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Building Communities: Critical for Online Business?

 9:00 am on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

Read an article about Craigslist, the online classifieds site and came upon this statement about Craigslist [nytimes.com] from a newspaper publisher:

“What Craigslist does well is build a community and a feel of a community,” he said. “Building communities is going to be critical for any online product, whether a newspaper or not.”

At first glance who would connect community to classifieds? Yet that is what makes Craigslist the seventh most popular site in the United States. How critical do you think building community is to an Internet endeavor?



 12:38 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

I believe that moving forward, communities will be an integral part of any online entity, regardless of whether it sells a product, a service or just fresh content.

Now the hard part is convincing my clients of that vision for the future!


 12:59 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

At first glance who would connect community to classifieds? Yet that is what makes Craigslist the seventh most popular site in the United States. How critical do you think building community is to an Internet endeavor?

I use craigslist often. I disagree that "community" is what makes it a popular site. More important in their success, in my opinion, is it's simple to use, the pages load fast and aren't bloated and it allows people to sell things quickly and easily for FREE. Plus, some dissatisfaction with eBay has also helped craigslist in the eyes of a number of people.

I've sold a number of things there and can't think of an example of the community being an asset. I can think of some examples of the community being a hindrance.



 2:02 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

Largest community == Largest marketing team + Largest development team + Largest testing team + ...... == You winning it

Sounds cool and simple, forget it. Creating communities is very very difficult for the second player onwards. We were able to create many successfully as we were (almost) the first ones, be second and you feel the heat. At some places we were pretty late and we had to do a lot of work to get that moving. Also some topics doesn't allow you to create communities easily. You need to get the community pulse correctly.

Also community ensures

  1. That you are not way too wrong, people leave you when you go wrong.
  2. That you have the best marketing team.
  3. That you are offering some stuffs for free all the time. Communities doesn't stay with purely commercial groups.
  4. Few more things, will write later :).

- AjiNIMC aka Web Kotler.


 2:29 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

I am currently working on two sites. My plans for both, at the start, is to include a discussion forum and a free membership that would include free email accounts, photo/bio pages, etc...

The demogrpahics of my targetted group of people is limited, so the community idea will be good for me, I believe. The community idea will round all of 'em up, I hope.


 3:14 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

Given the limits of my time why would I want to join another community, specifically a "business's community"?

Would that be to promote my interests or the business's interests?

What will my life and the world look like when every damned business that I do business with wants to form a community and have me join?

I think the world is slowly coming to grips with the realities and consequences of the virtualization of community. Marketers push the idea as that's their business. Wannabees get hooked on the idea "as good for business". Early adopters, then the masses, feel the slowing drag and "social burden" of all the growing efforts to connect with them and connect them.

Eventually, we stop looking for virtual connections, we begin to disconnect and we see new invitations to virtually connect as the nothing more than the latest form of intrusion or spam.

[edited by: Webwork at 3:37 pm (utc) on May 12, 2008]


 4:32 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

Given the limits of my time why would I want to join another community, specifically a "business's community"?

What's in it for me? That's an important question to answer. Everything else being equal, do you buy the software that has a lively community behind it creating extensions and giving each other support? Or do you buy software from the company with no community, closed API, and in-house developed extensions?

One of the things that makes Dreamweaver and Photoshop so cool is the community that's grown up around those products, who develop software that extends and improves the functionality of those products.


 5:05 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

agree with people above.

Craigslist is not about "internet community". It is about real community. The newspaper publisher missed it big time.

Also, read what AjiNIMC said. It is HARD to build a real community.

webwork, can I append? "we stop looking for virtual connections, we begin to disconnect" from technology and try to connect with real people.

Technology is a fad. Monetizing social networks is a fad. You can't fool people on the internet like you do in TV commercials - they catch on fast and STOP BUYING FROM YOU. So you better be real, and that is HARD. Or people will leave for other social networks, where there's less ads and more truth. That is the nature of it IMHO.

Good luck building a virtual community around widgets.

Or do you buy software from the company with no community, closed API, and in-house developed extensions?

Software companies have no communities. Maybe Open source, year, but it is a REAL community i.e. people who want to help build something real, not "a space for virtual software friends". We've been buying software from companies with no communities for years - Microsoft for one. Did it make you feel lonely? Or did downloading Open Source soft made you feel warm and fuzzy? Why? It is a soft, it is a tool, it is a darn hammer. Community around hammers? I don't think so.


 7:03 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

Community around hammers? I don't think so

You must not use the "net" for much huh? :) Some of the best online communities are the DIY forums from home building to home repair to small hobby & professional construction discussions.

Just like software, the hammer is a tool that has many aspects as to its utility. Even as software goes, At one point in time accounting used to be a paper ledger, now its something that can track everything coming in and out and you would be lying to yourself if you think software companies such as MS doesn't have communities around its software. I mean, have you seen MSDN? Have you seen OTN from oracle? or sun's community projects?

Time to get your head out of the dirt and realize its all about community and nothing else. (community, niche, however you want to word it. You either appease them or they go elsewhere)

[edited by: ByronM at 7:04 pm (utc) on May 12, 2008]


 7:46 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

ByromM: Some of the best online communities are the DIY forums from home building to home repair to small hobby & professional construction discussions.

My point EXACTLY.

Are best online communities built around ecommerce stores? NO. WHY? Because they are financially interested. Online communities are REAL NETWORKS of REAL people who discuss hobbies and issues, not the best prices on widgets.

I've used MSND many many times in the past. I don't anymore. Collaborative knowledge of people outside Microsoft, on various forums and groups, that can be searched via your favorite SE is much deeper.

The topic is whether online businesses need to start communities. I think that for 99% of online businesses it will be useless waste of time. For a few big ones like Microsoft, Oracle and Amazon - yes, sure. Still, it will be mostly a format of Support, FAQs and discussions around bugs, widget problems and main functionality. But not a community. An ecommerce business will drag community down, and other seemingly non-profit communities will eat its lunch.

But if your business IS a community...well, that's another story.


 7:53 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

>>>Are best online communities built around ecommerce stores?

The answer is emphatically... Yes! :)

NewEgg's rating community is without peer. Amazon has done well cultivating a community of raters, as well. They are among the best online communities for researching purchasing information. eBay isn't just an ecommerce site, they're an actual community with many community-type features.


 8:00 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

martinibuster, these are 2 examples that are not available to 99.99% of websites. You need to be #1 or 2 in the category to muster enough people to support a true product rating system. And even then you'll be competing with Amazon.

I don't think Amazon's ratings is a community. It's people posting their opinions. You don't interact with other members. Otherwise, we need to define a "community". Define Amazon's community - "people who purchased on Amazon"? :)

[edited by: aleksl at 8:07 pm (utc) on May 12, 2008]


 8:05 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

aleksl, you asked questions and expressed doubts, and myself and others responded with examples.
  • Yes, online communities are built around ecommerce stores.
  • Yes online communities are built around hammers.
  • Yes online communities are built around software products.


 8:10 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

"Best" is relative. Craigslist is by far better than Amazon, IMHO. Then there are many social networks. Many dating sites. Many hobby forums, as people mentioned. Your ecommerce communty will be behind all these, competing for eyeballs. Do you have what it takes? Do you have a competitive advantage? Do you have the knowledge, expertise, etc.

I don't think it is fair to qualify Amazon's rating system as a community.

I don't think you can qualify MSDN as a community

Any technology company's FAQ and support forum and groups - I don't think you qualify, as it is created out of necessity. You have to answer questions or you don't sell products.

Let's define "online community", or we can go as low as qualifying anything with a textbox and Submit button a community. I DON'T BUY THAT.


mb, I don't say it is IMPOSSIBLE to create communities around ecommerce, I just think it is hard. There are only few good examples.


 8:46 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

Another key point is that because Craigslist is local, it builds community offline. If I want a sofa, I need to call someone up and actually meet with them in person to make the transaction. Also, you can find events that you can actually go to and participate in your local community.

To that end, I think what some e-commerce sites are lacking is being tied into a real community both online and offline. I don't think you need to host a community to be part of one though and reap the benefits.

My husband has a very niche business with a successful website. We tried a forum initially, but like others, we realized that we'd rather spend time building our business than promoting the forum. But being part of the community is important, so we frequent other forums, we participate in social websites, and most importantly, we go out and socialize with people in the real world. Going to conventions, sponsoring events and meeting people offline has really helped our online presence grow and in a very natural way.


 11:29 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

no, please don't go on telling people they need to build yet more 'corporate/business' communities... don't want to run into those anymore. *heh*


ok, hear my argument...

I don't think Amazon and eBay are communities in the sense I'd call
webmaster world a community. I don't think that a software support forum is a community... in a sense as sourceforge is. NOTHING that gets moderated out of corporate bias can ever become a community. you must moderate, but must NOT toy with people's sense of reality. they'll notice.

for really successful online communities the main and key element is: free. Free free free. Freedom of opinion. free flow of information, and...

Free information ( fan-, hobby-, caritative-, collaborative groups ). Information ABOUT free stuff ( SEO *grin* yeah I know, it isn't free ). Free information ABOUT free stuff. or just free stuff ( to see, hear, download ... you see where I'm getting at )

Free has to be in there somewhere.

a community built around

- purchase the following widget
- ( otherwise you most likely will have nothing to say/ask )

...is a support forum / idea bin. it's exclusive.

Which is also a community of course... well... in a way.
But it's way too small to reach critical mass and generate the gravity that'd work as (automated) marketing and draw in anyone NEW. There's no word of mouth about 'hey they promised I'd get support and it wasn't a lie!' ( the opposite will work, as far as getting you known *pfft* )

Also if/when the product'd go dead, it's all over.

By contrast, if a site is shut down, a community built around something general(ly free), will simply migrate to the next similar domain.


* is a support forum/idea bin necessary for your business?
well... no, it's not necessary. sometimes it could even backfire.
When you will be asked about why you keep f...messing up.
where the new and improved stuff you promised is. why isn't your widget blue instead of red? and then why did you go blue instead of keeping red? if both is available, where's the black and white variation? why is this product/service so full of errors and mistakes? etc.
and you'll either spend a lot of effort on well balanced moderation or stop communicating or become downright hostile. and piss off the remaining few fans of your product. ( great example is Google, where you won't get a decent answer no matter how you ask )

* is a real/generic community **necessary** for your business?
no... it's not 'necessary'. there's no relation other than relevant traffic. it's **very** cool to have one ( like you have a DIY forum that's 'sponsored by' your hammers'r'us store, have hints for using hammers instead of teakettles w/o mentioning the only company that makes hammers... subtly form opinion... etc. )... but the success of your non-community business will originate ( if ever ) from the sheer number of people who've seen your 'ad'. They won't be talking about hammers'r'us, and some will not even like you. (try to force them and they'll abandon the community) they'll buy from your competitor if their product is better/cheaper. BUT, if you keep it separate, you'll have a high traffic, on topic site, yours for all the free advertising you want. and no, you can't start all answers with 'first buy hammers'r'us Item No. #nnnnn', neither can edit out negative reviews. exactly because it's supposedly a community... and not your support forum.


but building a community for your home improvement store?
there's got to be a better place for all that time, money and effort.
and there's got to be a more efficient way to get all these people to know you.


using the already available communities.
study them. study their behaviour, their reactions, aim your marketing at their wishes and become the secret mystic santa claus ninja of 'hammers' without them noticing a thing.
get your offers in front of them just as sublty as if it was your own forum, and let them do the talk.


the 'we don't need another corporate community' lobby ends here. and I haven't even mentioned web 2.0. SO here it is. WEB 2.0


 11:50 pm on May 12, 2008 (gmt 0)

nope, i don't think creating a community is critical for a website. it's an additional although costly feature at best. the core product of a website has to be something other than a community anyway. because communities alone hardly earn money. what's more, they are still not even proven to be a vehicle for earning money.

i think earning money with social communities is the most spectacular misjudgement of our recent time. communities per se are anti-capitalism like nothing else. wanting to squeeze money out of real social relationships is fatal.


 1:50 am on May 13, 2008 (gmt 0)

Social communities are just taking off in the big theme of things and like everything else everyone is jumping on the bandwagon...

Truth is very few sites warrant a large scale community applications as they do not have the # of unique visitors or depth of information to keep customers entertained. Majority of sites are too small and the people/companies that run the sites do not have the resources to build a proper community. It takes substantial investment and risk...not too many succeed.

Of course there's different levels of community sites from the full blown Facebook all the way down to Wordpress blogs. All depends on your definition of community. Every website needs people to visit regularly which is a community. Comments on articles are the start of most peoples communities but most comment boards are blank.

If you want to start off with a community it needs to be built from the grass roots based on your customers needs. Trying to build a community site and then finding customers is extremely difficult and doomed for failure.

I believe you have to be an established site with the demand from existing customers for community sites to succeed (Or have substantial time and money to buy your way in).


 6:15 am on May 13, 2008 (gmt 0)

Create the community around a unique perspective on the subject.

Offer new ways to address the topic and involve user input.

Relate the subject to other subjects in a different way than has been done.

I think if you can create a community based around those aspects, then your community will offer something that none other can offer, and will thus be a success in many ways.

Every subject can be addressed in a unique way.


 7:06 am on May 13, 2008 (gmt 0)

But being part of the community is important, so we frequent other forums, we participate in social websites, and most importantly, we go out and socialize with people in the real world.

Exactly! You have to judge for yourself if a discussion forum, etc is right for you. But especially in a niche it's good to be known by the people active in the niche and they will help spread the word about you just as you will support them.


 11:13 am on May 13, 2008 (gmt 0)

I'd definitely vote for this discussion to be the discussion of 2008 so far on WebmasterWorld. A lot of fundamental questions are raised and a lot of experience is hiding behind all those comments. All your opinions (thank you) are quite inspiring to me. At a point, I thought, it sounds quite familiar... but like what? Ah-ha that's it... How to make a community out of a crowd (variety of customers/visitors - different cultures, religions, race, georegion etc.)?

And then it suddenly struck my mind! It's like building a new country! A virtual country and a virtual nation!

But... it's not a question for a webmaster, guys and gals. It is a question for a politician! And once you've got to that point it's very easy, because there is nothing really new under the sun since the time of the Roman Empire.

1. Get to know your boundaries, human and material resources.
2. Establish strategic alliances with other countries. Say, OpenSocial is like WTO - rules for exchange of data for OS or trade with products and services for WTO. Both have standards to be followed before a country is allowed to join!
3. Encourage sense of loyalty, fashion, pride, prosperity and patriotism.
4. Persuade your citizens that being a part of your community they have some exceptional privileges (aka access to free products and services).
5. Define the enemy. The mighty the enemy is the stronger is the community (for instance Microsoft, Google, high prices, desease, bad weather, whatever...). Yes, that's right. Without an enemy there is no community!
6. If things are not so rosy (competition is increasing) create a religion. Preferably with a single God with whom you talk from time to time in private (aka brand loyalty).
7. Don't forget to step onto the message boards/forums from time to time to reassure ordinary citizens that you're one of them.
8. Try to persuade your community that decisions you've taken are actually their own decisions (aka democracy).
9. Do not allow community leaders to achieve too much of influence over the rest of the members.


I'm sure you can add dozens of such rules...

And if you're a successful politician/community builder, one day deep into future, your rightful heir will read the following message on your website message board: 'My grandfather used to buy blue widgets from this webstore/webmanufacturer. I'm pretty sure my children will be loyal customers as well'... (aka patriotism)

As far as I can see Web 3.0, politicians just created another play ground for their favorite games. Now they are more virtual than ever before! ;)


 12:01 pm on May 13, 2008 (gmt 0)

Comunity is sticky stuff. I like sticky.

sticky=returning visitors (members of community)
returning visitors=money

yep, I LOVE community.

[webfool goes back to the chalkboard]

community ideas:

a community for people to share cajun recipes?
a community for customer service employees who have complaints about rude customers?
a community for people who were abducted by aliens?

the list goes on! the web is a place of wide diversity!


 12:41 pm on May 13, 2008 (gmt 0)

I have thought about setting up a forum on my little ecommerce site because I have seen what it did for another online retailer in a nearby niche. That retailer makes a single widget in endless variations. There is a community that formed through their forum and has expanded onto ebay and even onto another independent forum for fans of their widgets. I have looked and looked at this business to see what makes them so successful, because they don't make a very good quality widget--I have bought several of them. I have concluded it's two things--the spin they attach to their widgets, which is just pure marketing genius, and the fact that they are always rolling out new widgets as part of a group, so there is always stimulation to buy.

People join the forums so they can post reviews of the widgets but what's more, they trade them. They even buy the larger size of the widget and divide it up and sell the small ones both on the forum and on ebay and elsewhere. This is not a big business; it's basically 2 people and has a crappy cart. Their shipping typically takes 4-6 weeks after they charge your card. The business owner doesn't even participate in the forum(s); moderators do that. And yet they have this enormous customer base thanks to this community.

I don't think I can copy this exactly for my business, but I do see that it is possible for a even a small retail store to have a community behind it, one that is not local and that isn't fake (corporate-created). I expect eventually I will put up a forum on my site, but meanwhile I am focusing on rolling out as many new widgets as I can so that I can reach that critical mass of widget selection that creates a feeling of plenty in customers. Customers like the feeling of abundance and of participating in that. I think this is behind the trading and selling of these widgets as well.

So I see community success as very much linked to business practice. Keep them widgets rollin'.


 3:01 pm on May 13, 2008 (gmt 0)

Can we please have some demographics? I feel strongly that the success of the community is directly related to the demographic. If your site does not appeal to that demographic, where does the community aspect come into play?

For example, the Baby Boomers. You're expecting us to become involved with these communities when many of us type our web addresses in the default search box that was there when we bought the computer.

Many of us may use a free email account when signing up for those communities. That is the absolute weak link in the process. Keeping your community up to date on the latest happenings and such is a daunting task when relying on email communication to do the job.

I think there is a large generation gap in the community concept.


 5:18 pm on May 13, 2008 (gmt 0)

Community is a good idea just for the simple fact that the more we deal with computers the less connected we feel.

For me the idea of a message board or off site linked blog that references back to the main site is a good idea. But how honest is it?

I don't mind doing it for a company I believe strongly is helping people, but for just flat out ad space and such I think it's a fake community. And despite how much work you put into trying to make your site look biased I feel that people will see through it.

^^pageoneresults, I agree that there is a gap, but I also feel that because that gap exists is what makes the idea of a community work. You have people from many age ranges, experience levels (not just on the topic but also computer experience) and you find that other members (in some good communities) who will actually help privately one another with other issues if it be about the topic or about the computer.

I think the idea as a whole is an interesting one, and as more sites pop up about networking we'll see the true forces of it.


 5:27 pm on May 13, 2008 (gmt 0)

Great posts and insights guys. I'm off to build the next Facebook, wish me luck!


 10:13 pm on May 13, 2008 (gmt 0)

Community happens in offline business as well. My real-life example is radio. The stations with the most active "communities" engage about 1% of their listeners. These are the people who call in (supply content), go to events (supply revenue) and put bumper stickers on their cars (supply marketing). Of course, you have to have contests and compelling promotions like free concerts to keep them interested, and it's a lot of work. Then there are automated EZ-listening stations with no community that rack up big advertising dollars playing "Ventura Highway" to people at work.

My online experience is similar - both business models work, but building a community is harder, yet more rewarding. That same 1% leaves comments about our products, posts to our message boards, gets our newsletter and takes our monthly trivia quiz (grand prize: a T-shirt).


 11:08 pm on May 13, 2008 (gmt 0)

Musicarl points out something important. Only a small percent actually call in, post or whatever. But a LOT more people follow it all. They they feel like they are part of the community and enjoy following what others contribute.


 10:43 am on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

Another note on community & craigslist specifically.

I have some pieces of a certain building material left over from a recent project. I listed it on craigslist.

I've been getting responses from people in towns & cities in a 50 mile radius, telling me they need a larger quantity of the material and asking me where they can go to buy it.

If I was participating in a forum, such as this one, where people post questions sometimes and provide answers to others sometimes, I wouldn't mind. I responded to the first few to provide some assistance. But now it's aggravating.

I posted on craigslist to get rid of something, put a little cash in my pocket and to do it as efficiently as possible. I didn't post so I could become a substitute for looking something up in the local yellow pages (the material is easy to find).

It will be interesting to see how this concept of community evolves.



 10:46 am on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

My online experience is similar - both business models work, but building a community is harder, yet more rewarding.

It can be rewarding and it can have its advantages. It can also have its disadvantages and unintended consequences.

Every business should consider both sides of the equation. Don't think that just because you have a business you will benefit by establishing a "community" - however you define community - some businesses need to steer clear.


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