ZURICH (Reuters Life!) - Luxury watchmakers are increasingly turning to online social network sites and forums to promote their products and satisfy a growing appetite for information about luxury timepieces, particularly in China.
Selling a luxury watch online remains out of the question for most upscale watch manufacturers but interactive websites, such as Facebook or Twitter, are precious tools for luxury brands keen to get to know their customers better.
Social media are important because they allow customers to quickly access the information they need. They are also a great means for us to get feedback from our customers, said Marc Guten, marketing director of high-end brand Vacheron Constantin, on the sidelines of a watch fair in Geneva last week.
The oldest Swiss watchmaker, which traces its origins to a small watch-making shop founded in 1755 and is now part of luxury goods group Richemont, launched its Facebook page in December and already has more than 10,000 friends who signed up to follow it.
Even though Facebook is not accessible in China, we have many posts in Chinese. There is a need to communicate which we need to satisfy, Guten said, adding that China was an important market for Vacheron Constantin.
Another project that should help the brand get in touch with Chinese customers and for which it is hiring 1-2 people in China is the translation of its online discussion forum, The Hour Lounge, created in 2007.
Watchmakers are stepping up investments to boost sales in China, which together with Hong Kong made up more than a quarter of Swiss watch exports during the first 11 months of 2010.
People in emerging markets are much keener on social media than elsewhere which makes social networks a particularly interesting tool in these regions, said Jean-Claude Biver, chief executive of LVMH watch brand Hublot.
Social media can help generate sales in the future by raising the brand's status and image and creating desire for the brand, Biver said.
Hublot is one of the most popular watch brands on social media websites, boasting more than 200,000 friends on Facebook and about 1,900 followers on twitter.
Watch and jewelry brand Piaget, also part of Richemont, said it had about 35,000 friends on Facebook.
It is a very direct way of getting in touch with our customers, particularly the younger ones, Piaget chief executive Philippe Leopold-Metzger told Reuters in an interview.
We know exactly who the people are who follow our Facebook page and only 20-25 percent are over 40 years old, he said.
Like Vacheron Constantin, Piaget already has a full-time employee based in Switzerland in charge of the brand's social media profiles and is about to hire a person in China.
We have to build up (our social media presence) in different geographical markets because you have to be on the ground to understand how social media sites work in the various countries, particularly in China, Leopold-Metzger said.
The next challenge is to move from a virtual contact established over the internet to a more tangible relationship.
Every time you can get in touch directly at a meeting or conference set up through social media that highlights the value to this sort of network, Hublot's Biver said.
Italian watchmaker Panerai, also owned by Richemont, even made a watch dedicated to the users of an online discussion site created 10 years ago and independent of the brand.
We made a watch to celebrate the Paneristi, who are the members of the internet forum dedicated to Panerai. We made three hundred pieces and in a week we had orders for 2,500 pieces, Angelo Bonati, head of the sports watch brand said.
I follow the forum and sometimes give answers under a nickname but I like to keep a little distance to make sure people feel free to post what they want, Bonati said.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)