Call it the Field of Dreams fallacy: the fact that you build it does not guarantee they will come. Many marketers have found out the hard way that simply putting up a Web site does not ensure that large numbers of visitors will flock to it. Some have pulled the plug in disgust, convinced that "the Web doesn't work." Others have gone in for contests, better positioning with the search engines, plastering their URLs on every available surface. And a small but growing number find that a viable alternative to going it alone is partnering with Web sites that are centered around serving the local community, or around the same community of interests.
Marketers can partner with community sites in a number of ways. They can, in time-tested fashion, take out banner ads or sponsor specific sections of a site, a la corporate sponsorships of PBS programs. But they can also reach further to become true partners, with higher returns. In many cases, they can exchange links with other site contributors; develop or manage community content and services related to their expertise; use their manpower and financial resources to promote the community site; and even allow the community site to host their corporate needs.
If executed correctly, such partnerships could lead to better traffic from links, stronger awareness from banners and listings, more "sticky" usage from integrated features-and greater credibility from helping community interests. While it remains relatively expensive to participate on such Web communities, it doesn't take much of an imagination to envision a day when marketers will find better value in sponsoring an electronic bulletin board on the local Web site than a float in the Memorial Day parade, soft drinks at a church picnic, or even a bold-faced ad in the yellow pages.
REACHING CRITICAL MASS In Web circles, the considerable buzz around "community" has probably outstripped actual usage. But the potential is clear to one and all. According to research by Arlen Communications Inc., 47 U.S. localities now boast at least 100,000 users. That sense of "critical mass"-and the desire to enter local marketplaces, where 85 percent of consumer dollars are apparently spent-has motivated Microsoft, America Online, CitySearch, and others to develop local city guides. They are bent on becoming 21st century successors to newspapers and yellow pages.
Besides the city guides, the critical mass of local users has also spurred more intensive development of community sites ranging from user groups and freenets to comprehensive online service centers, such as Libertynet in Philadelphia (http://www.libertynet.org) and Charlotte's Web in Charlotte, North Carolina (http://www.charlotte.org). While essentially nonprofit, many of these sites tend to be committed to local economic development and are anxious to work with local marketers on that basis.
There are already numerous case studies of local marketers reaping value-at least, affinity marketing value- from partnering with local Web sites. Wendy's Hamburgers in Colorado, for instance, sponsors an area on the Denver Post's Web site for high school sports throughout the state (http://www. dpwebport.com). It's a win-win-win for all the parties involved: participating high schools get access to state-of-the-art community publishing tools provided by Koz, Inc. that can be used for all school activities; the Denver Post gets paid by Wendy's for the sponsorship; and local Wendy's franchises not only get a link, but a good grade from the high school kids who might want to eat and work there.
In many cases, local businesses have sponsored community-oriented bulletin boards, forums, and editorial content that they might be positively associated with. CitySearch, a chain of local Web sites in 15 cities, has been especially active in pursuing these models. On the CitySearch site in Raleigh, North Carolina, a "Tech Talk" forum is being sponsored by Kelly's Temporaryservices. CitySearch Portland is working with Nike to sponsor computer access to a marathon in that city. In San Francisco, Wells Fargo Bank has been distributing CitySearch San Francisco's print guide to the Internet in low-income areas, to encourage people to find Wells Fargo services provided through the Community Reinvestment program.
Community-led efforts are also proving helpful in marketing local services in the cause of economic development. In Philadelphia, local nonprofit site LibertyNet has hooked up with small businesses and organizations around the city to act as their transactions agent. The Schuylkill River Development Fund, for instance, uses LibertyNet to host its environmental site, as well as to sell T-shirts and tickets to its annual marathon. Charlotte's Web also provides e-commerce solutions for local businesses.
But while they will work with local businesses-and accept their patronage-such sites are less likely than commercial city guides and newspapers to allow deep integration within their sites. Their commitment to non-commercialism, their limited budgets for content creation and promotion, and competition from for-profit local sites such as the newspapers is likely to limit their regular usage by community members. For now, however, they provide a voice for community members who wouldn't otherwise be heard.
"You can sponsor us and give us money for community content, but we are not willing to integrate" with a business site, notes Charlotte's Web executive director Steve Snow. "The community has too big a stake in us for the site to be bought and sold."
COMMUNITIES WITHOUT BORDERS Beyond the local sites are communities of interest that are nationally oriented, such as GeoCities and The Mining Co. These sites are generally less effective for local marketers, since they don't aggregate local users in any one market. But national marketers can find sizeable audiences at such sites. Indeed, GeoCities has emerged as a top-ten Web site, with over 1.3 million "homesteaders" spread out over dozens of "virtual neighborhoods." Now that a sizeable audience has been achieved, GeoCities has invited marketers to set up "GeoShops" that match its different sets of interests.
Other sites featuring communities of interest include the separate content "channels" created on mega- services such as America Online, Yahoo, and Excite. These major sites have clearly developed their various channels with an eye toward landing greater user awareness-and sticky usage-for their partners, or "anchor tenants." Playing on such a grand scale, however, usually requires a deep commitment of millions of dollars.
More casual arrangements are being developed by organizations that offer something for both local and national organizations. Civic Networks, of Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization, has created Web Markets (http://www.webmarkets.com) as an easy way to surf virtual storefronts of rural and low-income marketers across the U.S. and its territories. The Ohio section of the site, for instance, features home pages for everything from Ohio-grown spices to travel tours and bed-and-breakfast establishments. Storefront owners pay an annual fee of $200 and a small monthly maintenance fee in return for the right to keep all proceeds. This setup enables the state-based economic development agents that work with Civic Networks to avoid seeking commissions on sales. Commissions can be a logistical nightmare, since many small businesses only accept checks or money orders, rather than credit cards.
Barnes & Noble.com has set up a different kind of marketing scheme, designed to extend its book-selling activities to the nonprofit and community sphere. Rather than merely buy banners and links on non-profit and community sites-many of which would not take their advertising dollars-Barnes & Noble has encouraged sites to set up mini book arcades with titles appropriate to its mission. A local woman's health clinic, for instance, might feature titles like Our Bodies, Our Selves. Users are only linked to Barnes & Noble.com for the sale if they browse through the arcade.
In exchange for the promotions, the nonprofits gain sales commissions of up to 7 percent. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble reaps the benefits of making a book sale, introducing people to its Internet service, and the intangible "affinity" value of being associated with nonprofits that participate in the program. So far, participants already include CARE, the New York Public Library, UNICEF, United Cerebral Palsy, and SeniorNet.
SOME CAVEATS Marketers clearly have many incentives to partner with community Web sites, whether they are for-profit local sites such as those provided by newspapers and city guides, nonprofit community centers such as LibertyNet and Charlotte's Web, or national communities of interest such as GeoCities. Associating with such sites can provide immediate affinity marketing values as the good guys of the community, bring traffic to their own sites, and eventually create some new revenues.
The business of partnering with community publishers, however, is a relatively new one. Truth be told, most community Web sites have not figured out how to effectively integrate the activities of commercial providers with their site. Subsequently, it is generally up to the marketer to establish the terms of the partnership. Otherwise, they will most likely end up as a segregated home page, or "micro-site," that is little better than a passive yellow pages listing.
Marketers working with community Web sites should also have modest usage goals. Local Web usage is high enough in general, but usage of local Web sites is still locked in at the advanced beginner phase. Less than 5 percent of Web users-roughly 1 percent of the total marketplace-use the local newspaper site in most markets. In coming years, it is not inconceivable that such sites would rival print and broadcast outlets. We expect them to. But they're not there yet.
There are many short-term advantages to working with community sites today. But we believe the real dividends will be paid out over the long term. Those marketers establishing partnerships with community Web sites should think of it as a long term union.
Taking It Further For more information on GeoCities, contact David Bohnett, chairman, at (310) 314-8900. CitySearch can be reached by calling Tom Millhoff, vice president of community content, at (626) 405-0050. Civic Networks' WebMarkets executive director Richard Civille can be reached at (202) 362-3831. Harry Bailes, president of Koz Inc. can be telephoned at (919) 544-9919. LibertyNet executive director Bob Leming can be reached at (215) 387-6640 ext. 235. For more information on Charlotte's Web, contact executive director Steve Snow at (704) 332-5778.
Marketers and community organizations are coming up with some very creative partnerships. The Denver Post has sold its Colorado High School Sports site (http://www.dpwebport.com) to Wendy's Hamburgers, which pays for community publishing tools and training by Koz Inc. for any participating high school in the state.
Barnes & Noble provides nonprofit groups, including Community Resources, commissions of up to 7 percent for sales of books sold on its site.
Yahoo! teams with Starbucks and Motley Fool in a number of Webathon fundraisers for charities such as Share Our Strength, I Am Your Child, the Inner City Games Foundation, and the Children's Miracle Network. Motley Fool provides information on how to donate to charities using stocks, bonds, etc.
The Family Education Network offers to build school sites for communities, "sponsored" by companies with local presences. Participating sponsors include AT&T, US West, Century 21, and Fleet National Bank.
Nike teams with CitySearch Portland to build community content areas and provide kiosks throughout Portland for the Nike World Masters Games. The kiosks will provide access to community and sports sites, and will be donated to community centers when the games are finished.
LibertyNet established a discount coupon book that gives members discounts to the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Asian Tea House, and other Philadelphia institutions. In exchange, couponing organizations receive promotion on the site.
The Boys and Girls Clubs of Union County, New Jersey, teach members HTML, and they build discounted Web sites for local-area businesses as projects, with proceeds benefiting the Clubs.
Charlotte's Web teams up with a local business exposition to provide free promotion. In return, the service gets $1 for each referral to the Expo from its Web site.