Building an online community

Web-based communities are enabling firms to get closer to their customers than ever before. Where better for you to learn what...

Web-based communities are enabling firms to get closer to their customers than ever before. Where better for you to learn what customers think of your products and what they'd like to see on the market than your own bulletin board or mailing list?

People have always belonged to communities of like-minded individuals where they can share experiences with the group and other members. The Internet, with its ability to effect one-to-many and one-to-one relationships, maps perfectly onto the community model and has been responsible for the flowering of global, online communities catering for all tastes and predilections.

As more bricks-and-mortar companies venture onto the World Wide Web, the giddy days of get-rich-quick are drawing to a close and existing brands are mainly looking for a new channel to market. But they can still learn a valuable lesson from the Internet pioneers: the addition of a community component, whether multi-threaded discussion forums, chat, or tailored content can all make a site "stickier".

Dotcom companies have made a lot of money from aggregating people into giant communities or portals. When eTrade announced it had one million customers, for example, its share price rose 30% overnight. However, Nick Maxwell, partner at e-business consultancy Quidnunc says the endgame for corporate brands is to use them to improve product and sales. "When you create a community, you create the possibility to learn about your consumers, be more targeted about your marketing messages and produce more relevant ads."

One of the key values of a community is a sense of belonging. This is something traditional bricks-and-mortar companies have not done well, says Robin Tye, head of e-business consulting at PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

PriceWaterhouseCoopers has just completed a study into the most important components of online communities, and Tye believes the answer is not necessarily to mimic the portals in their quest for numbers of eyeballs. "A small band of dedicated followers is worth more than an array of window shoppers."

For that reason also, the consultants agree, it's best to tailor content and provide the option for members to personalise information. The biggest overheads will be for an editorial team to create the content, so it's worth checking it's going to hit the mark before going to that expense. It's always possible to source content from elsewhere, Maxwell points out, but suggests if it's a case of another news feed, it might be better not to bother. "If every site has news, there's something wrong."

Richard Duvall, founder and customer director of Egg, the Prudential-owned dotcom financial services company, says the "Egg free zone", or discussion group has been a vital way of exploring the new relationship between vendor and customer. "The World Wide Web is a network and when we operate on it, we are no longer a company with one-to-one relationships. As a business we had to work out how to operate as part of the network, instead of being a company which has power over the customer."

For this reason, Egg decided not to moderate the Egg-free zone. Other than fulfilling its obligation as a regulated financial company not to publish insider dealing information, Egg does not moderate, even though this exposes the company to the occasional "bad egg smell" comment from piqued customers. Instead Duvall uses the analogy of pub landlord to explain Egg's relationship to the community it hosts. "A landlord owns the pub and sells beer and food - yet everyone has their own conversation."

While censorship of product feedback forums would be a self defeating exercise, other advocates of discussion groups favour moderation, especially for hobbyist groups. Tim Beadle, chairman of marketing agency the Opus Group, says, "You need someone to lead discussions. If there's no one leading or guiding discussions, they can become a whingeing shop for idiots. It was Aristotle who said that the most valid form of government is a benevolent dictatorship."

Roland Hanbury, head of business consulting at Nvision Internet consultancy warns against gimmicky communities that are tacked onto Web sites as an afterthought. Like everyone else he has been dispirited by empty chat rooms and his benchmark for introducing a discussion board is one contribution per day per 1,000 users. "That's if you want something that has the appearance of life. I've seen lot of sites where it's blatantly not happening. It's a major credibility loser. People are time-stretched and don't want to have discussions in empty rooms."

It can even be beneficial to set up a non-branded Web site to host discussion groups as they may seem more appealing than a site associated with a commodity brand, says Tye. He points to Oxalis.co.uk as a great venue where gardeners get together online to pass on wisdom and to chat. "The dilemma here is whether to bring in partners and post up competitive products and information."

Whether or not you decide to link them to your main brand, communities are an effective tool for monitoring customer trends. And as a more dynamic version of the traditional user group or focus group, online discussion can be particularly useful in specialised markets where it's hard to anticipate customer requirements. Dialogue on the Web is not perfect, says Beadle, "but it does let you fly a lot of kites."

At Evans, the high street fashion chain, they have been utilised to design product. Eva Pascoe, marketing director of Arcadia Group which owns the fashion chain, describes how it works. "Evans specialises in fashion for size 16-plus women and this category cuts across all affluence groups and age ranges. A designer needs to be good but can't know everything. So we put [design] drawings online and invited comment - and we got a lot of good stuff back."

Maxwell says that in the business-to-business sector, chat forums or discussion threads need even more careful thought - any appearance of frivolity would be a turn-off for potential business users. "We were talking to a power utility - and if you're selling power it's a pretty dull thing. However we decided that the site would be targeted at office managers, and then focussed our attention on creating content that would be useful for them."

Commerce need not necessarily be a dirty word in communities - indeed some, such as auction houses, are defined by sharing purchasing values. Community and commerce can be a powerful combination, but to work, the proposition has to be genuine. One of Maxwell's favourite sites is baby.com, an online equivalent to Mothercare. "The business is to sell to parents everything that goes with the having a baby. The site is personalised so that mothers and fathers are offered products that relate only to their offspring's age." And of course visitors are offered chat facilities to discuss parenting issues.

The crucial thing to avoid when mixing community and commerce, is blatant selling that does not match the profile of the constituency. "What communities react against instinctively is being exploited because they are together," confirms Tye.

And when the ideas dry up, it's always worth returning to the not-for-profit communities as a reminder of what brings people together and makes them keep coming back for more. One of Beadle's favourite examples of not-for-gain sites is www.verona.it, a site set up by the Italian authority responsible for staging operas in Verona. Opera buffs can choose their performance then order and pay for their ticket online. "It is a fantastic e-commerce site, efficient, reliable - it is a miracle for Italy," enthuses Beadle.

One of the greatest examples of community success is the operating system Linux. Without the Internet Linux would probably have remained an interesting curio. Instead, the shareware - or free - computer operating system has made such inroads onto the corporate desktop that it "has scared the wits out of Microsoft", says Beadle. And all because a globally-dispersed interest group was able to connect so that, "at any time of the day, thousands of people were beavering away on the code to make the thing work," he continues.

As they are, "closer to brand strategy than sales strategy," Egg's Duvall reckons that communities are the responsibility of marketeers. But they are everyone's business, and he confirms that the CEO of Egg, Mike Harris, looks at the Egg-free zone every day. "People, should take them pretty seriously," advises Duvall, who recommends that companies avoid the temptation to introduce horizontal banner advertising onto their vertical community. "Do not mix insurance and books," he warns

Community Building Blocks

Mailing Lists

  • Mailing lists allow users to subscribe to a list and send and e-mail to everyone subscribed to a particular list.

  • They allow free-form discussion convenient to people who use e-mail.

  • Do not offer much integration with your Web site.

  • Webreview.com provides a thorough bu accessibel primer on mailing lists

    Low Volume Lists

  • Your ISP may be able to host a few lists for you

  • You could outsource, for example remarq.com

    High Volume Lists

    Lists are better hosted on your Web site. You or your hosting company/ISP need a dedicated server and a stable, permanent Internet connection. Two free mail list management applications (Unix only) are:

  • Mailman

  • Majordomo

  • The Webreview link mentioned above compares others

    Discussion Forums

    Forums are good for topic groups and use a Web-interface so that users can read discussions in their chosen forum and contribute their opinions. Again, you could outsource your forums remarq.com or onelist.com. This is zero-maintenance solution, but offers no real integration with your site. Off-the-shelf packages are available to manage your own forums. Again you'll need a server and Internet connection:

  • WebCrossing

  • WebBoard

  • Ichat

  • WellEngaged

    Off-the-shelf packages are a quick way to get up and running but offer a default 'look-and-feel' for your discussion forums which you may wish to modify to fit in with a brand look. You'll also need to consider the following:

  • Do you need access to the conversations from outside the discussion application, for instance, to include discussions in a searchable index of your whole site? Some products use a proprietary database format so this would be hard.

  • You don't want users to log in twice (once for your site, once for the discussion package). You'll need to create a user in the discussion package, and then pass on login information, perhaps using cookies.

  • Pricing is not neccessarily based on features. Many packages are priced according to how many forums you need to host or how high traffic on you site is.

  • This was last published in February 2000

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