Social networking is shrewd for SmartBargains

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The interests of U.S. consumers range from the mundane (holiday recipes) to the titillating (photos of hot guys) to the cerebral (politics), according to Gather.com's list of popular groups.

But it's the social networking site's demographics that pique the interest of marketers like Amazon.com, Starbucks and Warner Bros. Gather.com's 130,000 members and 1 million unique visitors in November ranged in age from 30 to 60, 72 percent had at least four years of college education and they tended to be an informed, engaged group of consumers. MySpace.com this isn't.

"The reason that we selected Gather [for a recent promotion] is that the audience is an ideal match for who we're trying to reach," SmartBargains.com director of marketing Joan Abrams said. "Word-of-mouth marketing has been very powerful for us, and Gather.com gives us great tools for expanding that reach."

SmartBargains has hosted a group on Gather.com, Boston, since February called The Art of Bargain Shopping, where bargain hunters share stories and ask questions. SmartBargains.com, Boston, periodically posts articles about bargain hunting and provides a moderator who poses questions and facilitates conversation.

On Oct. 20, the group turned into the Room for Improvement group, where members can win a $1,000 redesign of their bedroom by submitting an article about why they deserve to win along with a picture of their bedroom. With the submission period over, the Gather.com community is rating the submissions to pick the semifinalists. A guest judge, TV personality Jill Cordes, will choose the winner.

"In between customer transactions, we want to cement the relationship," Ms. Abrams said. "We created this promotion so customers can stay engaged and provide their personal experiences. People love to share information about themselves and the great bargains that they get."

On Nov. 17, the last day that submissions were accepted, the contest had helped increase membership about five times to 1,250 members. Submitted articles totaled 105.

"Writing contests are very popular with our audience," Gather.com president and chief operating officer Carl S. Rosendorf said.

Gather.com's layering of a social media aspect on top of the social networking is one factor that makes the site unique, Mr. Rosendorf said. In addition to posting articles, Gather.com members also can upload images or graphics. Soon they will be able to upload video.

"Once you load content, what is so dynamic about Gather.com is that a conversation ensues," he said. For example, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-IN, recently wrote an article giving his perspective on the 2006 elections, and 100 Gather members responded with their own comments.

Another unique aspect of Gather.com is that participating members share in its revenues. Every hour, Gather pools its revenue and shares that with the community by awarding points to members based on the popularity and quality of their articles. The points are good for gift cards from various merchants. Once a member earns 3,000 points in a month, he qualifies to earn cash. Hundreds of members earn cash every month, Mr. Rosendorf said.

"One of the challenges facing direct marketers and retail companies is increasing the recency and frequency of a consumer's purchase," he said. "They're looking for a vehicle to engage their customers in an ongoing manner between transactions, and social media provides them that opportunity."

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