While "general admittance" virtual communities like those created by Rogelberg and Kent have worked well for some businesses trying to promote their e-commerce sites, others have decided to take the concept of establishing a community to the next level. Specifically, many companies are now creating "members only" domains on their Web sites, where they can attempt to win the loyalty of a select audience by offering to provide special restricted access to premium tools and services.
The nonprofit Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) in Irving, Texas, for example, offers subscribers a password-protected members-only domain on its Web site. After distributors and suppliers involved in the promotional-products industry register, they are able to log on to PPAI's restricted-access area and retrieve hard-to-find contact information on each other. According to PPAI's founder, president and CEO Stephen Slagle, 47, suppliers can also use the domain to verify that distributors are, in fact, PPAI members.
A members-only domain like the one PPAI offers was a sorely needed tool in the promotional-products industry to allow companies to find each other. The wall between distributor and supplier has always been jealously guarded, says Angie West of PPAI.
Industry distributors have invested a great deal in training their technical sales forces to sort through the myriad options available in promotional products on behalf of prospective buyers. Consequently, the last thing that distributors want to see is a supplier making an end-run around that highly educated sales force and attempting to sell directly to prospective customers. "A supplier can enter our password-protected domain and verify that a prospective customer is actually a distributor for the industry-and not a customer attempting to deal direct with a supplier," West says.
The result: Industry suppliers ensure they stay on friendly terms with distributors-who will often refuse to represent suppliers that repeatedly and deliberately sell directly to the public. And the PPAI has strengthened its position in the industry as the central clearinghouse of industry data and coordination-both on the Net and in the brick-and-mortar world.
Perhaps no evidence of the marketing power that entrepreneurs have at their disposal with members-only tools and domains is more impressive than the story of AOL, the now-monolithic ISP. Deciding to first offer Internet access in the mid-'90s, AOL shrewdly realized it could distinguish itself from the literally thousands of other ISPs by offering its subscribers members-only tools and domains. In practice, that approach translated into serving up an extremely user-friendly interface to the Net, hundreds of easy-to-use chat rooms, news-gathering services, hundreds of magazines that users of the service could read online and more. Originally, then market-leader CompuServe scoffed at AOL's attempt to grab a share of Net users. But AOL has enjoyed the last laugh. It now owns CompuServe, and has risen to become one of the most influential companies in the world, especially with its recent merger with Time Warner.
Moreover, new innovations in members-only tools and domains keep coming. With its latest version, AOL now offers even more extras, such as a digital photo service run in partnership with Eastman Kodak, even greater flexibility in its Internet access, and one of the largest online shopping malls on the Web. "We're always looking for new and different ways to make the things people do in their everyday lives easier and more convenient online," says Barry Schuler, president of AOL's Interactive Services Group.
J.W. Dysart , a software analyst and Internet business consultant, has written for more than 40 publications, including The New York Times.