As companies hastily launch online communities as part of their e-business initiatives, they are often confused about how, when and why they are implementing this very important business knowledge tool. David Mager and Warren Karlenzig, strategy director and senior strategist, respectively, at Proxicom Inc., an e-business consulting and development company, outline the nine most prevalent myths concerning communities and discuss the truths behind them.
Today's companies are striving to evolve beyond transaction-based e-business to embrace the "extraprise," which includes an organization's customers, suppliers and partners. But the ad hoc nature of many online communities has given rise to many myths regarding e-community. Basing business practices on these myths can detract from the desired experience and may even weaken valuable existing relationships. By challenging these myths and adopting a constructive model, a company can determine the appropriate level of community and meet its goals with realistic, phased community-building efforts.
The following are the nine most common myths we hear when speaking to clients about their community issues.
It's not important to determine the cost and benefits of community. We just have to do it.
The days of the dot-com threat are waning. Potential customer satisfaction and financial benefit need to be weighed against the operating costs of initial and future development. Potential business benefits for pursuing community include brand enhancement, knowledge creation, strengthening customer, partner, supplier and employee relationships, capturing member preferences and issues, improving cross-selling and up-selling techniques, increasing efficiency by transferring business process functions to members, and responding to competitive threats.
If you build a community site, users will find and gather on it on their own.
Actually, communities need both online and offline member acquisition and retention. And that's just to get them to check out the community. On the Web are many examples of quickly launched message boards populated with many topics but no responses. There may even be some of these lonely message boards on your own site.
Community is just message boards and chat.
Communities are about people, identity and common interests, not technologies. We define community as a group of people who identify and interact around common, purposeful and mutually beneficial interests. By plotting the value of interactivity along a spectrum, companies can choose whatever level of community is appropriate for their situation. This way they can avoid blindly choosing features and implementing technologies.
Community services are relatively easy to implement in terms of both organizational support and user adoption. EBay Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. use ratings as an effective (if limited) interactivity tool that creates some bonding and identity with the site. E-mail newsletters with links directly into both content and community are commonly used within a variety of vertical communities, such as developer communities at Sun Microsystems Inc.
Community space is probably the most widely misused community experience on the Web. It is best done by Yahoo Clubs and some intranet communities of practice. In addition, companies such as Morgan stanley Dean Witter & Co. implement user-driven calendaring to support offline community-building.
Community space can provide value through monitoring of interactions, both good and not so good. We ask, Would you rather customers rant on your site, where you can take note, respond and act, or rant somewhere else? The community space realm can be a risky place to start community--its long gestation period (typically nine to 12 months) is resource-intensive to support and can eventually shift power from the host to the members. As members gain power, censorship becomes impossible without destroying the community. So a company's brand risk profile often determines what degree of community space can be safely implemented.
From a community symbiosis perspective, the lines between owner, host and community blur. Adobe Systems Inc. and Mattel Inc. both use community symbiosis to develop products as well as to guide community direction. Amazon.com's community provides its Web site with everything from content to infrastructure (hot links to related Web sites).
It's too important to start communities now to take the time to do it right.
Community implementation needs careful consideration because it's one of the few e-business undertakings that can be irreversible. User interfaces are notoriously difficult to change once community regulars become accustomed to a certain way of allowing interactivity. For example, when Apple Computer Inc. attempted to switch its Macintosh communities from a quick yet difficult-to-master Unix platform to a user-friendly GUI platform, the regulars revolted and forced a dual-platform system that delayed new development. In addition, because of the emotional commitment needed to interact with members, a poor initial showing within a community is much more difficult to overcome than an unsatisfactory transaction.
Communities basically manage themselves.
All communities need leadership, guidance and support. Decisions on the next webcast, the newest community area or the reeling in of wayward discussion topics must be made for the community to operate efficiently. Because lurkers (who read posted messages but don't contribute) typically make up 85 percent of community members and most initial members are lurkers, companies need to provide initial leadership in starting and continuing conversations. Whether the host company or its members lead is determined by the degree of member identity with the community. The stronger the degree of identity, the greater the likelihood that members will contribute to the community. Technology companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. require certification, and their members often have the greatest identity with the company. This sense of identity translates into the highest rates of contribution both on the company sites and in traditional Usenet communities.
Communities organize themselves just like the company organizes itself.
Companies often base their organization on marketing segments, not self-identification. For online communities, the opposite is true. Because identity is critical to community participation, starting with the right interest areas can make or break a community's success. Common areas of identification include topics, tasks, geographies and industries. Recently, member-selective identification has become more common as an organizing force. Angel investors, executives and thought leaders are using community to extend their networks rather than join or begin e-communities. Online community services and symbiosis facilitate and enrich offline networking.
A community can be started and be fully functional within a month.
Community services can be implemented fairly quickly, but real self-sustaining community takes time to develop. For example, when a site for car enthusiasts needed to help its Web-inexperienced users adopt online community, it used familiar metaphors, such as an online car show and an "ask the mechanic" department, to make clear the value of online interaction. Only after six months of building experiential knowledge did users begin contributing to and using other functions.
If you have a great online community, offline community isn't important.
Communities need a degree of offline interactivity and reinforcement. The Well LLC, the oldest e-community, discovered that intimate online interactivity was stunted without face-to-face interactions. Trust becomes a larger factor as communities develop across the community spectrum. Currently, online deal-making is a supporting function where commodity transactions are facilitated but little real negotiation occurs. As technology improves to include ubiquitous streaming video, this might change, but probably nothing will replace the need for direct human interaction.
All organizations must create their own communities to be successful.
Many options are available to companies today, ranging from application service providers to outsourcing of critical functions and community management to alliances and sponsorship of other communities. Companies potentially can save millions of dollars by understanding these choices and choosing the best options for them.
As the e-business environment evolves, views of community must also change. By challenging these myths, your company can increase its chances of creating a successful e-community. You then can construct and execute a community plan by considering the expected business value and risk profile, community members' identities and needs and the mix of community and company competencies.