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Compete online by building online communities

Make money with Ads by Google

by Paul Seigel

Online communities can help to build relationships (CRM) between your business and prospective customers. It's a way of developing customer relationships that's not possible in the offline world.

Small and home-based businesses are on the run. You had been told that the Internet is a level playing field where anyone can play. But Big Business seems to be winning most of the games - often by merely crowding the "little fellow" out. What should you, as a small or home-based business person, do?

Before answering this question, I discuss the major battering rams Big Business is using. I place what's happening in context of the historical battle between Big and Small. Then I show that building community is the best strategy for competing with Big Business.

BIG BUSINESS BATTERING RAMS
Big Business has at its disposal many powerful tools, among them:

  • Multimedia web sites - Big Business can build elaborate websites which can change daily. It can offer interactive demonstrations to sell products. It can entertain and influence with graphics. Animation, music, videos - and soon, movies.
  • Big event sites - Every day, hordes of people log on to get the news from MSNSBC, and sports news from Sportszone. IBM, earlier, attracted a vast audience with a championship chess game.
  • Portals - Big companies, like Yahoo, AltaVista, America Online and Microsoft are building sites that direct visitors to sites these companies choose. Portals are not merely search engines. They make it easy to locate some sites and difficult to locate others. Which sites are easy to locate? Those that pay, either through advertising, or by making special business arrangements.

BATTLE BETWEEN BIG AND SMALL
Big Business and Small Business have always been locked in competition. It may help to follow the ups and down of this battle with reference to the computer, and then with reference to media. When the commercial computer, in the form of the UNIVAC, first came on the scene in the early '50s, it was a monstrous system, with bays of equipment along walls of a huge room, with a false floor for the interconnecting of cables. It cost a million dollars and required analysts, programmers, operators, and maintenance people to run it. Only Big Business could use it. It was a tool for centralization of power.

Then came the relentless trend in size reduction, price reduction and user-friendliness increase, culminating in the $1000 PC. Lo and behold, a tool for Small Business, a tool for decentralization, a tool for personalized service.

A similar battle has occurred in the media. First we had print, then radio, then TV. In each case, but more so with TV, Big Business made the best use of the medium. We call these media PUSH, because the elite used them to push information and advertising onto the masses.

The Internet is different. It is a PULL medium, that is, each site in the network needs to draw visitors to itself. Because visitors usually come to learn something, it's best to create a Learning Fountain: a website that attracts and influences visitors by helping them learn. Big Business did not like this development; it attacked with "PUSH technology," then WebTV, and now with multimedia sites, big event sites, and portals. Advantage seems to be shifting to Big Business.

YOUR WEAPON IS COMMUNITY
Reviewing these past events, we see that Big Business has the advantages of money and influence; it succeeds best in a PUSH medium. Small Business has the advantages of fast reaction and developing personal relationships; it succeeds best in a PULL medium. As a PULL medium, the Internet favors Small Business. Why not apply your natural strength, your ability to work with people on a personal basis? Why work with one person when you can work with many and thus multiply your effectiveness? Why not build a community?

You may build a community with:

  • Clients/prospects
  • Cooperative vendors
  • Affiliates

CLIENT/PROSPECT COMMUNITY
How do you interest visitors that come to your site? You build a Learning Fountain. A Learning Fountain acts as as a learning catalyst. It does not teach or preach, but arranges conditions to make it easy for the visitor to learn.

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There are five types of Learning Fountains:
  1. Referrer - A directory or search engine.
  2. Informer - Presents useful information.
  3. Advisor - Offers visitors advice and solves their problems.
  4. Context provider - Presents a problem-solving tool, that enables visitors to solve their own problems
  5. Learning community stimulator - This is designed specifically to get visitors involved helping each other.

How do you maintain the interest of those who have visited? By building a community to discuss and solve problems members have in common. You may use mailing lists or newsletters. But the best tool is an attitude of helpfulness. Why do it? The community will help you with your marketing problems. Even more important, you will develop loyal clients.

COOPERATIVE VENDOR COMMUNITY
The Learning Fountain helps visitors learn, and influences them to join the client/prospect community. But how do you get people to your site in the first place? Again by building a community. The vast majority of visitors come to your site via links. The question then becomes: With whom do you link?

The answer is you link with complementors. What are complementors? Complementors (see Coopetition, by Adam and Ada Brandenburger and Barry J. Nalebuff, help increase the pie for you as well as for themselves. Examples are:

  • Golf product vendors and sneaker vendors
  • Software producers and computer manufacturers
  • Real estate brokers and furniture dealers

Search for complementors. After you find them, don't merely exchange links. Get them to join in a community where all members help each other obtain leads and referrals.

AFFILIATE COMMUNITY
How can you increase the number of visitors and the number of sales transactions? The answer once more is through community. An affiliate is a vendor who obtains customers for a product or service, which is delivered by another company. Amazon.com has about 30,000 affiliate sites sending it book buyers. Rarely can you find an affiliate program which is organized in the form of a community. The initiator of the program is in charge. Your choice is to be an affiliate and follow their rules, or not to be an affiliate. This may be a great opportunity for you. Perhaps you may want to establish an affiliate community. You must be ready to run a mailing list or newsletter and be available to help each member succeed.

CONCLUSIONS
Because the Internet is not a PUSH, but a PULL medium, it is made-to-order for Small Business. Big Business is trying to use its money and influence to drown out Small Business. Your best weapon in this battle is to build communities among clients/prospects, cooperative complementor vendors, and affiliates.

Paul Seigel is an Internet marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. He is the originator of the Learning Fountain: a website that influences visitors by helping them learn; see http://www.learningfountain.com. He is the moderator of LearningFOUNT, a discussion list on Business Strategy and Community Building; to subscribe, send a blank email to: subscribe@learningfountain.com.

Because of his performance on the platform, he is called Paul "the soarING" Siegel. (Ed.: I've never seen this performance, so I guess we'll have to take his word for
it
:-) )


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