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Electronics distributor activates community site

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With the tools of online publishing costing pennies on the dollar compared to just a few years ago, British electronics distributor Premier Farnell is seizing the opportunity to become a publisher.

The $1.2 billion company distributes more than 450,000 products globally to an audience of electronic design engineers. These customers have a voracious appetite for information and are constantly tweaking their creations to squeeze out better performance and efficiency. They also love to share.

It’s that last trait that intrigued Premier Farnell’s marketers. While engineers have plenty of places on the Web to find information, there are relatively few sites where they can trade tips. The distributor figured it could fill that need. In June, Element14 was born.

Element14 (named for silicon, the most basic material in computer chips) is a new kind of content-marketing concept. Engineers can use the community features to ask or respond to questions, post documents and share ideas. Premier Farnell’s 440 supplier partners are members, too. To date, the community has generated about 10,000 content items such as block diagrams, presentation materials, audio and video. Premier Farnell is betting that becoming a trusted source of advice will entice engineers to do business with them.

“One key to success has been to stop thinking of the site as an extension of our brand and start thinking of it as a community,” said Jeff Hamilton, director of design engineer marketing at Premier Farnell. The same goes for the participating suppliers, he said. The more they participate, the better their reputation with the community.

Element14 is kind of Facebook for design engineers. Built on Jive Software’s Clearspace platform, it allows members to see and comment on each other’s activities and documents, as well as launch their own discussion topics. There’s also a growing stable of designated experts who field tough questions from members and share their answers with everyone. Although many of the experts are Premier Farnell suppliers, being a supplier doesn’t automatically qualify them. “They have to demonstrate significant expertise in their area,” Hamilton said. “This is not about advertising.”

While Element 14 is still cutting its baby teeth, initial results are promising. Membership is in the thousands, and more than 30 suppliers are contributing content. Premier Farnell keeps a close eye on which topics are trending up in order to better forecast inventory needs.

Even better, the site is generating sales leads.

The investment to launch the site was “significant,” according to a spokeswoman, with design, usability testing and development taking about six months. A small full-time staff supports the environment, and more than 100 Premier Farnell people across the globe have contributed to it.

While engineers don’t visit Element14 specifically to buy products, “The average order value that comes from Element 14 referrals is on par with what we get on our transactional site,” Hamilton said.

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