Building Your Own Business-to-Business Internet Community

Last month I talked about becoming part of a business community. Today I’ll talk about building your own. It may not be the right option for everyone, but it offers some interesting Internet marketing potential.

Why should you consider building a community in the first place? One reason is to establish decisive leadership in a particular field.

Consider the case of Siebel Systems, a worldwide leader in sales automation software. In February 1999, Siebel announced that it was launching a new business portal called Sales.com, which, said company chairman Thomas Siebel, will be “the world’s most comprehensive resource available to make sales professionals the most effective and successful they can be. We are delivering Sales.com to provide sales professionals with all of the tools, data and services they need to succeed in one, single destination site.” To make it happen, Siebel is partnering with Sun Microsystems, Dun & Bradstreet, and Miller Heiman.

Only last month, Siebel announced it was spinning off Sales.com as an independent venture with plenty of investment capital – another dot-com launched before our very eyes.

Sales.com probably leaves competitors scratching their heads and saying, “Why didn’t we think of that?” This is a classic example of a visionary company staking out new territory on the Internet and applying the concept of a business-to-business community to its own marketing and sales objectives.

Of course, Sales.com is engineered on a much larger scale than many companies could even contemplate. But remember, this is the Internet… and the Internet has the enormous potential to scale to every need, making even the smallest of companies look bigger. Almost any smart company, no matter how small, can therefore build a modest community, or at least a “destination site,” on the web.

What to Build Into Your Community

So you’ve decided that building a community is an idea that holds promise for you. How do you actually go about it? Here is a basic plan.

  1. Determine the type of community you need. Will it target only employees (an intranet), customers or suppliers (an extranet), or a public community on the web? Intranets and extranets will require special security measures to protect confidential information and limit access to authorized participants. You may wish to restrict access to a public community as well by establishing subscriber or membership rules. While your goal for a public community may be to gain widespread publicity, you may wish to allow only qualified individuals to make use of the community’s services.

  2. What do you want your community to accomplish? Set realistic objectives for your community and establish an operating budget. With a customer community, for example, set a goal for the number of participating customers. Project the customer service savings and revenue impact of the community. Also establish a community operating budget, both for start-up and ongoing development and maintenance costs. A community is more complicated to build than a basic web site, and it potentially involves more back-end support because it is so interactive in nature. Be sure to anticipate the cost and manpower required to support the activity generated by a community.
  3. Establish a community structure. Learn what a community is, how it operates, and what it includes by visiting other business communities and actively participating in them. Typically, you will want to consider including the following in your community:
    • Information center
      This is usually the heart of the community. Depending on the type of community you establish, this area would contain information about your industry, your company, directories (if appropriate), pertinent news, research links and tools, and information on other companies, such as products and services, white papers, special reports, etc.

    • Community services
      You may want to provide value-added services to community members such as a master calendar of events, selected links to relevant web pages, a free subscription to an email newsletter you publish, software demonstrations and free downloads, if appropriate, and so on.
    • Interactive areas
      A key part of what makes a community a community is interactivity. Most often, this involves enabling community members to communicate or even conduct business with each other. Perhaps the simplest way to offer interactivity is through creating a bulletin board for the posting of questions, answers and comments for all to read.

      Beyond bulletin boards, interactivity can move from email messaging to discussion forums to live chat rooms. You may decide to offer some or all of these features, but each will probably require you to make use of an outside technology for implementation. You really need to include at least one form of interactive technology, because this is a primary characteristic of a community.

      It is also a good idea to include an interactive feedback mechanism, even if it is a simple web response form, to encourage community members to offer their comments and suggestions. Encouraging feedback and interaction builds community spirit and you’ll find the input of great value in improving your community site.

    • Conducting business, or using e-commerce
      If one of your objectives for establishing a community is to conduct business, you will need to incorporate some combination of database and e-commerce technology into your community. You may want to use your community to conduct business with customers or prospects, or to facilitate the purchase and sale of goods and services through the community.
    • Involving partners
      Many business communities are built on partnerships. Some partners may want to participate in co-founding the community, while others may want to be sponsors. Others may simply want to use the community to increase their own exposure and sales opportunities. Partnering with the right types of companies and organizations can have many benefits. In addition to co-funding the cost of the community, “brand-name” partners can enhance the credibility of your community and make it all the more desirable to users.
  4. Set up the back end. As indicated above, a community is really a more complex and involved web site. Do not underestimate the back end. Establish processes and procedures to service and respond to community members. Have a good, integrated web database in operation. Ensure that all technologies you deploy in the community are pre-tested and functioning properly. Verify that your web server or hosting service is adequate and that all activity can be monitored. Make sure everything is working… before you go live!
  5. Launch and publicize your community. Launching a web community is a lot like launching a new product – and most B2B marketers know what that involves. Use the same marketing tactics for launching the community as you would for launching a new product: Establish a publicity campaign, try to get press coverage, hold special events, and if appropriate, advertise.
  6. Maintain and grow your community. Once established, your community will require ongoing care and attention. A community is an active, vibrant place. Community members will expect content to be refreshed frequently, links to be working, discussion groups to be current, and interactive systems to be responsive. Maintaining the community is an essential part of its success. And it does not stop there – you should always be looking for ways to improve and grow the community.

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