How Converse Became the Biggest Little Sneaker Brand on Facebook

Converse doesn’t have a huge advertising budget, but, judging by its social media fan base, it doesn’t seem to need one. Converse now has more than 15 million fans on Facebook, which is almost four times the number for its parent company, Nike and about eight times as many as Adidas.

How did Converse do it? Geoff Cottrill, Converse’s chief marketing officer, has said that one day he discovered that Converse had 8 million fans and was asked what the brand should do. “Nothing,” he replied. But, as the interview below reveals, there’s a bit more to it than that. In fact, Cottrill has engineered some clever social media programs for the brand that raise awareness for Converse without compromising its image. For instance, the brand is planning to open a recording studio in Brooklyn for up-and-coming bands this summer. But Converse is careful not to ask the bands plug any of its products. (Converse is also not planning to get into the music publishing business, Cottrill explains.) In the following Q&A, Cottrill discusses how he navigates social media, which is instructive to any marketer contemplating the space.

Q&A With Geoff Cottrill, Chief Marketing Officer, Converse

You’ve said on a few occasions that when you found out Converse had 8 million Facebook fans your reaction was “do nothing.” If that’s the case, what do they need you for?

By doing nothing, I meant doing nothing special. Our philosophy in social media has been to bring our voice to the medium, which includes acting like a good party guest — we bring something to the table, and we listen more than we talk. It also means not bringing campaigns from other channels verbatim to a platform that’s about conversation.

We think that the fans of any brand want to know about product and like offers too, but they also want to have an emotional connection -– we’re trying to be a good host for that connection. The bottom line is that in social media you have to “let go.” Forget about the old methods of one-way communication. Social media isn’t even a two-way conversation –- it’s more complicated than that. We’re lucky that we’ve got a brand that people have used for years to express their own personal style. Our job is to keep focused on making great products our consumers want to wear and to be a participant in the discussions going on in the social media space. By showing respect and trusting your consumers, I believe your brand benefits via strong advocacy –- having millions of advocates can be a powerful thing. You just have to let go and trust your consumers.

Aside from doing nothing, what’s your advice for engaging fans on Facebook

We mix it up with posts about product, posts about content and questions about topics of the day. Last year, for example, we posted a design-your-own shoe contest inspired by the Double Rainbow guy, who was blowing up that week on YouTube. Some of what we do is planned, but a lot of it is spontaneous. You have to be flexible and ready to talk about lots of topics — just like at a dinner party. We’re also learning a lot about posting tactics –- time zones, language, regional relevance, etc.

I go back to what I said earlier –- you have to have the courage to let go and not try to control the conversation or broadcast advertising messages every chance you get. Be respectful of the time between purchases of your product by adding value and contributing to the conversation. When it comes time again to purchase, your relationship with them should pay off.

How has Converse’s forays into music publishing helped the brand?

First off, we’re not in the music publishing business. Converse makes footwear, apparel and accessories. Our primary focus is and always will be to make great products that people want to wear for lots of different occasions. At some point in history, many within the music and artistic community adopted the Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star as their expression of individuality and independence. We’re extremely proud of the music initiatives we’ve done in the past. One of our goals as a brand is to give back and help inspire a new generation of musicians. This summer, we will open Converse Rubber Tracks, a new state-of-the-art recording studio in Brooklyn, New York, where artists can record at no cost. The studio will provide a platform for new musicians to overcome one of the biggest hurdles in their careers — affording studio time. Converse Rubber Tracks is one important way for us to say thank you to the creative and music community, and to provide a place for new artists to have access to resources they may not be able to afford. We’re looking at it as an investment in making sure that new voices have the means to be heard. We won’t own any of the content — it belongs to the artists who created it.

How do you measure success in social media? By raw numbers? Engagement? What’s the best metric out there?

We’ve definitely been lucky to grow and connect with a very large audience on Facebook, but aggregating fans feels like it’s coming to a close in 2011. The real metrics are the ones about engagement and ultimately, about connecting a conversation or brand affinity to results. I think a lot of brands are trying to figure that out right now — can social play a role in generating sales?

You ran a very clever campaign using Google search with terms like “How do I kiss a girl?” a few years ago. Have you done anything like that since then? If not, why not?

The insight of the program you mentioned, where we analyzed Google Trends to find out the how-to kinds of questions kids were asking, remains true today, except in a different place — Facebook. We continue to engage with kids on the topics they care about. We just finished making a few videos for kids to use to ask out their prom dates, for example. In another two years, we’ll engage via that same spirit of helping our kids out, in whatever new place they hang out.

A few sneaker companies have includes USB devices in their shoeboxes with “value add” media. Has Converse tried anything along those lines? What do you think of that?

Converse shoes aren’t about added technology or even about us. They’re about what our customer does in them. It works for other companies for sure, but that’s not our MO.

What is the most overhyped form of social media right now? Why?

Social media itself is a lot of hype, except for the potential for companies to act more like human beings and be forced into thinking about marketing and message control in a different (or now obsolete) way. But social media has the potential to mature into a powerful hybrid of traditional marketing techniques and community engagement, especially if that community becomes your brand advocates. Which is why we focus on a couple of core marketing truths via social –- be relevant, make a connection, be useful, etc.

How does Converse keep a consistent brand image across various forms of social media?

We focus a lot on tone of message, but modify those messages according to platform. For example, on Facebook and YouTube, we might feature video of new bands we caught at a music festival. Simultaneously, we’ll run a call-and-response for interview questions with those bands on Twitter. The key is to know yourself as a brand, be confident in your POV and act that way wherever you are.


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