A New Year’s Eve tweet announced the launch of the Nike Community Forum. You could be forgiven for not noticing. Today, promotion of the forum has been removed from the site’s navigation bar, and social media conversations regarding the forum are next to none. Yet the Nike Community Forum is one of Nike’s greatest opportunities — a way to bring its Nike+ mobile users to their website (an e-commerce conversion opportunity) and create a truly active and engaging ecosystem of athletes.
Nike is often praised for their innovative brand campaigns and grassroots community development via running clubs. However, like many brands, Nike is struggling to translate their aspirations into a thriving online community, as embodied in their forum. Their efforts form a cautionary case study for other brands looking to jump into the “community” game.
Nike’s forum ought to be a cornerstone of Nike’s transition from sticker-shock endorsement deals to community-driven brand-building given the upside. Although we’d all prefer to be as fit as our favorite athlete, it’s not our full-time job; it takes small steps over a long period of time to obtain our training goals. That’s when learning and encouragement from peers becomes valuable, not just to Nike’s customers but also to Nike itself. With the support of friends, the occasional jogger becomes a regular runner, and eventually, a more frequent and lucrative Nike customer. Further, the forum ought to be an opportunity for Nike to gather the customer feedback that fosters product improvements, shorter product development cycles, improved marketing strategies, and new distribution channels.
Despite all this potential, however, the community features Nike offers have fallen short. Yes, Nike+ is more than a mileage tracking app and FuelBand is more than a fancy pedometer; both, like the forum, are gateways into their “community.” And yet slapping the label “community” on a userbase doesn’t make it one. Nike trumpets the accomplishments of its users — 1.4 million half-marathons in 2013, and 57.3 million Nikefuel goals reached. But a community’s accomplishments are only valuable as a metric if the accomplishments are a result of the community’s engagement with one another. To truly bring its community to life, Nike needs enable runners to engage with each other in a meaningful way and measure results accordingly. Its forum, with the purpose to “inspire, educate and achieve our goals together,” is the perfect environment in which to make this happen — if well executed.
First, Nike needs to get clear on what type of forum they want. Generally speaking, there are two types of forums: informational and conversational. Informational forums include StackExchange,Yahoo Answers and GetSatisfaction; content is meant to be useful and searchable over a long period of time. Conversational forums include Reddit and Facebook groups; content here is fleeting as the conversations come and go. Nike’s forum, however, lacks this kind of clarity of use; is this forum meant to be informational or conversational? Lasting or ephemeral? All of the above, as it’s currently designed. High-value, informational content such as users discussing treatments for strained IT bands is right next to fleeting comments such as “ran 5 miles today! whoo!” The latter type of content is distracting and simply not as valuable as the former; if they want to keep it, however, it belongs elsewhere within Nike’s platform.
Additionally, forum content should be organized according to general topics of utility. Currently, posts are categorized by topics such as “motivation,” “achievements,” and “training,” and subforums of achievements such as “run 10k,” or “earn more NikeFuel.” While certainly Nike’s intent here is to inspire action, this content organization isn’t useful because it doesn’t map clearly to users’ needs. Informational content relevant to the “run 10k” subform could be just as relevant to the “earn more NikeFuel.” Rather than duplicating content, it would make more sense for searchability purposes to organize subforums by more user-focused athletic topics such as “long-distance running,” “weight training,” and more specific tags such as “speed,” “marathon,” or “beginner.” This reorganization would better capitalize on the forum’s potential with informational content that has longevity, is more searchable and discoverable, and most importantly, has more clear expectations for engagement between members.
Finally, Nike should consider how their forum connects to their app. What if runners could access the best forum content on the go (for the part of the forum that is informational)? Or, if members could submit their completed runs from the app to browser-based activity feed on forum for digital high-fives (for the part that is conversational)? While most brands considering forums and other community-driven digital initiatives are concerned about negative brand backlash and the use of community properties to vent customer frustrations, Nike’s example shows what is much more likely: that instead of an angry mob, your forum will remain desolate without clear purpose and scope, thoughtful organization and proper promotion.
A forum such as Nike’s has the potential to be a valuable long-term resource to the community and set the bar for other branded forums. By narrowing the scope of the forum, reorganizing the content categories, and connecting its in-app, online and offline community efforts, Nike’s forum will have a better chance of vitality. If well executed, Nike has the opportunity to not only to build generation of athletes that inspire each other, but also to increase brand affinity and create a long tail of lifetime high-value customers.