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  Community for B2C e-commerce site?
I am planning on building a community around a b2c e-commerce site I work for. Which tools would better fit for this kind of website: chat, forum or mailing list and why? Tks in advance.

This is a very crucial question. First and foremost, the tools you employ in a community, be it an e-commerce orientated one or otherwise, really need to fit the users of the site and the site itself in order for them to be truly successful. It is not so much the kind of web site you have, rather the uses and users of it which matter most in this.

Before we look into the possible tools you could feasibly employ it might be worth thinking about the current web site and where, if you can place yourself in the position as a consumer, you might see gaps where community tools could be positioned. For example, as an end user are there adequate places to discuss topics or gain support if you had questions, or are there places on your site where your users have the chance to use their voice should they wish to see something different on the site? How would you fill those gaps?

Once you have done so, and evaluated the practicalities of those tools, then consult your existing and potential users! Use your current site to solicit the responses of your users – ask them what they would like to see, using a survey or questionnaire. Asking your users for their assistance reaps three rewards:

1) You are likely to get a good idea of what is needed for site

2) You are already providing a sense of “ownership” to your users which is crucial to any community undertaking.

3) You are already promoting the community to your site users.

It is really important that you have a clear understanding as to the purpose and the goals of the community, and your users can be an excellent resource. They can help you to choose which tools would be best based on their responses.

Here are just a few tools that can prove beneficial in helping to build community on your site:

POLLS: Polls provide a way for users to submit their “vote” on topics presented by the site. Polls are a great way to gain feedback from the membership, but they do not allow for members to share the thoughts behind the vote. If you also need (or you believe your users need) to know “why” people have voted the way they have, then provide the means to do so. A message board linked to the poll is a good method for doing this.

CHAT: Chat rooms can provide an excellent avenue for real-time exchange. Chat rooms can be used for technical support, to participate in casual chat or to discuss topics based on site content. If you do add a chat room ensure you have the appropriate mix of free-flow and structured chat for your users.

MESSAGE BOARDS: Message boards, like chat provide an avenue for members to exchange ideas and comments based on topics provided. Since this is not “real-time” like chat, the site has more control of the content that is being presented to other members. Choose a message board which reflects to the best possible extent the structure of your site. Use consistent labels and groupings to achieve the best fit.

MAILING LIST: A mailing list is a great way to create communication between you and your members without having to add community components to your site right off. It is a great way to test the community waters so to speak, as members can share their ideas with one another via e-mail.

The components you choose should be as integrated with your site as possible to ensure fullest interaction and value to the site. It is important to explore all options, ensuring that you are making a choice that you are comfortable with, and that will enhance your site offerings for your members.

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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