November 2, 1998
Q:What are your thoughts
on virtual communities? Do you feel that this concept could be what really
will drive consumer-to-business and business-to-business commerce via the
Internet? What about virtual communities on intranets?
A: Virtual communities have been touted as desirable for both intranet and commerce sites. While virtual community concepts can be applied to both, the uses and results are very different. Unlike many other e-commerce activities--often tied to intranet functionality--virtual communities on intranets generally are not related to those in the e-commerce space.
Since the topic is so broad, and space is limited, I will discuss the applicability of virtual communities to your question on commerce in this column, and virtual community applications on intranets in my next column, two issues from now.
The virtual community concept grew out of sustained online discussions and sharing of ideas around a common topic of interest. The common interest could be based on problems, philosophies, or hobbies.
The "community" provided a starting metaphor for identifying and meeting communication, social, and emotional needs among people whose sole interactions were via online media. Issues of recruiting, maintaining, moderating, and even leading were explored, along with the development of norms and implicit and explicit rules and sanctions.
While the concept of the original developers of the community had a broader scope than commerce in mind, some of what was learned has filtered into the commerce space.
A non-virtual example of community techniques applied to commerce is found in Borders' physical stores. They offer amenities designed to generate and support interest in books and music. I know people who go to Borders for entertainment, and often come away having made a purchase.
For a complementary example of virtual community techniques applied to commerce, consider Amazon.com. The site is a great place to shop for books, it provides the opportunity to share ideas about the books, and the company will alert you when new titles come out that might interest you. These are all done in ways that were pioneered in the early virtual community experiments.
But is this a community, or just good customer service? Borders and Amazon.com are good at bringing people with common interests together. But the groups that form are still too dependent on the commercial enterprise to be considered a true community.
Business sites should look at community techniques, but not be overly focused on the concept of community. Instead, their focus should be on the development of customer-focused outcomes and customer experiences.