A Gear Retailer Makes User-Generated Content Pay

When sports gear retailer Backcountry.com launched an expanded online community in 2008, the founders considered it a marketing experiment. But a year later, interacting with 85,000 outdoor "fanatics" has transformed the mission of his 650-employee company, says President John Bresee. The open community takes Backcountry.com's content beyond just "what we say" and makes it all about "what they say," says Bresee, who founded the Park City (Utah) company with CEO Jim Holland in 1996. He spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein; edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

You and your partner founded Backcountry.com 13 years ago. Did it start out online?

Yes. We have a store in Salt Lake City, near our warehouse, because we have to have a physical location to satisfy our vendor agreements. But that's not what we're skilled at.

I'm a road and mountain biker and a skier, and Jim is a fanatical mountaineer and telemark skier. We began with the initial Web site because having fantastic outdoor experiences is our passion. We now have 10 specialty outdoor stores, all online, that focus on high-end camping, climbing, skiing, ice-climbing, and action sports like surfing and snowboarding. In June 2007 Jim and I sold a controlling interest in the company to Liberty Media Corp., but we still own part of the company and we're still running things.

Your Web site already encouraged customer reviews on the products you sell. How and why did you expand customer-generated content last year?

We started the reviews in 2001, and they've been very powerful. But our goal was to create perfect product content, and we realized the only way to get that was to turn over as much of the content as we could to our community of users. People are so careful with their gear dollar now, because they have to make it go much further. We found that people join the community because they have a good experience making a purchase, they were influenced by someone else's review or Q&A, and then they jump in and add content themselves.

The big interactive experience we added initially was questions and answers and that went nuts. People just love to ask product questions, and the community loves to jump in and answer them.

Why do people spend time answering your customers' questions if they are not benefiting monetarily?

We've always followed the rules laid out in How to Win Friends and Influence People. That book talks about how crucial it is for people to feel important in their communities. We researched that idea and guessed that people would also care about being important in a community created by an e-tailer. So we created something called the Gear Guru Leaderboard, where we rank customers' interaction with the site. It turns out that people really care about becoming the No. 1 ice-climbing reviewer on our leaderboard.

You have interactivity on your main sites and all the related sites, but there isn't a separate customer forum. How do you integrate customers into your content?

Our belief is that user content should exist to directly support the products we sell. So we don't have a video area where people can upload videos of people snowboarding. We don't have any authority in the world of snowboard videos, but we do have some authority in that we're good at selecting products for snowboarding. So that's where the content goes—right on the product description pages.

Besides answering questions and reviewing products, what do customers do on your sites?

We allow them to upload photos of their gear and vote on content and reviews. What's interesting is that we have sponsored athletes participating and a lot of manufacturers' reps as well. They are identified as reps when they comment. Another thing we've done is create a place where discontinued products sort of live on forever as a sort of tribute to that product. For instance, I had a favorite pair of skis, and I wanted that page to stay online even after the product wasn't being sold anymore. For people who are passionate about their sports, the products become very emotional and connect us to other people who've had the same experiences with them.

How much has it cost Backcountry to create and maintain this customer interaction?

It's a pretty big commitment, but we believe this is the answer to how you run third-generation ecommerce. We haven't put a specific cost around it yet, but a lot of our engineering effort goes to develop this notion. We have a content team of 32 people who are our copywriters and photographers responsible for creating the basic content for all 10 Web sites under the Backcountry umbrella. In terms of the content itself, the community members upload and edit their own content and police it.

People commenting anonymously online can behave rudely and disrupt conversations just to get attention. How do you monitor the comments on your sites?

We don't approve content, we don't edit, we don't mediate in any way. We allow the community to flag content that is inappropriate, and then it gets put in a separate area where the community can look at it and decide if it's not so bad or if it is. People commenting online can be absolutely terrible, I agree. But I realized that I'm not the right guy to be making the call on what's appropriate and what's not. There are people in the physical world who are naturally creators or editors or police. We let them all make their own rules and keep the sites as places where they want to hang out.

What has adding an online community meant to your bottom line?

It's been significant in a number of ways. It's been a brutal year in the outdoor industry, but our sales are up. We'll have solid year-over-year growth in 2009, and that's a lot to say in this hypercompetitive and cutthroat economy. I credit a good part of that growth to this community strategy; our conversion rate goes up significantly on the pages that include user-generated content.

When you look at our sites, compared to our competitors' sites, the product content is roughly equal but the difference is in community content that makes ours a hundred times what theirs are. Having the customer content also has driven a lot of organic search engine traffic to our sites. And it's been good for our vendor partners, too. Our site has become a forum for them to discuss and answer questions on every piece of gear they sell through our stores. It's a chance for them not only to build direct sales relationships with the customers but also to listen to what customers have to say about their products.

Is it frustrating that all this information you're hosting may eventually help your competitors if people get feedback on your site and buy somewhere else?

This customer community has become who we are. Our mission is to enable people to have the most tremendous adventures of their lives. There's no way for us to accomplish that mission without letting people take control of this. Yes, we educate people online and then they may go into their neighborhood retail stores and buy from them. But that's O.K. with us.

We're going to try everything we can to get the sale online, but there's a funny rule about e-commerce. The online conversion rates are 2% to 10%, whereas some physical stores—like grocery stores—have 100% conversion rates. But we hope with this community that we can create such great content that people come to us first when they're going to buy.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.