Integrating Community With E-Commerce

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One of the most compelling aspects of the Internet is its encyclopedic vastness. Whatever a person is interested in - no matter how esoteric or specialized - there is bound to be at least a sprinkling of Web sites dedicated to that subject. And, perhaps as importantly, these destinations become networking hubs for people with common interests, concerns and passions.


Community - the ability to go online and link up with like-minded people from around the world - is what gives the Internet its amazing vitality, diversity and pure addictiveness.


For example, if you are a misunderstood 42-year-old male lepidopterist in a small factory town, imagine your excitement and relief to discover that other middle-aged men tromp through fields with butterfly nets and specimen kits. To foster and abet our communal instincts, countless online communities have taken root in cyberspace - some ad hoc, such as groups of scientists informally sharing research; others are the Web equivalent of planned model communities, with hundreds of the themed neighborhoods and individual addresses numbering in the millions.


Smart online catalogers and retailers are adding community-building features such as chat, electronic newsletters and content to their storefronts to increase traffic, encourage repeat visits and build brand awareness. Providing a host of resources and services can give a Web store the allure of a multipurpose destination. However, making these features a successful part of your e-commerce strategy is not as easy as it seems at first blush.


Do your homework. Done right, community-building features increase the number of page views per visit, providing opportunities to push merchandise to consumers. But always remember: While you can add community features, you can't manufacture a sense of community. If these free services do not address the real-world needs and interests of your visitors, they won't work, period.


Suppose you sell CDs over the Web and want to improve your youth audience demographics. Establishing a chat room and promoting celebrity band forums is a good way to create a buzz. However, you better know what today's kids are listening to. Maybe The Monkees were a hit in your day, but schedule a chat with Davy Jones and you'll attract baby boomers, not teen-agers. From a marketing and merchandising standpoint, the chat - even if well-attended - is a flop.


As Don Zeidler, an experienced online marketer, said: "The main thing to remember is that the online retailer doesn't build community - the users do. To be successful, community features must reflect the consumer's point of view."


Zeidler knows of what he speaks. As director of marketing at W. Atlee Burpee, the nation's leading gardening supplier for more than 120 years, he spearheaded the conversion of Burpee's informational Web site into an e-commerce store in 1997. In the years since, he has continually improved the site's offerings and developed its exemplary community features.


Zeidler credits the Web's unique interactivity with initiating an ongoing dialogue between the company and its customers. In fact, Burpee routinely answers between 500 and 1,000 gardening questions posted online each week. With this first-person feedback, Burpee has been able to design services tailored to their customers' interests.


Club Burpee, a free service for registered (opt-in) gardeners, provides a stream of timely e-mail communications and special offers. Regional newsletters provide customers with planting advice and information specific to their area. The site also features a user recipe section, profiles on real-life Burpee gardeners and resident experts. The sense of community has evolved and strengthened over time. As Zeidler said, the company now thinks of its customers as "Burpee friends and neighbors."


Don't be too ambitious too soon. When you introduce new features to your Web store, you add complexity to your site design and operation. The enhancements require a commitment of resources, budget and staff. Before implementing and promoting a new community feature, make sure you have the ability to service it.


Take a bulletin board, for example. Inviting users to post questions is a great value-added service; but stop for a moment and think. Who is going to answer the questions? If, like Burpee, you receive thousands of inquires monthly, you'll need dedicated staff, and your personnel must have specialized knowledge. After all, you are establishing yourself as an authority in a field and your customers can be pretty knowledgeable. They will ask very specific questions. "When should I plant tulip bulbs in southern New Jersey?" "What is the right soil compound I should use for growing eggplant?" "What indoor plant would you recommend for an area that has an indirect, southeastern exposure?"


For a subject-related bulletin board, you'll either need resident experts or extensive reference materials and excellent researchers. Equally important, you must respond in a timely fashion - typically, within 24 hours. Otherwise, you might alienate the very customers you're trying to woo.


Do have a strategic goal. If you take an informal poll of your company, you'll end up with scores of good ideas about how to improve your business and services. In an ideal world, you would implement them all. In the real world, there simply isn't enough time and money to do it all. Therefore, every company must prioritize its projects against resources and staff.


The same is true of an online business. The Web offers a lot of "gee-whiz"


technologies and features, but will they serve your bottom line?


Community-building features should not be added without serious thought. Like any e-commerce offering, they should reinforce your online marketing and merchandising goals. Is it to your advantage to attract a broad range of casual visitors, or should your outreach be targeted to your most profitable customers? In numerous marketing studies, companies have found that a minority of top-tier customers - sometimes as few as 10 percent - account for the bulk of their profits. Keeping this in mind, your community-building programs must target the right communities.


Consider strategic partnerships Improvement Catalog, a multichannel vendor of do-it-yourself home improvement products, caters to established, maintenance-conscious homeowners looking for easy-to-use problem solvers for their home, yard and car. The company wanted to leverage its Web site to provide customers with useful information on home upkeep and maintenance, as well as at-home recreational activities.


To accomplish this community-building mission, Improvement Catalog partnered with HouseNet.com, a major online content provider, to launch a free, opt-in electronic newsletter. Combining tips and editorial from both partners, the monthly newsletter debuted in late Spring 1999. The response to the newsletter was so enthusiastic that readership nearly doubled in the first two months. As a cross-selling piece, the newsletter also reinforces Improvement Catalog's multichannel presence (toll-free number, print catalog and online store).


Based on the success of its newsletter, Improvement Catalogue, is now actively considering strategic relationships with other synergistic Web service and product providers to better service its customers. As marketing vice president Bill Buchler said, "We want to create an online resource for the do-it-yourself community so they know where to go to get the best information and products to keep their homes in tiptop shape."


As these examples demonstrate, the communities you want to reach are out there and can be congregated and drawn to your site en masse through well-targeted services and offerings. Joining with content sources to enhance and diversify those resources benefits customers and partners alike.


Do have fun. The Internet gives catalogers and retailers an opportunity to know and communicate with their customers in new, revealing and rewarding ways. The Internet also is a great way to expand your market and brand. Many e-retailers report that more than half of their site traffic constitutes new leads. Community features are an effective way to engage visitors and customers in a meaningful dialogue with your company. Our advice: Enjoy it!


Kimberly Williams is vice president of R.R. Donnelley Online Services, Downers Grove, IL. Her e-mail address is kimberly.williams@rrd.com.
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