Building an aesthetically pleasing, well-designed site that provides excellent, easy to access content and even robust e-commerce functionality may no longer be enough for companies that want to fully capitalize on the power of the Web. Today, many world-class companies are trying to utilize their Web sites to create virtual communities of loyal customers, who pose and answer questions amongst themselves, share stories and tips, and propose new product features. In a truly successful Web community, the customers themselves become company advocates who promote its products and help support them.

Online communities are not new. In fact, they predate the Web, having evolved in an early form through Usenet groups and e-mail. On the Web, these virtual communities initially coalesced organically around issues and causes. The ability of these communities to connect people from around the globe, who then share information, organize, and take action, has been remarkable. The question is, can the power of these online communities be utilized for commercial purposes?

It depends. Online communities must be built around something that people care about. With issues and causes, the depth of personal commitment is a given. With a product or company, people are not necessarily committed enough for a true community to evolve. Companies that can utilize online communities have a well-establish, highly respected brand that evokes trust and has a reputation for quality. Often, the product or service is complex and requires a certain degree of ongoing support. For the lucky companies that have most of these attributes, it is possible for online communities to evolve around their brand, and these programs can be quite successful.

The key to these communities is that they must have the right tools to be able to communicate with each other (and the company), organize themselves, and develop their own hierarchy. At a minimum, communities must have listservs, discussion boards, chat rooms, commenting tools, and the ability to submit content. While these tools should be present, the community itself must grow and evolve on its own. The company must participate, responding to suggestions and questions, but it should be ready to act as a peer rather than as a superior.

A true virtual community will not require the company to push information out to its customers – they will actively seek it. These communities appreciate feedback from the company, and will willingly, as well as inadvertently, provide the company with useful information that may be used in their market research, product development, and technical support. The nature of the relationship is symbiotic – both the company and the customers derive benefit from the candid exchange of information.

In addition, the company benefits from reduced product support costs, as these communities are very self-reliant. They are able to help each other and at times identify and solve problems that the company would not have been able to address on its own. The customers benefit from faster answers and more diverse perspectives and opinions regarding their questions.

Even more importantly, these communities can enhance the brand itself and even become an extension of it. In the offline world, Harley Davidson has been able to successfully utilize its customers as an autonomous partner in building its brand. Harley riders from all over the United States, from all walks of life, meet in their local communities, in their states, and even nationally. In the online world, companies are still in the beginning stages of developing these kinds of communities around their brands. The geographic and demographic reach of the Web is unsurpassed by anything in the real world, so in theory these communities should be even larger, more diverse, and ultimately more powerful.

Eventually, all strong brands will develop virtual communities around them. If the companies behind these brands do not seed these communities themselves, their customers will create them on their own. Perhaps these grassroots communities will prove to be superior to those emerging from deliberate company actions – only time will tell.