You can become part of most communities, as an individual or a representative of your business, by simply joining. And in some communities, joining is free. It takes nothing more than completing and sending an online application and getting a user ID and password. Then you can start taking advantage of the community’s various services, such as e-mail, discussion groups and chats.
In some communities you may have to pay a membership or participation fee, or you may have to contribute part of the revenue you receive from selling something through that community. For instance, some virtual malls may rent virtual space on a contractual basis. Others may ask you to subscribe for a certain 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 it. 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 variations, so first do a broad search to locate those communities that may have business or marketing value for you. Use search words that relate directly to your line of business. 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, begin to narrow your options by critically evaluating each site. First, classify the potential communities into free vs. 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 know if your competitors participate. You also want to know whether the buyers and sellers are from companies that fit your company’s profile, or whether they are the type you want to do business with.
Then apply the following checklist to each community: Which free services are offered? Does it offer free services you could take advantage of, i.e., e-mail, home pages, chat and discussion groups? 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.
• A company profile.
• Enabling speakers to participate in online forums or seminars.
• Posting of job openings.
• Listing of events in a community calendar.
• Listing of products or services in a buyer’s guide.
• Reciprocal linking to the company 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 return on investment perspective. In other words, analyze the potential number of prospects you may reach and ask yourself whether 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 e-mail newsletter.
• Rental of e-mail 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 it 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 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 is the networking value. View it 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.