6.2.5 Virtual communities
A virtual community is a website which sells some product or service. In this respect there is no difference from an e-shop. The feature which distinguishes a virtual community is that the operator of the website provides facilities whereby the customers for a product or a service interact with each other, for example by pointing out ways a product can be improved. Technologies used for this interaction include mailing lists, bulletin boards and FAQ lists. The theory behind virtual communities is that they build customer loyalty and enable the company running the website to receive large amounts of feedback on the product or service they sell. A typical company that might run a virtual community would be a software supplier. Customers for software products manufactured by the company might post bug reports, bug fixes and work-arounds on a set of FAQ pages. Staff from the company would participate in the bulletin boards and also organise the FAQ lists.
Customers are often attracted to companies associated with virtual communities, particularly those that are maintained by companies that sell complex products, in that they see them as readily accessible stores of experience and unbiased advice.
A company can make profits from virtual communities in a number of ways. They can charge for participation in the community, and they can benefit from increased sales to customers attracted by the knowledge base held by the company and from a reduction in support costs.
The virtual community model is usually associated with another internet business model, for example the Amazon website is primarily an e-shop; however, the fact that it contains facilities for users to submit reviews and questions to authors and artists gives it the fiavour of a virtual community.