[QQ]It's been a long road for businesses looking to set up on the Web, asrticipation, and you can do this by creating a 'branded community'. Wendy Grossman visits sites that have developed a strong corporate identity and an interactive culture designed to tempt customers back on a regular basis. the measure of what makes a good site keeps rising. The earliest Web sites were often little more than the corporate brochure transferred to the new medium. Later sites often offered more - searchable product information, an archive of press releases, up-to-date price lists and contact details worldwide.[QQ] The transactional Web site took this to the next level in both complexity and potential value for the company. Transactional Web sites allow users to select and pay for products online. Successful examples include mail-order catalogue companies such as Land's End and LL Bean, plus many software companies (whose products can be readily downloaded) and Internet start-ups such as Amazon and the Internet Bookshop.[QQ] Web sites of this kind require careful thought and attention to design.[QQ] But there's a fourth type that offers even more of a challenge in terms of planning and execution. It's the community-based Web site - sometimes called the 'branded community'.[QQ] The key point about a community-based Web site is that the site's visitors - your customers or business partners, contribute much of the best and most interesting content themselves.[QQ] This can take the form of discussion forums, opinion polls or chat areas, guest interviews and masterclasses, case studies, book reviews, favourite links and all sorts of other material provided by your site's visitors.[QQ] Although this might seem easy, generating enough interest and enthusiasm is a trick few sites have managed. But the reward, if you get it right, is a high number of repeat visits and a closer identification with your company and product.[QQ] Successful examples include the now famous Amazon books site (www.amazon.com, The Internet Bookshop (www.bookshop.co.uk) and, on a more local scale, Petnet (www.petnet.co.uk).[QQ] In their 1997 book 'net.gain', McKinsey consultants John Hagel III and Arthur G Armstrong, argue that such virtual communities and relationships are the future of marketing. But they point out that most companies need to change their thinking significantly in terms of how they relate to their customers.[QQ] Developing a culture[QQ] If they are successful at all, online communities develop a culture and personality all their own, and users develop a strong sense of ownership which often makes them resistant to the kind of controls a company might want to impose.[QQ] The pioneers of online communities were online services such as Compuserve, and later AOL. Since its opening in 1978, Compuserve has had thousands of forums where members talk to each other, many of them set-up or sponsored commercial companies.[QQ] Some are for specific professional topics of interest, but many more are for things such as technical support, often set up by computer hardware and software companies. Many of these vendors have now moved these forums on to their own Web sites.[QQ] It can't have been fun for these manufacturers when a buggy product got shipped: typically they would come into their forums the following week to find thousands of enraged messages from furious, possibly soon-to-be former customers debating the virtues of switching to other products.[QQ] But vendors have learnt that, handled correctly, the forums provide an opportunity to hold on to those customers, who otherwise might demand a refund and move on.[QQ] Managing the members[QQ] In such a situation, what is vital is the attitude taken by the people who run the forum - variously called sysops, moderators, or Webmasters/mistresses.[QQ] Despite the abuse that can erupt in online forums, most people are basically reasonable. A sysop who does not become defensive, but frankly admits the product's problems and provides a list of what will be fixed and when, can go a long way towards defusing the situation and retaining customers.[QQ] The kinds of sites that are being built now on the Web develop the community concept on from the classic online support forum. Many communities are set up around media sites - CNN, US-based magazine Utne Reader, Web-based literary magazine Salon, and Wired magazine's Hot-wired site are all examples.[QQ] Some of these are pretty rudimentary, such as the CNN site, which accepts comments on specific articles and makes them publicly available, but doesn't supply facilities for wider-ranging and more permanent discussions. Still, it's a step forward from simply accepting viewer feedback by email, as Sky News already does.[QQ] More interesting, although still lacking in some important features, is The People's Court (www.peoplescourt.com), one of many US TV shows that are setting up Web sites to extend their relationship with their viewers.[QQ] The People's Court is an apparently dry idea for a TV show: plaintiffs and defendants in genuine cases involving small civil disputes agree instead to appear in the show's private, televised court and accept the judge's decision as binding. (The judges are generally retired, respected figures, such as former New York City mayor Edward Koch.)[QQ] The show uses its site as a way of collecting public votes while the plaintiff and defendant are giving evidence; the current popular vote appears on the TV screen in a small, constantly updating window, augmenting the reactions of the small crowd of people gathered outside the studio for interviews.[QQ] While the votes don't affect the judge's decision, the Web site when it's finished - it lacks chat rooms and an archive of verdicts and cases - will be intriguing, as public opinion changes while the plaintiff and defendant give evidence and answer questions.[QQ] In addition, Webcasts mean the show can be watched by those people who don't live within range of one of the stations that carries it.[QQ] More interesting, though is Amazon.com's attempt to build a community around its core business: selling books. Amazon has managed to sink roots into the Net community for its huge, searchable catalogue of titles by doing two things. First, it provided the infrastructure for any reader to review any book. Second, it offered the maintainers of Web sites a percentage of sales on books listed on their pages if they included special links to Amazon.[QQ] The upshot is that Amazon built up a great deal of customer loyalty among the Net community, which has proved to be a vital asset since Barnes and Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com) set up a competing site.[QQ] Britain's Internet Bookshop (www. bookshop.co.uk) and Bookpages (www.bookpages.co.uk) sites have adopted some of the same strategy, as has Petnet (www.petnet.co.uk), which runs a discussion forum and a pet-to-prospective-owner matching service.[QQ] For retail organisations in the UK, this style of marketing is probably a larger leap than it is for their US counterparts. Most US businesses are more accustomed to thinking in terms of providing customer service and making shopping fun - traditions for which moving to the Web is a natural extension. Most British businesses will have to do a lot more reinventing to make this style of relating to customers work.[QQ] But as the Net spreads and people become accustomed to doing business internationally, Net-based companies will have to compete on more than price if they want to survive.[QQ] As much work as this sounds - you really have to be willing to pay one or more staff members to keep an eye on the nascent community and nudge it along - ongoing relationships are the key to keeping your customers coming back.[QQ] [QQ] CREATING A COMMUNITY: THE TECHNOLOGY INFRASTRUCTURE[QQ] Several companies have entered the business of providing specialist software to manage Web-based conferencing systems.[QQ] The best known, Engaged, is a spin-off of the long-established San Francisco-based conferencing system, The Well (www.wellengaged.com). The most expensive of the options (costing $15,000 and up), Engaged was originally designed as a graphical front-end to the Well's elderly Unix-based text interface, Picospan.[QQ] Engaged supports a number of nice features, depending on your implementation: users can create customised conference or topics lists, see all the new responses in a particular conference in one list (making it easier to log off to read everything), and read selected portions or all of the back history of a particular topic. Engaged is used by the Well itself (www.well.com), which has a set of demonstration topics to read, and Online Insider (www.onlineinsider.com).[QQ] At the other end of the expense scale, but offering users many of the same features is Web Crossing (www.lundeen.com), a $950 offering which is used for the discussion areas of the New York Times (www.nytimes.com, but users from non-US services are charged $49 per month) and CNN (www.cnn.com).[QQ] Also worth looking at is Motet (www.sonic.net/~foggy/motet), priced from $500 to $5,000 depending on the number of users you want to support and the type of organisation you have. This is the software used to run the Utne Reader's Cafe Utne, and the discussion area for the European Economic Union and the San Francisco Chronicle. The Well, because of its longevity and the quality of its community style and conversation, has heavily influenced all these designs, as well as Salon's Table Talk conferencing section; Motet was written by a Well user.[QQ] However, all these Web-based conferencing systems have the same drawback when it comes to attracting regular, non-casual users. Designed in the US, where local phone calls are charged at flat rates, none of them support offline reader software, a vital component for building virtual communities in the UK.[QQ] The Web-based service to which Compuserve is moving its forums does not suffer from this problem, as the offline readers which work on Compuserve's existing service will continue to work. However, Compuserve's infrastructure is proprietary.[QQ] One alternative, however, might be to emulate News International's LineOne service, which runs its forums on a closed NNTP server - the same standard software that runs Usenet - with a Web-based front end.[QQ] This structure takes advantage of the Internet's open standards: Usenet-style newsgroups can be read either through a Web browser like Netscape or Internet Explorer, or via one of the many offline readers designed for Usenet.[QQ] Yet another alternative, which is just getting started, is graphical virtual world systems such as The Palace (www.thepalace.com) or Fujitsu's Worlds Away (www.worldsaway.com), which are beginning to be used as platforms for commercial sales operations.[QQ] [QQ] CREATING A COMMUNITY: HOW TO ENSURE YOUR CUSTOMERS REVISIT YOUR SITE[QQ] 1. Be prepared to take time: communities do not develop overnight.[QQ] 2. Find a good sysop or leader who understands how to encourage discussion and has a passion for the subject and for the online medium.[QQ] 3. To help get the ball rolling, organise a small core of people who are willing to log on every day and contribute.[QQ] 4. Reward people with free time, prizes, or public recognition, for being active participants and for outstanding contributions.[QQ] 5. Make sure users have some way of storing information about themselves for the rest of the community to read, either by linking to their personal home pages or by making the facilities available for an online profile or resume.[QQ] 6. Decide whether you want to allow anonymity. In some circumstances - such as emotional and medical support forums - anonymity can be important in encouraging users to discuss personal issues; however, anonymity can be abused to create serious social problems.[QQ] 7. Do not pursue community members or other users of your Web site with email about the site or about your company unless you have secured their active permission. Being active in your forums should not be regarded as automatic agreement. Misuse of email can undo overnight all the good your Web presence has done you.[QQ] 8. Don't over-plan. If you build too much in advance, the first users will look like they're rattling around in an empty community. Instead, start small, and let the infrastructure expand as needed.[QQ] 9. Be prepared for the community, if it is successful, to take on a life of its own - it may go in directions you don't necessarily like.[QQ] 10. Do have some way to retain the community's history (by filing or archiving old topics on an FTP site if you can't keep them live online) so new users can learn about the community they've joined.[QQ] 11. Enable as many different kinds of communication as you can; one reason Compuserve forums have been so successful is that users have email, real-time chat, asynchronous public messaging, and file libraries to choose from - all in the same location.[QQ] 12. Expect problems as the community grows, when you make changes to the underlying software, infrastructure, or rules for participation, or when you add large groups of new users.[QQ] 13. Test the community software and infrastructure on a small group before opening it to a larger one.[QQ] 14. If you are aiming for an international audience, bear in mind that, outside of North America, telephone costs are much higher, therefore users place a high premium on speed and the availability of offline readers to automate and so reduce the connection time needed.
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