A year ago, the convergence of content-driven online communities and e-commerce was a relatively new concept.
Now, with the explosion of e-marketplaces spawned by industry stalwarts, trade publishers and independent start-ups, marketers who once offered only commerce or community are striving to integrate the two to make them support each other.
Many are discovering that online community features that don't directly help users do their jobs better actually detract from the customer experience.
And although types of useful community features still cut a broad swath--including articles, databases, discussion boards, chat, user-generated reviews, polls, e-mail and wireless--the range of acceptable subject matter seems to be shrinking.
"You are starting to see a lot of very businesslike content," said Ravi Kalakota, CEO of hsupply.com, a site that provides product selection, ordering, fulfillment, payment and reporting for the hospitality industry. "In contrast to classic communities with communication-oriented content where people vent their frustrations or talk about some issue, we now see more content relevant to your day-to-day job."
Kalakota notes a strong demand for practical information. "We need to put ourselves into the user's shoes and ask if we are offering something that is giving the guy value," Kalakota said.
David Cohen, senior VP-marketing at SupplyForce.com, an online and offline marketplace for the construction industry, agrees. "Our customers are not looking for community in the sense of dialogue with each other, but they do want tools and mechanisms to make their purchasing decisions better, more efficient and faster," Cohen said.
e-Steel Corp., a members-only trading community for the metal industry, is another company that sees content as a useful complement to commerce transactions.
"We believe our range of news, information tools and research reports accelerates our members' transaction decision-making process," said Sherry Sigler, senior director of marketing for e-Steel. "This adds value to our overall relationship with them, but our exchange product will always be the reason that members use the site."
Exchanges have several constituents to serve within a single community: buyers and their unique needs, sellers and their needs and the transaction space where they overlap. For now, hsupply.com is focusing on uniting what Kalakota calls "private communities" of buyers who work for a particular company.
"What we are observing is that an intranet, which used to be a separate entity, is now coalescing with the b-to-b site," Kalakota said. "We provide news, a forum, forms to download and a transaction capability, all in one place. Companies that used to have a separate intranet are now looking to us and seeing that we can fulfill the same need."
Making good communities
A good community is a two-way street: Marketers can use it to communicate with the customer and gather information on the fly. It's a forum for an endless focus group, where polls and surveys indicate what customers like and don't like about a company's products or services.
For example, e-Steel polls its members quarterly. "We conduct usability studies to stay in touch with what they think and want," Sigler said. "Feedback has been very positive."
Another trend is the convergence of one or more community tools, for instance blending e-mail with onsite transactions and polls to evaluate the usefulness of the service. "E-mail is the way to tap the customer on the shoulder, but the true bonding happens on your site," Kalakota said.
Also, advances in wireless technology have made it a more valid community-building tool. Because customers have been able to access the Web without being tied to their computers, they have more ways of gathering and sharing information. Wireless devices also give customers a new channel for placing orders, Kalakota said.
hsupply.com integrates wireless communication into the approval workflow process they manage for their customers, he said. A customer places an order, which is transmitted to his or her boss, who then approves it and sends it in for processing, all via wireless, preventing a backlog of orders in the manager's e-mail box.
Wireless also opens up many options for push messaging, though hsupply.com is not pursuing that right now. "I'm a believer that the less intrusive, the better," Kalakota said.
As was true a year ago, you can administer your community in-house, as e-Steel does, outsource management or purchase all your community functions and required maintenance in one tool.
BuzzCompany, which was acquired by financial content company Multex.com in May, provides a tool specifically designed for b-to-b exchanges that offers all the usual community features, but also connects that community to commerce opportunities through a storefront, auction or trading portal model.
According to Zor Gorelov, the former CEO of BuzzCompany, and now a VP at Multex, the advantage of outsourcing is instant revenue potential the minute you flip the switch. "We make it easier for community members to participate in transactional activities on the site, building profitable relationships and creating monetizable stickiness," Gorelov said.