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Participating in the Community

When an organization moves from sponsoring virtual community content created by others to creating content within the community, it must be prepared for direct interaction with community members. In deciding to participate, management should be certain that they have staff resources with the expertise/information that will be of interest to the community, and that these staff members have the interactive skills to represent the organization effectively within the community.

The organization’s staff that interact with the community members will be the organization to the community, so, in a very real sense, by participating, the organization joins the community. This interaction can be very valuable, but it can be fraught with risk. For example an organization participating in a virtual community is potentially exposed to the commentary of critics and unhappy customers. How the organization responds to these critiques will be carefully watched by the members of the community. The organization could also receive a lot of responses and queries to issues arising out of its contributions. If the organization is not prepared to respond promptly to the queries, it could develop a reputation as an organization that does not stand behind its information.

Given the risks, why would an organization want to incur this exposure? First, through effective participation, the organization can build a base of support among community members that yields loyalty and goodwill for the organization (and/or its products and services). Second, the critiques can occur whether or not the organization is participating. The organization is better off being present as a member of the community where its staff (and, hopefully, other members) can respond to critiques with other information and perspectives. Third, because users will spend more time on interactive content pages (such as message boards or chat rooms) than on passive content pages, there are greater brand exposure opportunities with interactive content.

Another consideration in deciding to participate in a community is that the organization must be prepared to represent the interests of the community members above the interests of its products or services. In order for the organization to gain and maintain credibility with community members, its staff must be prepared to forthrightly address the limitations of its products and services as the need arises. Members must be able to trust that their best interest is being served, that they are not being exploited. The central issue of trust is addressed in the next section of this chapter.

Once an organization is comfortable with the ways in which it will participate in the community, there are myriad "deals" it can make that benefit itself, the community members and the community developer. Here is an example that illustrates a typical interplay of organizations around a community business: A parenting community learns from its members that they want to create a group focused on coping with stress. The speakers and discussion moderators for a new stress reduction sub-community could be contributed by an organization that offers stress reduction products (anything from drugs to foot massagers) or by an HMO that has a lot of stressed-out parents. Let’s say that the product organization has the expertise and the HMO wants to provide the a resource for its stressed-out parents. The product organization offers expertise by providing information on the community Web pages and/or staffing the speaker and discussion moderator positions. In this example the HMO plays an Advertiser/Sponsor role and the product organization fills a Participant role.

Whenever possible, content should be planned to include and emphasize member-created content. This will facilitate the creation of content that is both attractive to the community members and cost-effective for the content providers. For example, a forum on caregiving for the elderly could be structured as a message board that allows members to share tips and experiences with other members; professional contributions (e.g., doctors, nurses) could be limited to responses to questions about medical issues passed to them by the message board moderator.

Organizations can take advantage of the active members of a community for disseminating factual information about a topic. A technology company might allow people who are qualified (as verified by online questionnaires or telephone interviews) to answer questions in forums and chat rooms about its products – for example, there are many avid Navigator or Internet Explorer browser users who could help new users in an Internet Users community if Netscape or Microsoft developed a program for certifying these people. These programs empower users and give them status within the community, and they lower the cost of providing information.

Organizations need to carefully consider the staffing required for participating in a community. A speaker making a one-time appearance in a chat room requires only a few hours of time. But moderated message boards, regularly scheduled chat sessions and themed rooms in virtual worlds require that staff be available on an ongoing basis.

Finally, in planning all content, consider the topics that will (and will not) be covered; also consider how extensive, how deep and how timely the information will be. Costs will be directly related to these decisions, e.g., if information has to be very timely, then more staff time must be dedicated to maintaining it.

When an organization is prepared to focus on supporting the needs of one demographic, professional or interest group, it can consider creating its own virtual community. The next section provides an overview of the considerations involved in building a virtual community.

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