Getting users to help each other and develop a community feel to a website is key to making a business-to-business (B2B) electronic market work.
Electronic trading areas - also called Net markets, or B2B hubs - are websites designed to bring buyers and sellers together, and facilitate B2B trade.
These are rapidly increasing, both in number and in importance, with analysts predicting that a third of all B2B ecommerce will be conducted via such environments by 2004.
But before you rush to be part of this lucrative B2B gang, it is essential that you are clear on how you want to involve your users in the site.
To help you draw up your user strategy (see checklist below), Computing visited a workshop involving existing electronic markets and their advisers. Participants included Smarterwork.com and Epi3.com, and advisers such as Deutsche Bank and the Swedish Trade Council.
To encourage honest discussion, the organiser, Netmarkets Europe, used an electronic and anonymous brainstorming process.
"Anonymity encourages everyone to say what they feel," says Simon Torrance, chief executive of Netmarkets Europe.
Partners in trade
There was agreement among workshop members that fostering participation and a sense of community among users of a B2B trading hub was worth the effort. Various definitions of the concept were proposed. One of the best was the simplest: "Community is the place customers can talk".
How this can develop into something crucial to the success of a B2B project was described well by one participant: "It starts with simple information - sharing things that others need to know. But it can rapidly go beyond that to mutual support, and a feeling of greater trust. It therefore helps the net market overcome one of its greatest barriers - who are these guys, and can we trust them?"
Workshop members recognised that building an effective community isn't easy. "Community is not just a description of everything you do on your website, or with your database of registered users. It requires interaction. Community is not just understood. It's like magic," said one.
Not only is community-building hard work, there are risks attached to it, too - although, in the words of one workshop member, it is "probably the greatest way to make mistakes".
There was a warning that the site could face harsh criticism from users on support and other issues; or that one group of users could alienate another part of the site's target audience.
"The exchange of gifts has for centuries been the traditional route to new markets," added another.
But the benefits, if you get it right, are substantial. Community can help create a more educated group of consumers and encourage casual browsers to start trading online. It gives you "massive, real-time, continuous focus groups", said a workshop member. It also makes users more reluctant to switch to other sites once they have built up a relationship with yours.
The workshop was one of an ongoing series on B2B themes organised by Netmarkets Europe, and sponsored by Ernst & Young and NetMarketMakers. Contact: www.netmarketseurope.com.
Checklist: Participants voted on the suggestions that came out of the session with these five being rated the most useful
- Focus on the buyers - if you get the buyers to your site, the sellers will come
- Make content relevant to your target audience. The best way to do this is to give them what they ask for - make sure there are plenty of ways for them to tell you
- Ensure that your site can handle multiple national languages if this is likely to make your target users feel more at home
- Don't forget the offline world, and use it to enhance what you are doing online. This means leveraging the power of established bricks and mortar brands, and making full use of PR and word-of-mouth marketing
- You can reduce costs through partnerships and alliances.
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