How Rent-A-Center leverages its online community for brand decision-making
The furniture and electronics firm has an "Inner Circle" of more than 3,000 members to help guide choices on products, pricing and more.
When Rent-A-Center decided to start a fundraising effort in September encouraging consumers to support food banks, it knew the campaign needed a good name. The final choice of "Fill the Fridge," however, which consumers will see on posters throughout more than 30,000 stores next month, was not only determined by its staff but also through an online network of consumers that's helped guide an increasing number of decisions over the past two years.
Rent-A-Center (RAC) has been using its Inner Circle online community — which is designed to look like a social network but operates more like a marketing analytics tool on the back end — across not only marketing but also operations and merchandising. The portal, which has more than 3,000 members to date, offers comments and feedback on everything from the color of price tags (members preferred green over red) to gauging interest in new products.
According to Jennifer Moretti, RAC's senior manager of marketing research, the company already has a large presence on more traditional, public-facing social networks. Its Facebook page, for instance, has more than 645,000 followers. Inner Circle was never intended to replace that.
"For us, it makes sense to have both as they serve different roles," said Moretti via email, describing Inner Circle as an extended "member" of RAC's Customer Insights team, a go-to resource for answering questions and providing guidance on what the company does both on a day-to-day basis and in the longer term. "It allows us to incorporate actual customer opinions, not just what we think they are feeling and experiencing."
Inner Circle was developed by Los Angeles-based Fuel Cycle, which has created similar online communities for brands including AIG, Hertz and Elle. Members answer survey questions and find out how their feedback has an impact on the brand.
"What Rent-A-Center is doing is having this two-way dialogue," said Mai Kang, Fuel Cycle's vice-president of client services. "They become these willing and engaged people who feel like part of the company."
Marketing to gain members
Unlike a public-facing social network like Facebook, Inner Circle requires some specialized marketing from RAC to attract, engage and retain members. Moretti said some of the tactics have included in-store flyers, posts on its blog and monthly newsletter and a second flyer that went out through a direct mail campaign. Another email invite will be sent to current customers later this year, while some recruiting may happen through RAC's social networks, Moretti added.
"One of the biggest challenges of the community is providing fresh content for our members on a frequent basis," she said, admitting that weekly surveys "wouldn't be very interesting or exciting," for members.
Instead, RAC adds links to its blog, videos and sometimes gives members an early notification about giveaways taking place on Facebook. Last year, the company also shared information on its "Make A Difference" scholarship program, which Moretti said contributed to a major boost in applications.
Without giving exact figures, Moretti said "several hundred" of the 3,000 registered members are regularly active, and some have been there since the community launched in 2015. Internal research has also shown that more than half of its customer prospects had signed their first agreement with RAC since joining Inner Circle.
"On one hand, it's wonderful to gain more customers. On the other, it means we need to be constantly recruiting for this important group," she said.
Fuel Cycle offers a self-service version of Inner Circle for brands that have their own community management resources, a full-service tier for those that don't and a hybrid tier for firms that may just need a particular level of assistance. Besides offering more granular data about who engaged with particular pieces of content, private online communities offer brands more control than public social networks, Kang added.
Value for your audience
Success with online communities depends in part on knowing what's most valuable to your audience, Kang said. For B2B firms, for instance, connecting with peers and saving time through instant access to resources can drive a lot of engagement. For B2C, it may depend on demographics.
"We found with certain communities who are heavy with millennial customers, something with gamification really helps, where you tell them it's five points to do a certain activity," she said.
Over time, Moretti said RAC wants to move the community from being strictly research-focused to more of a place where customers and prospects can come to share their RAC stories, ask questions and learn more about the company.
"We want to get to know our customers, (to) welcome them by name to our stores," she said. "We want them to see us as life-long partners, not a one-time, 'just need-it-now' solution as we provide them with the buying power and payment plans."