Diet Firms Score Where Coke, Walmart Fumbled

After trying numerous self-concocted diets, 54-year-old Elena Farley has finally lost 47 lbs. and 40 inches—a move she credits not to self-discipline or an intense weight loss regimen, but with joining and sticking with an online community.

Farley, a homemaker in Blackfoot, Idaho, signed up for a high-protein diet on Atkins’ online member community 16 months ago, and she attributes her success (she is 35 pounds away from her goal weight) to the support and interaction she’s received from fellow members on the site.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but it sure has turned out to be extremely helpful. And honestly, I don’t think I would have done as well if I hadn’t stayed and participated,” she said of joining the Atkins community after her hairdresser first recommended she try the diet program.

To date, she’s logged more than 5,000 posts, and signs on “for at least a couple of hours” each day, “unless there is other stuff going on. I’m addicted to it. It’s embarrassing,” she said of her involvement in the online community.

Farley is not unique. Since the explosion of MySpace and Facebook, companies who sell everything from yogurt to electronic appliances have been trying to create their own version of the popular social networking sites. Weight loss and diet brands, however, seem to have an easier time doing it.

Atkins’ online community grew by 1 million consumers in 2009 to 2.5 million. Nutrisystem has 4.6 million participants—”and counting,” its Web site adds. That’s compared to a member launch base of 1 million in June 2007, Nutrisystem’s svp of e-commerce, Brandon Ridenour, said. And Kellogg, which also sells weight management protein bars, shakes and cereals, said traffic to its Special K site increased by 1,319 percent versus the previous year.

Such figures are impressive, particularly since marketers like Walmart and Coca-Cola, among others, have tried and failed to create their own robust social networks.

ComBlu, a firm that specializes in community and influencer marketing, published a report which found that few companies have been able to launch robust social networks.

In its research, ComBlu looked at 135 online communities across 45 Fortune 500 brands. Within that group, only 20 percent had a “cohesive strategy,” Kathy Baughman, one of the firm’s principals, said. The majority of marketers (47 percent) set up social networks purely for “experimentation,” while 24 percent of these sites simply became “ghost towns” with no growth in membership or activity, and 9 percent were  simply “community overload,” meaning companies set up multiple communities and marketing initiatives to reach the same audience.

Mike Arauz, a strategist at NYC-based digital think tank Undercurrent, said weight loss brands have a built-in advantage. “People come together on the Web for various, basic, human social desires. But they need some kind of currency to connect with each other,” and dieting, or weight loss, provides that kind of social value, he said.

“What diet and weight loss [brands] have as an added bonus is that there is already this behavior of people coming together for things like losing weight and staying fit” that existed long before the Internet came around, he said.

Weight loss marketers may be the exception to the rule, but Baughman also stressed that companies across all industries can build and grow online communities. In the case of weight loss, brands can easily engage people via online tools like a meal planner and dieting diary, or via conversations with a nutritionist or other fitness/health experts. “If there is no reason for people to come back on a daily basis, you’re not going to keep people hooked,” she said. Besides, she added, “What has more frequent and daily utility than weight loss?”