solve.”
Foot Locker’s conversion rates, Poynton explains, were slightly below average in the shoe sector. Retention of frontline retail staff wasn’t great. And unlike their competitors, who stocked golf, football and tennis gear, thereby enabling them to spread the brand, Foot Locker only sold sneakers. Arriving at what the team refer to as the ‘organising idea’ – summed up as ‘enthusiasm beyond reason’ – SapientNitro realised that Foot Locker’s history and sneaker specialism held the key to a different sort of solution.
Since a TV spot was already written into Foot Locker’s media spend, a TV spot did indeed follow, but, says Poynton, “We thought, let’s not run something that has a full point at the end, as an ad agency would, because that’s not how consumers engage today. More subtle, yet critical, was the decision to write a spot with a comma at the end. So we did that, and the comma led on to the appropriately titled ‘Spank Quiz’ online.
Hitting the spot
This was a spicy little video campaign, launched in 2010, in which a naughty sneakerhead was whopped with his own high-tops. An app could be downloaded to Facebook and users were invited to match the shoe-shaped welts with a selection of footwear. That got pushed out across the social graph, enabling users to demonstrate and share their bottomless sneaker knowledge.
“Naturally,” says Poynton, “it provided much entertainment. But it also afforded us something in terms of the technology, because it gave people the opportunity to take their Facebook profile photo and have it 3D mapped onto the ‘spank spot’ and share that. The person
who got the most shares ended up having their spot run on MTV. That started the conversation and set the context for what was meant by ‘enthusiasm beyond reason’. All the while in the background, we started to develop and produce the ultimate piece for this conversation – Sneakerpedia itself.”
Launched in Beta in late 2010 and fully live from April 2011, key to the site’s success has been the way it’s designed and toned. Foot Locker’s own branding, explains Poynton, “was almost inverted, if you like, so it’s Sneakerpedia powered by Foot Locker. That was a
very well considered part of the equation, for the simple reason that brands going out and ramming something down people’s throats in the social space is not readily accepted. On the other side, we wanted to make sure this belonged first and foremost to consumers, not Foot Locker. It’s a wiki, after all, and it runs by wiki rules. It’s about the content people upload and share, and their enthusiasm for sneakers. It shows the generosity of the brand, but it’s also demonstrating their genuine passion for sneakers. It’s about a sense of connection. You know – ‘we love sneakers so much that we built this – we hope you love them enough to participate’. That’s the theory behind it.”
There isn’t a brand on the planet that doesn’t recognize the importance of social media. But how brands enter that space is critical. So why did Foot Locker set about creating their community from scratch, rather than seeking to recruit or build within an existing space?
“A careful look suggested there were very few communities active around sneakers,” says Poynton. “And there are challenges with going into pre-existing social platforms, especially with restraints you find around their format. And there are challenges, frankly, about
aspects of the data you want to get back after you’ve established that community.”
Above all, Poynton stresses the intimacy and immediacy of a bespoke site like Sneakerpedia. “This is a place where having an enormous data bank comes second and having a conversation comes first. And let’s not forget, it can cost a lot of money to have a conversation in pre-existing social platforms. People talk about how many fans a brand has. I think they often forget that a fan, for a brand, indicates nothing more than that someone has clicked a button. If you want to maintain that fan, then you’ve got to spend money on marketing in that place. You’ve got continually to have activity, events and promotions. It seemed to us a much more effective way was to build something that would cost less than that, and which would ultimately be self-perpetuating without having to be a huge drain on marketing resources.”
Poynton acknowledges the healthy risk associated with the strategy, but that sense of self-perpetuation is key to long-term social success. He describes how, while the site was in its Beta phase, the plan was to recruit 350 influencers willing to spread the word. With that in mind, he says, “We decided to make a film to explain Sneakerpedia. We put it, not in the wilderness of YouTube, but on Vimeo, where most people know more specialist-interest groups go. We had no seeding, nothing around it. We just uploaded it. A handful of people we knew from the sneakerhead convention Sneakerness started commenting and sharing, and then it just took off.”
Running with it
The Beta site received its first 350 registrations within a week. Over the next couple of weeks there were 40,000 more. “There were 6.7 online fans soon after launch,” says Poynton, “and around 4.5 million tweets around it. No marketing, no seeding, just pure engagement. And it’s based on something that’s not a commerce site.”
Engagement is its own reward, of course, but how does Poynton describe the value of data in this equation?
“Data is critical to the business,” he says, “and there are a number of things it gives in terms of an advantage. An understanding of the most popular discontinued sneakers affords Foot Locker the ability to have exclusive, limited edition reruns, which is a competitive edge.” The data is designed to impact on stock policy, store opening strategy and to enable Foot Locker to leverage customers’ sneaker knowledge and reciprocate their passion.
Poynton also points to the impact of the site’s visual design on the way data is gathered and used. “If you look at anything that’s user generated, it can be very hit and miss. You see that in any format, not least collectibles – wines, watches, sneakers.” With UGC, he says, it can also be hard to maintain usability. “It can be as if someone just got the groceries and tipped them upside down on the pavement. With Sneakerpedia, it’s easily digestible, and I think that’s an overlooked aspect in what keeps people coming back. Without that unique user experience functionality it wouldn’t have generated half the metrics.”
Sneakerpedia has been the inspiration for further projects, including a TV show about the largest sneaker collection in the world. The simplicity of the model also makes it highly adaptable; it can be applied to anything which users archive or collect. Finally, however, what sites like Sneakerpedia demonstrate is that there’s no clear demarcation between user sentiment or engagement and a hard return on investment: much like your favourite Converse, they exist as an inseparable pair. “The most efficient and effective way of reaching someone,” says Poynton, “is through sharing the passion.”
Article by Jon Fortgang