SILICON PERSPECTIVE: Build a community and they really will come

SILICON PERSPECTIVE: Build a community and they really will come

For some inexplicable reason, people who build e-commerce sites on the Web tend to take leave of their senses when they first launch a new business venture. Whether it is a business-to-consumer site or a business-to-business site, the assumption is made that a transaction is somehow or other going to be immaculately born on their site thanks to some sort of divine intervention or over-funded marketing campaign.

What gets overlooked at most sites is the fact that transactions manifest themselves online in an almost identical way to transactions in the real world. For instance, nobody in the real world wakes up one morning and suddenly says, "I think I'll buy a widget. In fact, I think I'll buy this specific brand of widget."

Instead, a series of overt and subtle catalysts create a need that must be filled by buying a certain widget. But once that need is created, the decision to buy a specific type of widget is usually arrived at after consulting with others who have bought that type of widget before. This consultation with one's peers is usually the single most trusted source for determining what specific type of widget to buy.

But time and again in the online world, one e-commerce site after another has basically laid out a long list of widgets and spent millions of dollars advertising that list of widgets. Yet they have not created anything that resembles a community around the widgets, which creates an environment where people can reach out to their peers. That means that the only reason people have to visit the site is to conduct a transaction.

Because transactions are an end product of a collaborative process, many of these sites are doing themselves a disservice by not having an active community. Simply put, if you want people to buy things at your online store, you must give them a reason to visit you other than just to buy something. If you want to see this principle at work in the real world, just visit your local mall. The vast majority of people at the mall are just there to hang out. It's not until they've been at the mall for an hour or so that they actually decide to buy something.

The good news is that the tools to create a community on your site are pretty diverse. Your first step could be as simple as creating an alliance with a Web site, such as Keen, that specialises in creating communities. Or you could use e-mail tools such as AppMail from Zaplets to invite people to participate in various e-mail discussions on your Web site.

If you want to be more ambitious, you could check into a wave of new peer-to-peer applications, from companies such as Groove Networks, that makes it easier to create affinity groups around different topics. Similarly, you could create a series of Web sites using software from companies such as Covia that make it relatively easy for people to create their own Web pages.

And finally, you could go the whole hog and deploy a suite of collaboration software applications from companies such as Blue Martini to create an integrated environment that tightly links all of your marketing messages, partners and e-commerce transactions.

Given the plethora of collaboration tools available, there's no reason not to create an environment conducive to fostering transactions around your Web site. In fact, nowhere are these types of tools needed more than at the countless exchanges that have sprung up in every vertical industry.

According to industry analysts at Forrester Research, approximately 1400 exchanges are in development today - but only 200 of those are expected to survive. In the vernacular of the day, these exchanges are in search of liquidity, which is a fancy way of saying that most of them are in the process of going broke. The ones that do make it will control trillions of dollars' worth of transactions and will probably have one thing in common: They moved quickly to create communities around their businesses, which then fostered transactions.

Michael Vizard is editor in chief of silicon valley-based Infoworld. Contact him on

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