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Building Community

If you don't start treating your visitors as more than just faceless droids with electronic pocketbooks, you'll quickly find yourself with a lot of product but no one to sell it to.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Given that the Net originally evolved from virtual communities, where surfers posted comments and responded to each other's messages on bulletin boards and mailing lists in cyberspace, it should come as no surprise that building a sense of community has become one of the most popular ways for businesses to increase Web traffic to their e-commerce sites. Case in point: David Rogelberg, the founder of Studio B , an Indianapolis-based literary agency that maintains a strong Internet component. Rogelberg, 36, says he built his $3 million-per-year business by establishing a mailing list that sent visitors back to his company's Web site.

"At the time, computer book authors felt isolated, and many were unsure of how to approach or deal with publishers," Rogelberg says. A former publisher of computer books himself, Rogelberg decided to create an Internet mailing list that would serve as a creative forum and offer answers to some of the common questions that aspiring book authors have on the computer book publishing industry.

Rogelberg says it took him about 30 hours to master the workings of mailing-list software, which has enabled business to circulate ongoing discussions on the Internet that can be accessed by subscribers. Subscribers can then respond back to Rogelberg's list with their own comments. Each comment is "posted" to the list via e-mail. And each post is automatically distributed via e-mail to every other subscriber on the list.

I started the list by sending e-mails to 40 or 50 authors I knew, and I asked them to help me promote this list, which offered a clear service to the community," Rogelberg says. The result: Three years later, the list is now considered to be a major e-publication in the computer book industry, with approximately 1,100 authors, pub-lishers, attorneys and others subscribing to it. Most important, Rogelberg's business has mushroomed from zero clients to 150 clients.

"We educated a market," Rogelberg says. And as happens with many Internet mailing lists, Rogelberg's has taken on a life of its own. Authors and publishers regularly hash out their differences on the list, authors pitch their ideas, and other industry experts-literary attorneys, for example-have begun using the list to offer free advice in the hopes that they can generate business for themselves.

According to Peter Kent, co-author of Poor Richard's Internet Marketing and Promotions (Top Floor Publishing), much of Rogelberg's community-building success lies in what he sees as an Internet marketing truism. "The people who are most successful at discussion group promotions realize something important," says the Lakewood, Colorado, writer. "In order to get something, you have to give something."

Kent should know. In addition to being an author, he's also the owner of Top Floor Publishing . Plus, to help promote his company's titles, Kent moderates his own news-letter distributed via an Internet mailing list that carries discussions on designing e-commerce sites. "In the early days, sales were disappointing," he says. "But now I see a flurry of orders after each newsletter goes out. I spend around $50 to mail to 45,000 people, so you can see these mailings certainly make more than they cost me." Kent also publishes a book, Poor Richard's Email Publishing (Top Floor Publishing) by Chris Pirillo, on using Internet mailing lists to promote e-commerce sites.

J.W. Dysart , a software analyst and Internet business consultant, has written for more than 40 publications, including The New York Times.