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IQ News: Chat

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People Who Need People
In the first of an occasional series of chats with industry leaders, IQ asks why Web site executives are enamored with online communities.
Ahh, community. It's an Internet buzzword that is right up there with "portal" for its overuse in online media press releases and conference chatter. But to people actually running Web sites, what impact does the concept of building community have on creating a vibrant site?
In this first in an occasional series of IQ-sponsored chats with industry leaders, IQ News San Francisco reporter Susan Kuchinskas sat down with Brett Bullington, vice president of Redwood City, Calif.-based Excite; Malcolm CasSelles, chief technology officer of black online community NetNoir; and Erik Lundberg, vice president of sales for online gaming service Total Entertainment Network (TEN). The group met at Kuleto's, a hopping Italian joint in Burlingame, Calif., to discuss whether community is simply this year's version of push media or a concept that will have the longevity of the sitcom in the annals of online media.
IQ: I thought we could start by defining community. What is it? How do you build it?
CasSelles: Community is essentially a metric of traction Think of your Web site business as having two components: recruitment and retention. Recruitment's where you spend all your marketing dollars for a brand and retention is the experience people have when they get there. Community is the metric for retention.
Bullington: I think ... every metric you have is retention whether it's community or whether it's content. You want to retain people, you want them to come back, you want a compelling consumer experience. That's what retention's about. Whether you only have a news service that has no community with it or you have stock quotes that has no community to it, retention is still your home.
CasSelles: Right. But the thing is, if people come back on a regular basis, that's some
indication of community. The level to which they participate is not necessarily a metric.
IQ: Well, Brett, how do you define community?
Bullington: The way I look at community is, it's an interaction that exists where people want to participate with other people. I think a community takes place where you create a forum for interaction.
Lundberg: I'll give my definition of community on the Web. For a site to have community on the Web, it seems to me that you need a two-way dialog. So you need significant user interaction. I would tend not to define an editorial site like the Wall Street Journal as community. What I would argue that community drives more than anything is hang time. It's increased session time, which can lead to increased sponsorship and advertising revenue. And I would say that's why you see portal companies such as Excite or Yahoo! acquiring community companies, launching new community sites, launching online game sites, etc., etc. Our online game sites have average session lengths of 50 minutes or so, whereas the average portal session length is between five and 10 minutes now.
Bullington: I think the point of all this is that you want to provide a basis by which people can really effectively communicate with each other, because they've got common interests.
IQ: Now at TEN you have people who want to play games together. Do you work to try to extend that, to make it more of a community?
Lundberg: We're doing a lot to cultivate the community. We have a staff of guides who are volunteers. We give special privileges, [we] come online and talk to people, answer questions. And we actually have paid staff members who even do that at a higher level. And if anyone is having a community issue, anyone's ever being abusive or what-ever, we can respond to that.
Bullington: What you really want to do is you want to try to find the right level of vibrancy and right level of commitment from the paid people or not paid people to create the right level of community.
Lundberg: Now what are you finding as far as advertisers and sponsors? How interested are they in your editorial content area versus your community area?
CasSelles: It really depends on how sophisticated the advertiser is. Some advertisers can only think along the lines of content. Other advertisers realize there's a benefit from being site-wide, because we have strong demographics site-wide.
Lundberg: You know, you hit on a great point, and it's something that's really been driving me crazy. An auto advertiser wants to buy an auto site, a travel advertiser wants to buy a travel site, a financial advertiser wants to buy a financial site. But they all buy Seinfeld because they understand it's an entertainment medium and those programs have those demos. So it would be great to get your opinion on when, if ever, do you think the Internet is going to take that jump and people will go, "Oh, I understand that people on NetNoir or Excite or TEN are mass market consumers," and you have the data that 50 percent of them are buying mutual funds online?
CasSelles: I think people who are thinking ethnic media don't quite look at it that way. They say, OK, we want to reach African Americans, affluent African Americans, male, female, whatever age range. They come to NetNoir because they realize this is the channel that gets them. Now the thing is, for a company that sort of branded itself along the lines of people interested in games, I think it's a lot harder for those media companies to think beyond that.
IQ: Do you guys feel every site wants to be a community?
CasSelles: Every site wants this economic where they're spending less and less to get more and more participation from their customers they view community as a vehicle to do that.
Bullington: The best communities are going to be built by finding the right dynamics that attract the right consumers. Then they'll find a way to monetize that traffic.
CasSelles: And that I think ultimately comes down to your community having a high enough value proposition that people are willing to give up data.
Bullington: But they do. If you look at Excite
CasSelles: Oh no, of course they do, but that's the challenge for people reading this article and saying, "What is community and how's it gonna work for me?" The very first thing is, how do you deliver enough value so it's worthwhile for somebody to give up their data?
Bullington: There's three types of data you want to get, right? There's user-contributed data, which is really important; data they contribute to, which is communities; and user-inferred data, data you learn from people's behaviors.
Lundberg: We just took down a user survey and one of the most amazing things to come out of that ... [was that] 43 percent of our users have already purchased products or services online. I looked it up and that is double the Internet average. What I think it is, is that to join one of these community sites you have to create one of these profiles, right? Choose a screen name, give us your e-mail, choose a password, tell us your age and sex. So you've just filled out a form online. [That's] halfway through making an online transaction. So that's the other advantage I think community sites have--it's a great place to find people who actually will buy on the Internet as opposed to just searchers.
CasSelles: Fifty-six percent of our audience has already bought online. And the women represented a much higher degree of shopping response.
Bullington: Wouldn't you expect that?
CasSelles: If there's anything I've learned about the Internet, it's that it's never what you expect. So go back and verify.