SAN MATEO (04/03/2000) - "Ms. Beegs," the lanky, short-haired man yelled across the store, "we started carrying that brand of cat food that you like. You'll find it in aisle three." With his words ringing in my ears, I hustled to the appropriate location, and the cat food sale was made.
In contrast, my phone rang recently and a very stilted voice read me a script detailing why I should change long-distance companies. You may also have received such a call. In this interaction, the sale was not made.
These two conversations bring to mind what it is that will drive e-commerce in the future -- in a word, it's community. We certainly have the technology to build great business-to-consumer and business-to-business e-commerce applications into our business models. And, yes, attributes such as viable application design, integration with business processes, and overall performance matter.
But I predict that those who invest in community will see a large increase in repeat business, improved support functions, and the opportunity to go after new forms of e-commerce revenue.
So what is community and how do you form one? A successful community strategy must embrace the idea of moving the one-on-one communication that occurs offline into the virtual world of e-commerce. Such a strategy currently requires multiple technical approaches. However, I believe community solutions will soon become more integrated and far-reaching.
Imagine if I transferred my cat food interaction into the virtual world. If I were a consumer doing my marketing online or a business inquiring about brand availability from a supplier, that same type of interaction could easily be supported within an e-commerce setting using one of several options.
The tools that form online communities include discussion or forum software, chat functions, instant messaging, two-way mailing lists, online collaboration tools, audio, video, and more. You may choose to invest slowly at first and increase your community commitment over time.
For example, the online version of my cat food brand inquiry might be fulfilled simply via a pop-up notification window on my return visit, assuming your e-commerce application was enabled to take my feedback. Or, in a more sophisticated version, you might make a customer service representative available via video and audio. The same type of solutions can be enabled for business-to-business transactions.
The scripted phone call I received was a good example of what not to do when building community. Online business is much more exacting, and those participating usually have a darn good idea of what they want. Better to let me contact you and supply my long-distance requirements; then you provide me a one-on-one analysis of how I could save money by switching companies. The feedback should be supplied without a long or scripted marketing pitch, too.
Community is also a wise strategic investment in other ways. Suppose you set up a moderated discussion group or a two-way mailing list to get people talking about your products. Consumers will often have good ideas about product improvements or good or bad experiences with the product. By implementing these types of open communication, a company may gather ideas about new product offerings, improvement of existing products, or methods of bolstering support, all of which will likely yield repeat business.
Online conversation with business partners will also net positive results. A private discussion area or secured online meetings can go a long way toward building stronger relationships between companies. This will also serve to potentially drive new business opportunities for both parties.
Building community has to be at the heart of any successful e-commerce strategy. Certainly I do not think we can totally mimic offline human interaction in an online setting. However, e-commerce settings today are very inhuman in nature; we need to factor in the human part of the equation if e-commerce is to be successful.
By the way, my cats are really happy with their new brand of food, and I like my current long-distance carrier. So don't call asking me to change either of those. Have you formed your community strategy? Write to me at email@example.com.
Maggie Biggs is director of the InfoWorld Test Center.