Birds do it, bees do it, you do it, and the next thing you know, you're at a diaper Web site, pleading for advice. Yes, you're in a virtual community, where the message board always has something new and customers instant message each other and have "conversations" about products or services. So how do you make your Web site the place to make friends? Ask Howard Rheingold, writer of the 1993 classic, The Virtual Community (MIT Press)-his business, Rheingold Associates, has created huge communities like the online Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Why should a company have a virtual community?
Howard Rheingold: Well, it's not important that every company have a virtual community. But if you sell diapers and are interested in maintaining a relationship with parents, you may want to sponsor one. It's not going to be a direct revenue source; it's a cost of doing business, like advertising or marketing. But it may offer you insight for creating new products. It may help you establish better relationships and more loyalty with your customers.
What companies have done this?
Rheingold: Harley-Davidson has a successful virtual community for their aficionados. And when IBM was sponsoring the chess rematch between [world-champion Garry] Kasparov and its supercomputer, they hired us to create a virtual community to let the new generation of Web geeks know IBM wasn't just the kind of company their grandparents worked for.
On your Web site, you say there's no formula for putting together a virtual community. But, well, we want a formula!
Rheingold: If three people are on your message board, and it's a ghost town, forget it. You need, like, 25 people posting something interesting, every day, to attract other people and reach a critical mass. To get those 25 people, you may start with 100 to 125 people, because they won't all take to it right away.
And you need a plan for marketing, what you're going to discuss, who's going to facilitate those discussions . . . the invisible stuff that makes the difference between a social online conversation that people value, and one that people shun.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.