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Focus on virtual communities

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Name: Howard Rheingold Title: Founder & president Company: Rheingold Associates, San Francisco
Howard Rheingold is among the most widely known experts on virtual communities. He served as an online host for one of the most famous virtual communities, Salon.com's The Well. Rheingold was the first to write about the phenomenon of social communication in cyberspace with his 1993 book "The Virtual Community." He later created a Web-zine and Web conference-based virtual community called Electric Minds. Today, Rheingold is president of Rheingold Associates, a group of 40 consultants who help nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies construct virtual communities of their own.

Q. Which b-to-b marketers should be thinking about using community features on their sites? A. If you have a sophisticated technical product whose customers are [not likely to] call the support helpline folks, you could create a community for those people that's not only a better means of supporting them, but a way of empowering them to find better uses for your product and become evangelists for it. Or, if you have a complex supply chain where you have a broad and fluid community of partners, there may be strength in connecting all of those partners together into a community whose central focus is your business.

Q. What's the best way to implement a community on your Web site? A. You need to have three elements well planned out before you start. There's the marketing infrastructure, the second step is knowing what it is you want in terms of your business, then you need to understand what your needs are in terms of the technology infrastructure. So once you get the marketing and the technology, there's an invisible part that I call the social infrastructure that's all-important. What are the rules of discussion and how are they enforced? Do you have hosts or moderators, and how are they trained? What are the user orientation materials you have? Most importantly, what is the information structure of the discussion? What kind of forums do they want and what kind of things do they want to discuss? So, you need to prepare weeks or months in advance before you implement it. You only have one chance to make that first impression.

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