The Downside of Building Community

This article is from the book “Marketing Convergence: How the Leading Companies Are Profiting From Integrating Online and Offline Marketing Strategies” (Thomson/SouthWestern Professional/Racom Communications, October 2002).

“What we are really providing is a shopping tool for people, not a place to get together and whine,” Catherine Ettinger explains when asked about community building on Mike Brennan of Peapod adds, “We are a transaction site. Our customers don’t want to chat and read. We help them shop fast and smart.” His colleague Thomas Parkinson agrees. “If it doesn’t sell something, why put it on?”

So much for the highly touted community-building aspects of the Web! Online experts charged with actually selling product on their Web sites consider community goals inconsistent with most e-commerce business models and not really necessary to success.

“Community” opens complaint floodgates. One highly touted aspect of the Web is its open availability to people all over the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This can broaden a company’s reach and potential for sales, but it also puts sites under a constant spotlight – and they’re completely visible to critics as well as supporters.

As Joe Force says in regard to, “It’s really only your angry customers who go to community areas on auction sites. It would be like McDonald’s hosting a site where people could talk about what they found in their food or how dirty their bathrooms were. On the other hand, for, theoretically, if we had collectors who were into art glass, they might build a community to talk about it positively. But they do that already on other sites or neutral forums like” Ettinger notes, “There are quite a few other organizations that provide those forums, so we don’t need to.”

Though Yamaha Band and Orchestral Division executives see positives for community building among their dealers, they also see a possible downside. “Our extranet has the potential to build dealer community,” Gary Winder says. “It will be a community in our eyes but we’ll have to see whether the dealers view it that way.”

Supporting communities not worth the expense and effort. Steve Katzman of American Blind and Wallpaper Factory says, “The whole community thing is overblown. What customers said originally is they wanted to be able to talk to people who had the same situation. We found that the instant chat with our customer service reps works for that. A lot of firms who didn’t have that level of service with their own personnel used the bulletin board.”

But Yamaha has found that unless it monitors its bulletin boards and chat rooms, negative comments may be posted without rebuttal. Though Yamaha realizes it would be unfair censorship to delete such comments, the firm does take the liberty of encouraging satisfied customers to counter the negatives with their own positive statements.

Action Performance used to support a close but expensive community via telephone, but abandoned it when the firm went into partnership with QVC. Action Performance founder Fred Wagenhals considered the company’s call center a central aspect of the collectors club that many customers enjoyed. QVC looked at the situation from a profit perspective – having reps chat about cars and races while selling only one or two cars per call was cost-prohibitive.

Though Wagenhals laments the loss of that “club connection” and still fields customer complaints about it, Action Performance has no plans to re-implement the community online. “The QVC way makes money for the business,” says Dave Martin of Action Performance.

Rich Burke at Spiegel also questions the value of an online community for his clientele: “With kids or seniors it might make sense but for the average busy customer, no. You can stay online with our site and do a lot if you want, but we want to facilitate quick buying. Our peak time is 1 p.m. and again late at night – either at work on a lunch break or before bed. Our goal is to be as smooth and easy and non-obtrusive on the customer’s life as we can. But at the same time, if she does want to see our virtual fashion shows, we’ll have those available.”

Omaha Steaks’ Todd Simon adds, “We’re not big on the community thing. We’re pretty nuts and bolts about it – do you want to buy the product or get information about it? We haven’t seen that much need for chat about steaks and grilling.”

John Parker of Quixtar says that the company’s Independent Business Owners fulfill customers’ need for community. “The meetings and interactions IBOs have with customers are important. Also, the IBOs work together to learn, succeed and grow their businesses. We’ve been successful building community with an Internet business, but the community is not online.”

In its early days, Quixtar tried to be a portal and featured involvement devices that it abandoned quickly. Randy Bancino says, “On the same day we dreamed up Ditto Delivery (the firm’s successful ship-till-forbid program), we also thought up something called MyQuixtar – a personalized portal with news feeds and the like. It never took off because people prefer the Yahoos and AOLs of the world. We also tried offering a series of interactive online faces so customers could find one similar to theirs and ‘put on make-up.’ And we let people build a table setting online with dinnerware patterns they liked. Things that are ‘just plain cute’ like that get a big spike and then usage just plummets.”

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