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Tutorials: Sony's new Internet marketing secret

Sony is building customer community and brand loyalty, and boosting sales, with the help of online tutorials.

Marketers at Sony Corp., seeking an alternative to tired traditional Internet marketing methods, have found a new way to connect with consumers -- online courses.

Two years ago, Sony launched its first online tutorial, providing tips and information on digital photography, and it has since expanded to four. Entitled Sony 101, it provides four "campuses" for online visitors: personal computing, home entertainment, digital photography, and business solutions for the small business. Visitors to the site can enroll in any of the campuses, which typically feature four to five courses each month and include content on a specific topic with an expert in the field. For example, the first course currently listed in the digital photography campus is "Digital from Day 1: Record Your Life in a Digital Scrapbook." The content is generic to the industry and generally free of Sony marketing messages, apart from a sidebar that pops up throughout the course offering relevant Sony products.

"We did not want the content to be an infomercial where we were only promoting Sony," said Barbara L. Miller, director of corporate marketing Web services with the Tokyo-based company. "We wanted it to speak to changes in technology and industry-wide topics."

Sony partners with Powered Inc., an Austin, Texas-based online consumer education technology vendor that helps provide the content, plus a hosted software platform and marketing and data services. Sony contributes its own internal and marketing resources, and feedback from its customer service centers, to help create the courses.

Sony measures the success of the program based on the number of visits the campuses receive, registration, enrollment and conversion to sales and retention (how many times a user returns for a new course). Sony also surveys its customers after the courses to find out whether the content is appropriate and whether they'd recommend it to a friend.

The results of the four campuses have been encouraging. Sony has received a favorability rating of more than 90% from its customers, and those who take the course are not only more likely to buy an item they're learning about, they are more likely to buy a Sony product.

"We found that more than 60% of our audience is brand-loyal to Sony and more than 80% would recommend the program to a friend," Miller said. @21599

The courses also foster community between Sony and its customers. The more than 80,000 registered members provide feedback and insight via questions to the instructors, helping Sony anticipate customer service questions.

Sony is expanding the courses to external sites. This week, for example, iVillage completed a series of consumer courses, underwritten by Sony as part of its educational outreach to women and technology. Throughout the course, Sony makes relevant products available. More than 25% of all students clicked through to a Sony Electronic micro-site and more than 15% purchased a Sony product as a result.

"We're always looking at emerging marketing media opportunities, especially where it comes to educating the consumer," Miller said. "Sony as a brand has always been a technology leader. It's our responsibility to break down some of these questions that come up. It helps to support our overall position in market and brand."

A study from Next Century Media sponsored by Powered found that online consumer education produces ROI nearly 300% higher than traditional campaigns. The survey of nearly 200,000 consumers who participated in Powered online courses also found that students who complete online courses are 29 times more likely to buy products compared with traditional media advertising and five times more likely to buy compared with direct marketing.

"We think this is a critical channel for marketers to consider," said Dave Ellet, CEO of Powered. "People are looking for ways to cut through the clutter. Things like Webinars and white papers really do close the sale. That's what we're trying to do on the consumer side -- educate the consumer."

The courses also encourage people to buy bigger-ticket items. The average consumer who goes through a course buys 63% more than he or she intended, Ellet said. For example, someone who completes an online course in digital photography might feel more confident in purchasing the higher-end camera.

"Consumers are changing," said Buck Krawczyk, vice president of marketing at Powered. "Consumers want to try these things themselves. They want to engage themselves rather than have the message shoved at them."

There is an appetite for this sort of information, whether it's reviews from product users or experts, and online courses offer a user-friendly blend of marketing material and owner's manual, said Peter Kim, senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. The question for marketers is whether they want to turn to a third party to provide those courses.

"The customer relationship is the key," Kim said. "Certainly companies need to be careful of ceding that relationship to a third party. If [they] rely on a third party, fine, but [they need to] understand they lose some control."

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