Communities cost little to build

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On the surface, setting up a virtual community seems like a pretty inexpensive addition to a marketing site. After all, this month's Web Price Index finds that development and integration run at a median of $45,000, ranging from $5,000 to $175,000. However, developing the site is only the beginning.

Setting up a virtual community has more pitfalls than most types of site development and enhancement because of the amount of daily attention needed to foster its growth.

Howard Rheingold, a consultant and author of 1993's "The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier," cautions marketers to think hard about their community sites before they build.

Some questions he poses to marketers who are thinking of entering this realm: "Why do you want to have a long-term relationship with these people? Are you prepared to create new processes and to hire the people to implement them?

"If you're not prepared to respond to [the community], don't get them started. You can't open a suggestion box and not implement the suggestions."

Staffing and internal project management can become sizable costs for creating a community. People within the marketer's company must become community participants themselves, and they can find that requires quite an investment in time and resources.

Success or failure of the site can depend on factors beyond the marketer's control.

"It depends on the quality of the information and people who come to it," said Karen O'Brien, VP-sales and marketing for roundpeg, San Francisco. Community sites "that don't provide targeted information quickly die." She advises her clients to get into the heads of the target group during development.

Creating community

One of the main hurdles is gathering the people who will make up the community.

" `If you build it, they will come' is totally wrong," said Mr. Rheingold. "You need some kind of gravitational force and it has to be strong enough to drive users away from all the other things that compete for their time."

Drawing traffic isn't enough. When trying to build a community, enticing the right people is more important than sheer volume.

Traditional forms of marketing come into play to alert potential community members of the new site. "You can spend a lot of money on advertising, but you can't spam them," Mr. Rheingold said. Ms. O'Brien recommended an integrated approach, heavy on trade press and direct mail, to draw in the target audience.

All the up-front work can pay off in the end. "Branding -- that's the obvious benefit," Mr. Rheingold said.

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