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Building Electronic Communities

Surfing the World Wide Web can be an adventure, but online users are often eager to relieve the loneliness of the ride. Many Internet businesses are trying to tap into the desire for interpersonal connection by establishing hospitable sites. People need to feel that someone is listening and responding on the other end of the modem.

While fast and consistent response is a basic of good business in any case, entrepreneurs have found its importance magnified on the Web. Shoppers want some confirmation other than a message box on a Web site that their orders have been processed. The rapidity of e-mail transmission has accustomed Internet users to expect responses to their questions and concerns within hours instead of days. Scott Lipsky of Amazon.com says that the company strives to answer every e-mail note-usually within hours. With the site’s business growing by 30 percent each month, this task has become more daunting with each passing week, and the bookseller has continually beefed up its staff to meet this demand.

Business Web sites also gain by fostering a sense of community among their visitors. The first prerequisite of community-building is to offer a place “where people want to hang out,” says Lee McKnight, a specialist in Internet economics and a lecturer in MIT’s Technology, Management, and Policy Program. One way to do so is to address visitors in an informal, often humorous tone that encourages customers to have fun while making purchases or gathering product information. Visitors to Van den Bergh Foods’ Rag sauce site, for example, enter a cozy dining room dubbed “Mama’s Cucina” where a grandmotherly woman waits at a table set for two. A dialogue bubble over her head says: “You’re buying a new computer? What’s this new new all the time now? I’ve got pots and pans older than you.” In similarly colloquial language, Mama offers visitors recipes, Italian lessons, a free vacation contest, and advice on one’s love life, along with information about Rag products.

Some online businesses encourage a sense of community by allowing customers to contribute information to their sites. Virtual Vineyards publishes consumers’ favorite ways to marry wine and food while offering the “Cork Dork”-a column that answers customer questions about wine. Amazon.com invites readers to post their comments about books it sells alongside those of professional critics.

Another tactic for building community is to emphasize interaction among customers. An excellent illustration of this approach is Onsale Inc., which conducts several virtual auctions a week of refurbished computers and home-electronics products. Shoppers can not only follow the progress of the auction and enjoy the pleasure of the hunt but can also include personal comments with their bids-and read those of other buyers. “They often get into competitive interactions, making comments like No way, MP of Mountain View, it’s mine!!’” says marketing director Michelle Pettigrew. Onsale also stirs the pot by soliciting comments from bidders on topics not directly related to the purchase, posing questions such as “What’s your favorite personal-computer game?” These interactions, says Pettigrew, help ensure that the auction is “not just a static online catalog or order-taking mechanism.”

Onsale’s strategy of combining entertainment with retailing appears to be paying off. The company says it has attained profitability with monthly sales exceeding $4 million. And according to PC Meter’s recent audience rating reports for the World Wide Web, the online auction house often attracts visitors for more time each month than any other Internet shopping location. Between August 1996 and January 1997, Onsale shoppers spent an average of 30 to 48 minutes on the site each month.

Businesses gain further important advantages by maintaining strong electronic-mail contacts with customers. “A lot of times all you have to do is ask your customers for their opinions and feedback and you get a statistically reliable sample in a matter of hours,” says Onsale’s Pettigrew. “We use our customers as a sounding board whenever possible.” Rosalind Resnick, president of a Web-site design company called NetCreations, considers the three hours a day she spends answering mail from customers as time well spent. “Customers are thrilled to get a response from the president of the company,” she says. “The more interaction the better.”

Indeed, Hot & Spicy Foods president Marcil says that what he likes best about adding an Internet component to his business is the rapid access it gives him to customers. He can make a change in product offerings and get the word out immediately to customers-both on his Web site and through targeted electronic mailings to regular cybershoppers at his store. The response rate to e-mail specials is around 5 to 7 percent, he says, in contrast to the 3 to 4 percent response elicited by traditional targeted mailings.

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