Who says engineers don't know how to have fun?

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Engineers kicking back and having fun? Sure, why not, say the people at Premier Farnell, a worldwide multichannel distribution and specialty service for electronic design engineers. As part of all the enjoyment, however, the company's new series of viral videos, focusing on a passion for tinkering, has inspired a flood of traffic, page views and membership.

About 18 months ago the U.K.-based distributor's catalog sales arm launched a community site called Element14 to connect design engineers with each other and share tips and documents (we originally reported on it in September 2009). Last fall, the company decided to take Element14 to the next level by appealing to engineers' passion for tinkering.

It's called “modding,” or fiddling with hardware designs to make machines do things they weren't originally intended to do. The company hired Benjamin J. Heckendorn, whose skills at modding game consoles has made him a bit of a legend. His charter: to come up with clever and fun ideas for tinkering with electronics using parts that Element14 sells, record the whole thing as a video series and see what happens.

Well plenty has happened. The first nine episodes of “The Ben Heck Show” racked up more than 1 million views. The most-watched episode, in which Heck created a see-through shirt for Halloween by connecting a laptop display on the front of his garment to a camera mounted on the back has logged more than 300,000 views. PCWorld called it one of the 10 best hacks of 2010.

Other episodes in the series show Heck modding an Xbox 360 with a foot-operated game controller and building a pinball machine from scratch.

Each show features details only an engineer could love, such as how to disassemble a device held together by security screws. The show notes list the equipment and materials Heck uses, and also links to the catalog pages on the Element14 e-commerce site. A partnership with Make magazine, which has a loyal following of do-it-yourselfers, gives first-time customers an additional incentive to buy.

But the program's primary mission isn't to drive sales. Rather, the creators wanted to build Element14 registrations and enhance the company's affinity with its audience. Emphasizing the playful side of engineering was recognition that “professional engineers don't stop on the weekends,” Hamilton said.

The results have been impressive. Element14 traffic doubled shortly after “The Ben Heck Show” debuted, and page views are up fivefold over the past year—to more than 500,000 a month. Membership is up fourfold since the middle of last year, and 80% of customers making a first-time buy come in through the community. About 15% of people who come to the community visit the transactional site.

”The Ben Heck Show” isn't cheap to produce, but Hamilton says the impact of the show on the Element14 brand “has been enormous.”

“If you had told me when we first set out that the show would become the second most popular page on our site, I would have said it's impossible. But it's taken on a life of its own,” he said.

Paul Gillin is an Internet marketing consultant and the author of three books about social media. He also writes the New Channels column in BtoB.

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