The community model is a method of developing an online presence in which several individuals or groups are encouraged to join and participate in ongoing interaction designed around a common purpose. Web communities, or virtual communities, were not only a way for like-minded people to come together online, they also were an increasingly important element of business plans. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the cropping up of countless new Web communities facilitating one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one, and many-to-many lines of communication and cooperation.
Communities utilize electronic tools such as forums, chat rooms, e-mail lists, message boards, and other interactive Internet mechanisms, which are usually tailored to the particular community. Ideally, such communities are as interactive as possible, creating the greatest level of synthesis between their various offerings. Thus, the discussions that take place in the forums can be linked to content elsewhere on a Web site, while the company or community host can generate new content based on discussions that take place between community members.
Broadly, the community model comes in two basic varieties: those centered on relationships and those centered on tasks. The former typically are informal, grassroots-oriented communities that revolve around shared interests, ideas, topics, and goals. In these communities, the development of relationships is the primary goal. To maximize member involvement, community sites must offer maximum degrees of interactivity and personalization. For example, GeoCities offers space and tools for members to set up their own Web sites and establish virtual communities within the broader GeoCities community. Task-centered communities generally are more structured and impersonal. The relationships established or augmented online are a means to a mutual end, such as enhanced profits. More specifically, Web communities are established between business partners, between businesses and their customers, between different groups of customers, within companies, and between individuals and groups devoted to particular topics.
In business-to-business (B2B) relationships, the community model provides all community members with the ability to share and check electronic invoices, communicate and exchange funds on secured networks, and resolve problems quickly and openly. Internet communities offer exceptionally streamlined workflow processes between and within companies, where the functionality of key tasks is integrated and synthesized. This necessitates less personnel, paperwork, and software, and boosts efficiency, thereby minimizing operating costs and enhancing profit margins.
Web communities allow companies to use the Web to open up new channels for customer support and outreach, advertising, sales, ordering, distribution, and communication. In the field of customer service, the online community is often viewed as a vital step in creating consistent and seamless service across all kinds of media, mirroring the call center as a vehicle for quick service but going beyond it in the level of interactivity. For instance, companies may encourage their users to access the Web to receive customer support in an online forum, in which they can seek advice from a company expert and interact with other customers. In this way, customers are encouraged to become part of a coherent community tied to the company, thereby creating added value and boosting customer loyalty. This built-in source of customer feedback can be extremely valuable, allowing companies to take proactive measures to improve products and customer service. It also enables firms to further personalize their sites and build customer profiles that can be utilized for later advertising and product development. In addition, companies can take advantage of such features to monitor their customers' needs and values, and modify their products and services accordingly. Finally, such arrangements can lighten the burden on company support staff, as customers are encouraged to get and offer help to other customers.
Communities were increasingly popular within companies in the early 2000s. Linking employees to each other and to managers, intra-business Web communities facilitate communication within and across departments and divisions, enhance coordination of strategies starting from the bottom up (rather than mandating them from the top down), and provide a forum for training programs, employee grievances, conflict resolution, and socializing. Furthermore, as Sloan Management Review pointed out, intra-firm online communities are an excellent way to encourage and foster voluntary employee participation and initiative, which are crucial concerns among employers.
The infrastructure of an online community consists of hardware, software, design elements, and an interface. All of these characteristics, analysts point out, are best tailored to the specific needs of the community; no one formula is appropriate for every community. Ultimately, communities must revolve around their members, not their features. While the tools available for Web communities are often highly attractive, hosts must keep in mind that the tools must fit the community, not the other way around, or the purpose of the model is lost. In general, a community must grow organically from the genuine needs and desires of the members themselves, and will gradually take shape over time as the community grows.
Brenner, Ev. "Virtual Communities in the Business World." Information Today. December 2000.
Chaudhury, Abhijit, Debasish N. Mallick, and H. Raghav Rao. "Web Channels in e-Commerce." Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery. January, 2001.
Marks, Andrew. "E-maintenance Management." Chain Store Age. May, 2000.
Philbin, Tamara. "Old-Line to Online." Association Management. December 2000.
Williams, Ruth L., and Joseph Cothrel. "Four Smart Ways to Run Online Communities." Sloan Management Review. Summer, 2000.
Wonnacott, Laura. "To Create a Community, Look to a Good Platform and Examine the Needs of Your Customers." InfoWorld. April 3, 2000.
SEE ALSO: Business Models; Channel Conflict/Harmony; Channel Transparency; Virtual Communities