Amid a sea of corporate Web sites offering mainly dry company information, Procter & Gamble Co. is trying to reinvent PG.com as a marketing tool that incorporates marketing, research, e-commerce and customer service.
The site, which relaunched last month, now includes a Try & Buy New Products section that sells a handful of P&G products still in test market as well as a Help Create New Products section that channels consumers into virtual, real-time focus groups.
P&G executives still expect PG.com's primary audience to be the same "stakeholders"--current and prospective employees, retirees and shareholders--who were the primary visitors to the site before it was revamped. Indeed, P&G tested the restaged site with each group prior to making it public. Critical Mass, Calgary, Aberta, handled.
TESTING NEW APPROACHES
But P&G said it also hopes to channel consumers to its main site through links from dozens of other sites it maintains for individual brands, and to use its experience with PG.com to test approaches that could be used elsewhere.
"Any company knows that the consumers who care enough to dialogue with (the company) have the potential to be among the very best consumers, and if they don't take advantage of that they lose," said Mark Schar, VP-iVentures and consumer knowledge at P&G.
While P&G is selling products, such as Crest Whitestrips, a product for whitening teeth, through PG.com, the goal is to build buzz behind the eventual rollout to food, drug and mass-merchandising channels, P&G said.
In a revamped feedback section that goes well beyond the e-mail links found on most corporate sites, PG.com allows consumers to click their way into forums to offer opinions on a variety of P&G products and categories. The forums, hosted by interactive session application provider Recipio, also allow consumers to rate ideas put forward by other participants, Mr. Schar said.
"What happens is the idea or concept you have really begins to morph itself and it begins to become a summation of the community of people who are looking at it," he said. "Today, we get some smart people to write what we think people are interested in. Then, we do a bunch of testing back and forth. [The forum] gives you a chance to help that happen in real time. It's a very interesting concept and PG.com is kind of the first place we're testing it."
PG.com's use of Recipio is the latest in a series of moves to use more online market research by the package-goods giant, widely said to be the biggest buyer of market research services in the world.
"We used to spend $25,000 to field a new-product concept test that took two months to complete," P&G President-CEO A.G. Lafley told shareholders earlier this month. The same test can be done online for $2,500 in two weeks, he said.
"We can do four consumer learning cycles in the time it used to take to do one. The result: better ideas, faster."
P&G hasn't disclosed how much of its consumer research has moved online, but Mr. Schar said: "I would say it's pretty clear to all folks involved that the Internet is going to be the future backbone of our consumer research activity."
He said he likes both the "immediacy and texture" of the information that online research provides.
"You can see literally as a consumer goes through a concept and get instantaneous feedback about what they liked, what they didn't like (in ways) you could never do in a paper-based environment," Mr. Schar said.
He even sees something positive in a widely cited drawback to using online focus groups--lack of face-to-face contact.
"You don't get any one person dominating the conversation or any of the dynamics of human interactions that can suppress points of view," Mr. Schar said. "We find that people in an Internet environment are really unvarnished in their point of view. Read any chat room and you'll see."
ONLY DIFFERENCE IS NUMBERS
While online discussions such as the Recipio-powered forums on PG.com have the potential to replace qualitative, or focus-group testing, Mr. Schar said such forums ultimately may also replace at least some quantitative research.
"Down the road, the only difference between focus-group testing and broad-based concept testing is numbers," Mr. Schar said. "You ask enough people an open-ended question, pretty soon you have a projectable survey."
Clearly, PG.com visitors won't be a representative sample of the entire consumer population. Rather than a representative sample, P&G is trying to attract its most loyal and avid brand advocates. Aside from links to individual brands' sites, P&G's marketing of PG.com consists of communications to employees and shareholders.
Besides collecting their product ideas, P&G executives said they hope to leverage consumers' personal influence through its Try & Buy section, which sells products P&G is testing before they go into national retail distribution. The section incorporates content from P&G's Innovation Location site, which also has an offline component in mall kiosks that sell P&G test-market brands.
The idea of both PG.com and Innovation Location is to target so-called early adopters to build new-product buzz. Consumers who buy products through P&G.com can refer friends for e-mail or direct mail messages about the site and products.
For example, Crest Whitestrips are regular sizes, not sample sizes, and are priced at full retail--$44 in the case of a two-week supply of Whitestrips.
"Using the Internet to drive early awareness and seeding of new brands and products is clearly a model that we plan to take across many of our launches going forward," said Nathan Estruth, marketing director for iVentures at P&G. Though the goal is to build momentum prior to the retail launch, P&G is also generating revenue. Even before print and online advertising broke last month, publicity and other word-of-mouth efforts through dental professionals had helped put Whitestrips "in the top tier of business-to-consumer e-commerce launches" at comparable stages of development, Mr. Estruth said.
BETTER THAN SAMPLING
Selling new products through a site such as PG.com can be much more effective than online sampling sites, which are more likely to attract bargain hunters than brand advocates, said Pete Blackshaw, former P&G interactive brand manager and now CEO of PlanetFeedback.com.
"They want people who want to try new products, not just people who want to get something free," Mr. Blackshaw said. "That's a very important distinction. What you often find on the Web is free stuff that attracts the scavengers and that's not necessarily the audience you're going to be able to leverage."
Copyright October 2000, Crain Communications Inc.