Support Your Local Fan Site

14 Dec

A version of this appeared on ClickZ.

It’s the holiday season, so here’s a freebie Internet strategy: Become a gamer. That’s right, a stay-up-all-night-playing, while-away-your-days-waiting-to-play-again PC game player.

The fact is a lot of companies could learn a thing or two from computer gamers. Admittedly, interpersonal skills may not be high on the list (although some Quake III games look frighteningly similar to the crowds at the mall). But game companies have learned a lot about supporting their distribution networks, something most companies still don’t understand.

Too many companies invest heavily in their own web site then do nothing to support the online efforts of the distributors who ultimately deal with the customer. Looking for proof? Pick any major brand you’ll find in the Yellow Pages, anything from appliances to blue jeans.

Most of those companies will have a polished web site, chock full of crisp graphics, sharp writing and maybe even some opportunities for personalized communication. Now take a look at their local distributors’ sites, if you can find them all.

I’ve worked with local outlets that were lucky to have a digital version of the brand’s logo. One guy actually just scanned the logo from a newspaper ad.

Think about that. Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars establishing their brand, even protecting their trademarks in court. And yet, at the consumer’s point of purchase or initial contact online, there’s a logo that looks like it just rode the washing machine in a pair of jeans.

Now, let’s visit our gaming friends. Two of the biggest games this holiday season are Quake III and Unreal Tournament. For most of the past year, the publishers and developers have maintained basic sites touting the features of their upcoming release. If you wanted more details, both sites were loaded with links to sites developed by fans.

Companies in other industries are quick to shut down unauthorized web sites, just ask anyone with a penchant for Star Trek. But the game companies have learned that the guy who’s so excited about a game as to create a web site may have energy and credibility that’s worth harnessing.

So throughout the year, the best of these sites got to post new screen captures from the games. When the game companies needed to get the word out of a beta release, or an update, they just alerted the fan sites, the word spread from there.

Individually sites may not have much traffic, but taken in aggregate, they can create a tidal wave. Think back. How did you first come to download Netscape? Remember the Netscape Now button? There was no million dollar marketing campaign behind that. Netscape just made a cool button and provided anyone who wanted it the HTML to make it live.

Today leading MP3 player WinAmp is doing the same thing. At one time, the company even solicited for high-capacity sites that could host an FTP site for their software.

Why would anyone do all this for free? Who knows? Who cares.

Look, grassroots support is a time-honored tradition in our country. Just ask Ross Perot. And online, everyone likes to feel somehow linked to a winner. So if you find your company fortunate to be in that light, don’t ask why.

Instead, ask what you can do to help. Create lead generation tools on your site, then automatically forward the leads to the local dealers. If you want to get sophisticated, create a system that allows them to manage those leads and offer tools to respond quickly and easily. It’s a sure-fire way to strengthen your channel.

Develop other tools for your distributors, affiliates, friends, whomever, that ensure they have a quality site. It doesn’t have to be expensive. For example, create some guidelines on what to publish and where. To local companies struggling to create their first site, any tips are helpful.

For that matter, create an acceptable use policy for material on your site. Tell your distributors that it’s okay to swipe logos, but not the java applet. Or offer them the proper code for using the events calendar.

If you’ve got a banner campaign underway, create a private page where distributors can access those banners, and the links. Why wouldn’t you want the free placements?

Then make sure you’ve got a portion of your site where you can showcase what your dealers are doing. It helps the consumer accept that there really is a big brand backing their local purchase.

In the end, you may not have some bleary-eyed gamer raving about your product in a chat room. But then again, you might.