Information Today
Volume 17, Issue 11 • December 2000
IT Report from the Field •
Virtual Communities in the Business World
This London conference focused on the e-commerce and business-to-business realms
by Ev Brenner

Infonortics, Ltd.’s Third International Conference on Virtual Communities was held in London on September 20–21 at the Church House Conference Centre, adjacent to Westminster Abbey—a fine venue for its 125 attendees. We were treated to 20 high-quality presentations, 12 of which were given by speakers from the U.S. This conference concentrated on the e-commerce and business-to-business (B2B) world, an area in which a virtual community (VC) shares and interacts. This sharing of information and interactivity may occur between companies and their customers, between the customers themselves, and between company employees.

A virtual community is all about building the means to establish relationships, by using electronic tools to enhance those relationships. The partnership of both the “virtual” and “the community” makes this field unique. The electronic tools and strategies used to accomplish this are numerous: message boards, chat rooms, forums, e-mail, clubs, events, etc. Saying “the customer is king” is a cliché, but until now there have never been effective means—or at least cost-effective means—to discover what customers want.

Using Virtual Communities
Steve Glenn, CEO of PeopleLink, Inc. and one of the keynote speakers, cited’s use of message boards, in which customers share with other customers their comments on the books they’ve read. In addition,’s members not only exchange ideas but also have access to instruction, equipment reviews, a Pro Shop for online purchases, etc. Naturally, all of these features help to retain customers. Glenn further spoke about decreased support costs. With shared messaging, e-mail, etc., the amount of questions asked of labor-intensive customer-support systems is reduced considerably. Glenn’s PeopleLink provides a comprehensive set of VC tools.

Sift Group, Ltd.’s offering, as described by Andrew Gray, Sift’s managing director and co-founder, also provides a comprehensive set of tools. According to Gray, Sift considers and understands all aspects of designing, developing, and operating a VC. Sift has built Internet communities for accountants (AccountingWEB) as well as a medical news information service (Newsrounds). Sift’s Knowledgeboard is intranet-based, has a knowledge management (KM) application, and uses sophisticated indexing and agent technology based on the search engine Muscat. Knowledgeboard intrigues me because I’ve always felt that intranets were important elements in virtual communities. When one speaks of building communication between employees, an important part of that involves sharing information via intranets.

“Gathering Community Views with Voting, Polling, Quizzes, Ratings, and Surveys” was the title of a fine paper presented by Camilo Wilson of Cogix Corp. By voting or rating, one achieves a decision or a verdict rather than a discursive discussion. With quizzes that offer rewards for correct answers, customers are entertained and thus retained, since quizzes tend to become addictive. With surveys and random sampling, in-depth knowledge may be obtained for further research.

A vote for the best-delivered and most dramatic presentation goes to Sylvia Lacock Marino, a virtual community consultant, who emphasized the importance of hard money and measuring community success on commerce sites. “Ya gotta make money,” she said. “Commerce comes first. Justify what you are doing, or, if you can’t, fire yourself.” She skillfully conveyed the immediacy factor in developing ways of measuring success to justify community building.

I thought the most entertaining talk was given by Tony Rockliff, founder and producer of Cybertown ( Cybertown was acquired by 3-D community enabler blaxxun interactive, and in 1998, it went fully 3-D. Rockliff’s animated town is designed for teenagers, but I’m sure that many conference attendees were checking out this virtual community when they got home. Cybertown is true virtual reality. One virtually enters an environment, and doesn’t just share and interact, but lives within it. Not only can users get involved in a live chat with animated colleagues, but they can attend a virtual theater, cinema, casino, art gallery, concert hall, arcade, etc. There’s true interactivity here: A social structure is maintained with a mayor and his staff, and the economy allows you to earn and spend cash. Needless to say, role-playing is an important factor in these games. There are compelling reasons for users to come back to this virtual community; its customer retention is high.

A vote for the most creative VC goes to “The Writing Community” (, which is run by Sue Thomas, director of the trAce Online Writing Community at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K. Writers in over 100 countries share ideas as well as their works there. This was one of the only not-for-profit sites presented. In “The New Quilt” project, member writers were asked to look out a window when they woke up in the morning and, in about 100 words, write about what they saw. The edited offerings were printed, creating a fascinating publication.

Bill Thompson, a U.K.-based journalist and writer who delivered the conference overview and summary, praised the high level of the conference and noted that, though most of the companies represented had only been around since 1995, many of the speakers were highly experienced in this rather new field.

One of Thompson’s favorite speakers was Cliff Figallo of Futurize Now who spoke on preparing corporations for “community,” in a discussion titled “Cracking the Corporate Personality.” Figallo talked about entrenched habits and noted that community is not a toolset but a mindset. He also spoke of corporate fears, which include loss of control, internal and external security, etc. Figallo stated that corporate leaders will eventually have to work to build trust and loyalty between the corporation and its customers, as well as increase loyalty among their employees. He warned that these leaders will be left behind by competitors if they don’t alter their thinking.

In 1996, Manuel Perez, Smart Communities director for Oracle EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa), spearheaded a portal project called Infoville, which was created by the regional government of Valencia, Spain, to solve a problem for local authorities: how to accelerate the implementation and acceptance of information among its citizens and various public and private entities. After a successful pilot program in Valencia, many other cities in the area have adopted its Infoville model. Governments, like businesses, need to disseminate information in order to create better communication and allegiance. For all intents and purposes, cities are communities just waiting to be “virtualized.”

Matthew Hall, director of business development at Firetalk Communications, discussed voice-enabled communities, which use such tools as spontaneous conferencing, text messaging, voice mail, voice chat on any Web site, and virtual auditoriums. He said that adding voice communications to community sites allows members to hear and feel other speakers’ emotions, such as laughter, joy, sarcasm, fear, etc. It would bring a more human element to the online experience. We’ll certainly hear more about these in the near future.

Dawn Yankeelov, vice president of marketing for Vobix Corp., discussed “Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Tools for the Virtual Community Model.” Her excellent review emphasized the importance of technology solutions to deliver CRM. She maintains that of the $1 trillion that organizations have spent on CRM, a significant percentage of corporate purchasing is focused on outsourced services from third-party vendors. Further, she claimed that rapid growth in outsourcing, coupled with increasing technology innovation and complexity, has made decision making difficult. Yankeelov suggested that corporations had better use consultants or hire CRM experts to help with the complexities involved in making outsourcing decisions. I heard in the hallways that this topic may be the subject of a future conference.

A number of speakers remarked on how good the first day of the conference was; the second day maintained that high quality. In discussions I had with attendees, there seemed to be unanimous, enthusiastic praise for the program. The reactions reminded me of Infonortics’ early Search Engine Meeting conferences, which, in the beginning, started out with audiences of about 125, but in just 4 years grew to 300. Likewise, I believe the International Conference on Virtual Communities will take off in the future. On June 20–21, 2001, the conference will again be held in the Church House Conference Centre.

For more information, go to and click on the Virtual Communities Conference 2000 link. There you can read the speakers’ biographies and view their slides.

Ev Brenner, a longtime information industry observer, managed the Central Abstracting & Indexing Service of the American Petroleum Institute for 30 years. His e-mail address is

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