Research in Motion has had a major hurdle in the way of selling its smartphones over the past few years: it’s called the iPhone. The Blackberry may have sold 6.7 million smartphones in the third quarter of last year, but that was a record quarter, and Apple shipped 6.9 million iPhones in the first quarter of its existence.

The other problem is that the iPhone has incredibly high user participation rates online. There are many more conversations about the iPhone happening on the web than the iPhone, which RIM is tring to fix.

As the Blackberry maker learned last year, 76% of consumers don’t think companies tell the truth in advertising, while 78% trust the recommendation of other consumers. According to Brian Wallace, Director of Global Digital Marketing for RIM, money spent on advertising and an appealing website was effectively wasted: “we were where our customers were not.”

To fix this problem, Blackberry looked to social media. However, getting people to engage with the brand in this space started to look like an expensive endeavor. The
number of people neccessary to staff all the different networks and
sites wasn’t coming in line with Wallace’s pitch to RIM that social media would help the company save money. Quickly Blackberry’s endeavors into the space were starting to look like microsites and portals
with high overhead. The bills were quickly adding up, and Wallace decided
to put their social networking plan on hold.

Speaking at CM Summit in New York on Tuesday, Wallace said that the company wanted to hold onto its intial premise: “If we can drive up the volume, we think tone is going to come with
it.” And finally, they decided to help grow the conversation about Blackberry online by putting all
of the comments about Blackberry in one place. They created MyBlackberry, which will
go live in July, and syndicates questions asked on any social netowrk to the MyBlackberry site. “For a marketer, it was a miracle,” says Wallace.

They can now staff one site and track all the comments happening about their products in a central location. On individual networks, Blackberry might have been able to reach 60,000 fans. But when they launch MyBlackberry, they’ll have access to a million with every post.

A question asked
inside of Myspace will automatically be federated out to Facebook and
iGoogle, and anyone in the MyBlackberry community can answer the
question. The response will skew more positive, because users on
MyBlackberry and on the social networking fan sites are likely to be
supporters of BlackBerry products. But the company is clear that it
does not want to edit out negative comments. “We’re following terms of use. Very flagrant abuses and bad language won’t get posted, but we have to take our lumps.”

The other benefit of the site is that RIM is
able to keep all of that feedback forever. Wallace says: “If Friendster
goes away, I don’t lose all of that content.”

And while the iPhone has a strong hold on the smartphone market and made an impressive initial splash on the market, RIM has found that Blackberry fans are sticking with the brand and telling their friends about it. People may be having more conversations about the iPhone online right now, but there is also more negative feedback. By growing the conversation online and guiding it to skew positive, Blackberry will have another weapon in its arsenal in the smartphone battle.

Apple may have a hold on 10% of the smartphone market, but the Blackberry Curve outsold the iPhone in the first quarter of this year, and RIM grew its year-over-year revenue by 84% to $3.46 billion in the fourth quarter.

It’s a tight market, and Wallace says that Blackberry is learning that sometimes it has to keep quiet: “People don’t want us in the way. We want to connect Blackberry users to other Blackberry users and potential users.”

Image: Keith Parnell