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In the end, virtual communities, although they rely on a variety of technologies, are not about technology. They are about people. They represent a new kind of social institution, that provides new ways for individuals with common interests to meet and interact with one another. They also represent an important new economic force that is opening up new avenues of interaction between companies and their customers. We believe that virtual communities will become a major element in the development of the new world of electronic commerce.

As we have seen, virtual communities can inspire a genuine, even a passionate, sense of belonging among their members. Strong bonds of friendship can be developed and sustained online. Successful virtual communities seem likely to endure for many years. However, loyalty to a community can be quickly dissipated if its members feel that they are being misled or exploited in some way. Participants can abandon a community with a single click of the mouse.

Building and sustaining a community—whether in the physical world or in cyberspace—is not a simple matter. As Gerry McGovern has recently observed, "communities are complex, difficult things. They take time to grow and are slow to change. What makes them strong can make them scary to the outsider or to the member who wishes to be different. Those who seek to work with ‘online communities’ need to understand that they will not be easily packaged into three-year business plans."

Perhaps no single factor is more critical to the long-term success of virtual communities than trust—among members and between members and sponsors. Anyone wishing to benefit from the opportunities offered by virtual communities must accept the responsibility of being a good community citizen. The reward for success is the prospect of building relationships with customers that may well be stronger and more valuable than those that can be created by any other marketing strategy.

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