This is a text version of Jerome Pineau’s radio interview with star guest Alex Ghotbi.
Interview with Alex Ghotbi
Jerome As you know we had many different folks from the horology world here on What time is it for the past months. We had CEO’s, designers, brand founders, watchmakers, bloggers. I thought it was about time to bring on some of the folks who are in the same line of work I am in actually. Namely managing online communities and social media for luxury watch brands. There is one name that stands out real quick and it is Alex Ghotbi.
Why? Well real simple he runs social media and community for one of the most prestigious manufacturers in Switzerland namely Vacheron Constantin. Alex has been at community management since 2001 and he started with a presence on a well known forum. I will let him explain that to us. And today he is managing all aspects of community and social media for Vacheron Constantin, so let’s ask him what it takes him to do this job. How are you?
Alex: Jerome, thanks for inviting me.
Jerome: What watch are you wearing today?
Alex: I have a Vacheron Constantin, in titanium and platinum, my favourite model.
Birth of the Hour Lounge
Jerome: I’d like to talk about your background, and how you started off as a high price attorney, and are now community manager, social media manager at one of the most prestigious watch brands in the world. Take us through that, what happened what made you do this?
Alex: Just so you know, I have been interested in watches for the past twenty years. I am 40, so in my early 20s I started getting interested in watches. I went through law school, I worked as a lawyer in different law firms and companies for 12/13 years. But I always had this idea of working in watches. At the time. the only way I could see myself getting close to watches was on the net. And in 2001 with Thomas Mao, the founder of website The Purists, which is now today The Purists Pro. We had a discussion on launching, its a funny story because Vacheron was already involved in creating the Purist.
At the time I was looking to buy a specific Vacheron watch, and I posted “a want to buy “on Timezone in 1998. Thomas contacted me saying he had this watch for sale, I didn’t buy it. But we started discussing because at the time on Timezone there was no Audemars Piguet forum. It was a brand which I really appreciated, so they created one on my blog. So I ended up becoming the very first poster on that forum, and very rapidly I launched the Vacheron Constantin forum there that was back in 2001.
And little by little, I learned about the brand. I met everybody here at Vacheron Constantin. In 2005 for the 250th anniversary we had created some very exclusive previews and events with the Purists and Vacheron Constantin, at the time the idea came, why don’t you create your own in-house forum? Because you have all the information, this is what everybody wants – information and in depth views about the manufacturing. So after a few years, in 2007 we launched with Vacheron Constantin, the in- house forum called the Hour Lounge.
Jerome: Did you come up with the name for that?
Alex: Yes. then, at the time I was still practising as a lawyer, doing moderating the Hour Lounge in my free time. So basically I had no life left. As a lawyer I did not have much of my life left. Even my kids did not recognise me. I told Vacheron Constantin this is getting too complicated for me. Why don’t you come work for us full time in community management and a relationship with our collectors. It’s like asking a kid to work as Disney Land. So here I am, I have been here for two and a half years now since 2008.
Working for Vacheron Constantin
Jerome: You stopped being an attorney and you work for them full time. You are managing the community. What’s the first thing you do? People are on other forums, how did you put everything together? How many people were in the Hour Lounge?
Alex: Well I have been on the internet moderating for the past ten years. You know people. The best part of this hobby is meeting people face to face. So when you travel you always send an email,you guys, I am staying in your city. Let’s meet up for a drink or dinner or whatever. After sometime you have a whole network of the watch geek friends the WIS community, as we call them, the Watch Idiot Savants.
What I did when I launched the Hour Lounge. I just e mailed sixty contacts I had saying. “Guys this is the new forum come check it out” After that it is word of mouth, and Vacheron Constantin press releases there’s people who Google search and you just end up on the Hour Lounge.
A Vacheron Community
Jerome: Were the other forums pissed off you were syphoning off their members?
Alex: No. The thing is these guys are already on all the forums, and many of these forums are pretty happy to have a guy like me inside because I was getting them all the information they wanted. I kept pretty good relations with everybody. People who come on the Hour Lounge there are a lot of them who are just Vacheron Constantin fans, and don’t go anywhere else. There are others who want to talk on other watches they go on other forums ,and when they want to talk about Vacheron Constantin they come to the Hour Lounge.
Jerome: In our lounge they don’t talk about anything but Vacheron Constantin you kick them out right!
Alex: No. I started my life as a collector and enthusiast myself. So obviously I am more then happy with anything related to Vacheron Constantin. If anybody wants to come and talk about Audemars, or Patek whatever. If the discussion is about Vacheron Constantin that’s fine. But if they just want to compare two watches that has nothing to do with Vacheron Constantin, guys this not the place.
Forum users and visitors
Jerome: Has the Vacheron Constantin tribe been growing, what kind of numbers ware we talking about worldwide?
Alex: I cannot give you numbers. In terms of viewership we are between 12-15,000 unique visitors per month. Which is pretty good for a mono brand forum where it takes a lot of work to get people to come to your forum everyday when you are mono brand. It is growing, we don’t get 100,000 visitors every day, but it is growing. Vacheron Constantin is a niche brand, an exclusive high end brand. Obviously our community is less large than Rolex or Omega, that’s obvious. The price is higher, production is lower.
The product is more exclusive. The Vacheron Constantin tribe are really die hard people. They really know their stuff. I learn something new every day myself from the participants.
Jerome: They are die hard evangelists for the brand. I am curious on how the community and social media management at Vacheron Constantin how is it structured? Is it just you? Do you have a team? What’s the structure like?
Vacheron Constatin online community management
Alex: The community management is a team of one.
At least I am easy to deal with myself. For the moment it is a structure of one person. What Vacheron Constantin wanted was to have someone who has a different vision, who won’t be a pure marketing man. I am not a marketing or communications guy at all. They want to have an enthusiast, who loves the brand, who knows the brand and loves watches. And somebody who wants to work in watches.
Jerome: It is a lot on your plate, it is a huge brand and huge task. I am surprised it is just you, Kudos man. It is pretty amazing.
Who do you report to at the company?
Alex: I report to the Head of Communications.
Jerome: Do you handle PR on digital part of PR at Vacheron Constantin communicating with journalists and bloggers?
Alex: Just the pure institutional PR, that is done by the PR department. I have these direct relationships with the bloggers and internet press. I have in contact with these guys, and often I have a special treatment when they come to Basel for the fair. These guys want to take their own photos, and these guys I deal with. Often these bloggers and internet press are people like myself. They have day time jobs and do it for fun a lot of them.
Jerome: Vacheron Constantin was one of the first to get into the community/ social media. Do you think it gave them a competitive advantage being at the forefront?
Alex: It mostly showed the community that Vacheron Constantin contrary to being so exclusive. Very early on the brand did embrace these new technologies. In 2007 it was not obvious. (Facebook was just starting) they embraced it, they knew that the best ambassadors for any brand are always the users. And you have to give them your time. And say thank you, as these guys are buying our watches they are making the company live. And we have to thank these guys, and give our gratitude. We are opening our doors to you. It has been helpful, as we have had a lot of positive criticism which has enabled us to better some aspects of what we do.
Jerome: It is amazing when you start listening to the customers. The return on that investment is usually significant.
A typical day for Alex Ghotbi
Jerome: I read on the WatchLounge you claim you have never seen the inside of your apartment. What is a typical day for you?
Alex: I would love to say I wake up at 10am, get a massage, and get meal with vintage wine.
No, often when I get to the office the first thing I do is go on the Hour Lounge. Check the discussions, replies, finish off any articles I am working on. Often I also take some photos. I tend never use press photos. People want to see the new watch and want to see photos of watches you do not see everywhere else. I take a look of photos. Then I net surf and see what is going on elsewhere. Looking at what sites are saying on Vacheron Constantin obviously Facebook and Twitter.
I spend a lot of time going back and forth on emails with different collectors who have specific requests.
A lot of people don’t feel comfortable asking questions on the Watch Lounge. They contact me direct.
There are other projects I cannot talk about right now. If I tell you I will have to kill you, which is more related to collectors, but less on social media.
I go back and forth all day long. When I go back home I still log on before I go to bed. It is basically non stop 7 days a week and 365 days a year. You never turn off.
Jerome: It is what we do right. It’s 24/7.
Alex: Exactly. Being a lawyer is a tough job but with this you don’t have weekends or vacations.
Embracing Facebook and Twitter
Jerome: You talked about Facebook and Twitter and you brought Vacheron Constantin on Facebook fairly recently.
Alex: End of December yes.
Jerome: I am curious. You had the Hour Lounge before that. What was the decision on going on Facebook or not for such a high brand. Why do it?
Alex: Facebook. Our clients and collectors they are on there. It would be insulting to say these guys who spend their time on Facebook, and then say Facebook has no use. Our clients use Facebook and why not be where the clients are. Facebook really fills the gap, because up to now we had websites that give information, its a one way information on our brand. And we had The Hour Lounge. It’s for people who make us comfortable who know this stuff. They read and discuss.
There was nothing in-between,. Facebook gives out a lot of information that’s already on the Hour Lounge. We post novelties and ask and answer questions. A lot of people do not go on any other media.
Jerome: How many fans?
Alex: About 14,500
Jerome: Not too bad. In only five months. So you are happy with Facebook and the way it has been going there with Vacheron Constantin?
Alex: We also use Facebook to invite our fans to specific events. We had some collectors dinner in Asia recently in February in Hong King and Singapore where I posted invitations. We had a few Facebook fans who came. We are having a preview of novelties in New York next week. I posted invitations. We use Facebook not only to discuss but to get these people to come over and meet us face to face. Internet is great, but it still does not beat meeting face to face real human contact.
Jerome: The internet is 24/7 over the globe. Everybody in our line of work talks about return on investment. From your prospective what is your return on the investment that you and Vacheron Constantin have made over the past years.
Alex: For me the best return on investment, is when I see people who come once and they come back a second time and start participating. They make the community live and go forward. This is for me, the best thing I see on Facebook and on The hour lounge. The best return is all the time I spend doing this, is when I see people come back often and participate and help our sites go forward.
Jerome: Do they actually purchase product.
Alex: Oh the thing is I don’t know about the finance side I don’t follow that I don’t care about it either. I see people buy watches and want to share their new acquisition. They pose. But I am not there to sell.
Jerome: Alex: lot of time management will come to you and ask are we making more sales on Facebook and Twitter.
Alex: Management are pretty cool on that. They know we are there to communicate image and awareness, If people are happy and the watches are nice they will buy.
Jerome: I have seen you at a bunch of live events. You seem to be really good with mixing the digital world with the live world. I think that is one of the important pieces to the type of work you do. How do you build the balance between the two?
Alex: Well one of the main, and this is what people on the forums want to, is to see the product and to meet other WIS like themselves. So very often we organise these collectors events all over the world. That is why I was saying at one point of time I had not seen my apartment for over two months.
I organise these events and invite a small number of people so everybody can mingle and talk.
Rather informal, where we introduce the new watches from FHH and get to know the participants. People who are chatting away to all day long on the internet, its good to see them.
And once a year, I invite about ten or twelve “loungers” to come to Geneva. We have dinner we get to meet, and then we hang out.
Jerome: You fly them over?
Alex: No. We invite them over. We pay for the hotel and they are the very first to see the novelties because at the opening they have a short presentation of the new watches. They get to see them hold them take photos. That is a big plus.
The watch Chinese market
Jerome: We are almost out of time here. I want to talk about China. You guys are kicking ass in China. Are you guys using social media in China?
Alex: Currently there are some sites, and some things we are looking at. China there is always the language barrier, and we have to find people who know how to do it, and can speak Chinese. We are looking at this but at the moment there is nothing I can talk about.
The future of social media
Jerome:Where do you see this whole social community media evolving for horology in the coming years. What’s your take on that?
Alex: That’s a million dollar question. The social media is not a new phenomenon, We are talking about these different forums for over ten years. What’s new is that from an amateur as not by people for doing for fun and not in their free time.
It is becoming more professional. Everything is being done on sites with more money and the quality is getting better. I think it is going to continue. It is a new way of communicating, you have a much wider audience, And the price of communicating is much lower and it can only be beneficial.
If you look at the people on Facebook in their 20s and 30s can be all be potential clients in the next few years.
Where this is going I can’t say But wherever it is going is going to be good.
Three final questions for Alex Ghotbi
Jerome: That makes me feel a lot better. Three questions I ask every guest at the end of the show I like to put them to you. Just answer off the cuff.
If you were not in the watch business what would you be doing?
Jerome: Who is the most important person in your life?
Alex: I would say my two children
Jerome: What is the favourite time of the day Alex?
Alex: Cocktail hour.
Jerome: What time is that Alex?
Alex: Any time between six and eight.
Jerome: Thanks very much Alex. I’m really glad for you to come on . Thanks for taking 30 mins too.
Alex: Thank you and we will be in touch.