Business Communities: An Emerging Marketing Opportunity

Unlike any medium before it, the Internet creates a sense of community. Early on, there were newsgroups, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. Now, there are full-fledged communities – areas on the Internet which bring together people with something fundamentally in common.

Many of these communities are designed for consumers to chat, trade, and interact. But there is an ever-increasing number of business-oriented communities on the Internet. These hold appeal for specialized segments of the business marketplace and bring together information-seekers, prospects, and buyers. The forward-thinking business marketer can capitalize on the concept of community not only by participating in communities on the Internet, but by creating one if appropriate.

You can become part of most communities, as an individual or a representative of your business, by simply “joining.” In some communities, joining is free. It takes nothing more than the process of completing and sending an online application and getting a user ID and password. Then you can start taking advantage of the community’s various free services, such as email, discussion groups, chats, and so on.

In other communities, you may have to pay a membership or participation fee, or you may have to contribute part of the revenue you receive from the community, if you sell something through that community.

Some communities, such as virtual malls, may “rent” you virtual space on a contractual basis. Still others may ask you to “subscribe” for a certain period of time. Obviously, you will want to thoroughly understand any financial commitments you need to make when you evaluate communities.

But this should not deter you from exploring the business viability of communities. Certainly, you can tell a lot about a business-to-business community just by the companies it attracts. Typically, “name brand” companies will not participate in a community that is not a legitimate operation.

Here is a suggested plan of action to help you evaluate communities for potential business participation.

Find The Right Communities

There are so many kinds of communities that you must first do a broad search to locate those that may have business or marketing value for you.

Some are generalized, such as the slew of small business communities that are in vogue right now. AllBusiness.com, bCentral.com, Office.com, Onvia.com, SmartAge.com, and Works.com are just a few examples.

Others are specialized, such as the 40-plus highly targeted industry sites offered by Verticalnet.com. Use search words on the major engines that relate directly to your line of business to locate the right ones. Remember that communities are not always identifiable as “communities;” they could be portals, virtual malls, auction sites, or any site where Internet users congregate regularly.

Narrow Your Options

Armed with this preliminary list of communities, begin to narrow your options by critically evaluating each site. First classify the potential communities into free versus paid sites. Then make sure you understand who the community serves. You want to be certain that the target audience is appropriate for your product or service.

Finally, determine from the information on the site which companies are involved in the community. You want to learn if your competitors participate. You also want to know whether or not the buyers and sellers are from companies that fit your company’s own profile, or if they are the kinds of companies you want to do business with.

Apply the following checklist to each community:

    Which free services are offered?
    Does the community offer free services you could take advantage of, such as email, home pages, chat, discussion groups, etc.?

    What opportunities for free publicity exist?
    Does the community have areas in which your company, product or service can obtain any of the following free:

    • Listing in member or supplier directories
    • Mention in discussion groups or chats
    • Posting of press releases or product information
    • Including a company profile
    • Having speakers participate in online forums or seminars
    • Posting of job openings
    • Listing of your events in a community calendar
    • Listing of your products or services in a buyer’s guide
    • Reciprocal linking to your site from the community and vice versa

    What opportunities for paid advertising and promotion are available?
    In evaluating paid opportunities, you should look at each possible activity from a media ROI perspective. In other words, analyze the potential number of prospects you will reach, and ask yourself if the dollars you are investing in the paid activity are reasonable on a cost per thousand basis.

    Communities that offer paid advertising and promotion often have data available to help you justify the investment. Nevertheless, this kind of promotional activity is still so new that ROI information may not exist. You will probably have to take a calculated risk by investing dollars in unproven programs.

    The smart way to go about it is to test a particular activity on a limited scale and see if the results warrant continued investment. The kinds of paid opportunities that may exist on community sites include:

    • Paid sponsorships of discussion groups or chats
    • Paid sponsorships of site features, such as job banks and events
    • Paid listings in directories and buyers’ guides (some communities provide different levels of participation so your products can be highlighted or you can be a featured supplier)
    • Fees/commissions for products sold
    • Banner advertising on the home page or specific pages
    • Paid sponsorship/advertising in a community email newsletter
    • Rental of email subscriber lists

As with any business decision, weigh all the positives and negatives before you get involved in a community, even if participation is free. The act of joining in itself will not necessarily result in a positive impact on generating leads or sales for your company.

Also consider the impact of community involvement on your time or your staff’s time. If your objective is to use the community for marketing purposes, you will have to invest time as well as money. It takes time to make use of a community’s resources and build relationships with community members.

A key aspect of belonging to a community is the reality that it is not a passive activity. Often, the highest value you will get from a community is the networking value.

View the community as a giant virtual meeting room. When you go to a business meeting sponsored by a trade association, for example, you chat with folks in the room during the cocktail hour and the dinner. You make connections and exchange business cards. Sure, you came to the meeting to learn something, but you also came to network.

The virtual community is a lot like that, only the networking possibilities are limitless. If you look at the community as a place where unlimited networking potential can result in unlimited business opportunities, you will probably get more than you ever thought possible out of participating in one.

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