All about content: Whirlpool’s niche Web sites build brand affinity

Whirlpool’s online hubs about cooking and cleaning, coupled with its social media presence, tout Whirlpool’s expertise without promoting its products in a crassly commercial way.

Missy Stevens had a laundry problem.

Like many others in her position, she turned to Twitter for help.

“#Whirlpool, any thoughts on why the clothes get so tangled in the washer? I can’t imagine they’re getting clean when tied in knots,” she wrote. “Help!”

In stepped Whirlpool’s Institute of Fabric Science, first to simply ask which washer she had—it was a Whirlpool Duet Stream—then offering up a series of tweets suggesting she use a shorter cycle, lower the spin speed, load fewer items and mix up the items in each load.

At no point did the Institute’s tweeter tell Stevens she needed to buy some new doo-dad to make her washer work better. And that’s the whole point of the Institute of Fabric Science and its sister, the Institute of Kitchen Science, says Monica Teague, senior manager of PR and brand experience for Whirlpool. Acting as a resource—versus promoting products—goes a long way in developing brand loyalty.

“The greatest satisfaction I get is when a consumer writes me and says, ‘Thank you so much, you helped me,'” she says. “We’re not trying to push product down their throat. We’re trying to help them.”

From hotline to fan page

Whirlpool’s institutes aren’t some recent social media creation, Teague says. They’re more like direct descendants of the 800-number hotline—the first of its kind—Whirlpool set up in 1967 to answer consumer questions and get feedback.

That hotline, which still takes 14 million calls monthly and 300,000 e-mails yearly, evolved into the Institute of Fabric Science and its accompanying website in 2000.

“That institute is made up of various folks who work here at Whirlpool, from home economists to engineers,” Teague says. “Basically all they do is eat, sleep and drink laundry.”

It wasn’t until this year that a brainstorming session led Whirlpool to take a similar approach to the kitchen, launching the Institute of Kitchen Science in April at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show. Just like the Institute of Fabric Science, Whirlpool’s kitchen institute aims to help customers learn the best ways to load their dishwashers, organize their refrigerators and prepare food.

Also this spring, Whirlpool launched the institutes’ Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. The Institute of Fabric Science also has a YouTube channel.

“The social media tools have been an addition,” Teague says. “Consumers are still e-mailing us, they’re still calling us. They’re still reaching out to us through traditional methods. But we also recognize that there is a ton of consumers who are out there on the Internet and that’s their choice for how to communicate.”

Finding experts, keeping it friendly

The experts in Whirlpool’s two institutes—where they do thousands of loads of laundry and cook thousands of goodies each year in the name of research—are all Whirlpool employees, many of whom have worked there for years.

“The PR team basically reached out in the organization to the folks who work in the labs and put them through little interviews to figure out who would be best, who’s in what role,” Teague says.

One of the key criteria for experts who work in the institutes, she says, is an ability to present information in a friendly, upbeat tone. Teague and a team at Peppercom Strategic Communications run the sites and their social media arms, but the experts need to be on-message too, she says. Whirlpool experts host demonstrations on a number of cooking and cleaning-related topics.

“We absolutely picked people who do an awesome job, but maybe don’t take their job so seriously that they can’t bring it down to the consumer level,” Teague says.

Not only do experts need to help customers out with fun activities like hosting a dinner party, they also have to be able to avoid making chores seem like chores.

“If you’ve got 15 loads of laundry to do and maybe that chore is a drag, but we don’t need to be a drag and be a boring website or Facebook page,” Teague says. “We want to offer you a little fun and information in getting that chore done quickly.”

A recent post on the Institute of Kitchen Science’s Facebook page asks, “Did you know a 6″ pot on an 8″ burner wastes over 40 percent of that burner’s heat? To save energy, use pots and pans with flat bottoms that fit the burners.” The page also links to stories of interest—What’s on the outside of your fridge?—and offers pumping carving inspiration.

Whirlpool’s Brian Snyder and Scott Spiegel discuss how they keep messaging consistent on- and offline.

Growing slowly

The institutes’ Facebook pages and Twitter feeds don’t have what Teague calls huge numbers of followers—a few hundred for each—but that’s OK for now.

“We’re doing this in a very slow, methodical way,” she says. “You have to do a lot of listening, so that’s a lot of what we’re doing right now. Where it makes sense, we’re offering a solution.”

Teague says Whirlpool is more interested in participation than huge numbers.

“We want followers and fans in what are going to be active with our pages, that are going to talk with us,” she says. “I don’t want a million followers that are not going to be engaged with what we’re talking about.”

And Whirlpool’s looking for that engagement beyond the Web. The PR team has started including links to the Twitter and Facebook pages at the bottom of press releases, but they’re also sending their experts out to appliance stores and events to prove the institutes are real places.

Plus, they’ve invited reporters from magazines such as Good Housekeeping and mommy bloggers to tour their labs, Teague says. It’s all in the name of making sure people know Whirlpool is the authority when it comes to making and using appliances, she says.

“We have the know-how, we have the people we have the expertise,” Teague says.

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