Virtual and Real Communities: A Taxonomy of Net Strategies
Llorenç PAGES CASAS <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Barcelona Internet Strategies
Improving customer relationships is one of the theoretic benefits
that companies hope to reach through their presence on the Internet.
But, as surveys show, this is not so easy. This paper is intended
to explain some keys to achieve it.
Due to the explosive growth of the Internet, a company's presence
on this new communication channel, and specifically on the World
Wide Web, is becoming indispensable, at least in terms of prestige.
Nevertheless, taking profit from their presence on the Net to
improve customer relationships is something that still has to
be streamlined for the majority of companies .
This will be the object of this work. Obviously, the Internet
makes collaborative work with other companies easier and can contribute
to one's power reinforcement with regard to providers, but it
is in the customer area, through Net services promotion, where
there is surely more room for improvement.
The Internet opens up great business opportunities, out of which
emerges the construction and promotion of "virtual communities"
based on people's shared interests . However,
each new Web site comes onto the Net to compete with thousands
of others of similar appearance and the same goal of attracting
This paper is intended to place itself at a distance from the
myth of technology. The virtual world should be analyzed in terms
of our experience in the real world. Of course, new technological
improvements affect people's lives, but in the long term the human
being is the one, through his or her attitudes and interests,
who adapts technology to his or her needs, not inversely. In this
way, though technology would make a full interconnected world
possible where each citizen could have the same influence on discussions
and communal decisions, this is not the scenario that sociologists
of the information age forecast:
Thus, the multimedia world will be populated by two essentially
distinct populations: the interacting and the interacted, meaning
those who are able to select their multidirectional circuits of
information, and those who are provided with a restricted number
of prepackaged choices .
and attitudes of people in the virtual and real worlds. We will
use the ways people communicate as the basis for our analysis
which is intended to improve our perception of how to focus businesses
on the Net.
Naturally, we will take into account that individuals can be passive
or active subjects of communication. And, for example, in the
former case, we could use the term community in its broadest sense
(as it is throughout the paper) to say that they constitute communities
of readers or spectators, or, more generally, audiences.
As we introduced above, we intend to show how the kind and purposes
of people's communication in the virtual and real worlds would
match. This analogy will give us an interesting point of view
from which to analyze the differences between both worlds in terms
of communities' formation and evolution and, in the next sections,
to systematize the study of introductory strategies for getting
onto the Net, especially for companies already present in the
We should clarify that the comparative table below shouldn't be
interpreted as an exhaustive attempt to establish a parallelism
between virtual and real communities because the only parameter
considered is the "interaction type" among the members
of the community.
At the first approach, we should consider three interaction levels:
- (Almost) Unidirectional interaction:
- The flow of merchandise or information goes in a single direction.
The receiver is limited to choosing in a simple way (typically,
in the virtual case, through mouse clicks) and to rewarding the
product, through money or simply attention.
- Multiple bidirectional interactions:
- The transmitter personalizes the flow, attending to the needs
of each one of his or her customers. Therefore, these customers
must be able to define and declare their wishes and needs. In
our terminology, the action of the transmitter, thanks to this
personalization, becomes a "service."
- Multidirectional interactions:
- Many transmitters produce flows affecting many receivers.
Usually, there is among the members of the community the quality
of authority, director, or promoter that prioritizes the flows
produced by this kind of people.
This is intended to be a complete classification, but we will
split it in order to obtain a finer categorization:
Especially for the virtual world case, with regard to the unidirectional
level, we focus on the flow type. As is the obtained product
"information" -- understood as everything that
is able to be digitalized (data, music, software...) -- interaction
can be limited to the virtual world. As is the product "merchandise,"
virtual interaction must be completed in the real world, leading
to the need for a complete identification of the customer.
On the other hand, multidirectional interactions can have
a very variable intensity, with regard to the type of community.
But even for the same community type, the time attribute
is very important. So, we are going to differentiate the case
where the relationship among the members of the community is basically
produced in very spaced-out periods of time.
Comparative table of real and virtual communities
- Broadcasting presents a substantial difference on the Internet:
the capability of measuring the audience rates of each segment
of accessible information in the highest detail. The consequence
is not only the ability to improve the information itself continuously
but also the opportunity to upgrade the category of the community's
Thus, the detailed measuring of the audience's common interests
presents the possibility of designing commercially attractive
products (for example, music CDs) or configuring new services
geared to demand (like the automatic delivery to the users of
their most commonly accessed type of information).
An especially interesting idea that has provided great success
to several sites is the publication of the audience rates on the
site itself. For instance, on StockMaster's site ,
dedicated to providing stock market information, the section that
informs on the most frequently requested stocks has obtained great
Of course, the idea that users are interested in the behavior
of others suggests a clear opportunity of putting them into contact.
In this way, StockMaster has recently opened a section named "Discussion
- In both the real and virtual cases, it is necessary to provide
consumers with an efficient and easy access to the relevant information
in order to help first their suitable election and then their
appropriate use of the product. But, it's again in the feedback
information where we find the abilities to upgrade the virtual
community to a higher level of interaction.
In effect, the feasibility of recording and processing each individual
user's purchase and the need to identify him or her make their
"mouse clicks" very useful information in order to offer
him or her later personalized services. For instance, the Recommendation
Center of the Amazon's virtual bookstore 
gives its customers "Instant Recommendations" based
on their past purchases.
By the way, this Recommendation Center shows an exuberant imagination
in its attempt to improve the loyalty of Amazon's users based
on the upgrading of their level of interaction (towards "personalized
services" or even "shared interest groups"). That's
on a site which supposedly has its main source of profits in electronic
- Personalized services
- At this level, the distances between the real and virtual
world begin to increase. Thus, while nowadays we cannot imagine
primary health attention not based on the human presence, neither
can we think of big recovery information services not based on
an electronic interface.
An interesting option on the Net is the service at home of news
and information changes, be they instantaneous (push) or deferred
(mail lists), based on a previous user's election.
And again this idea suggests the opportunity of attempting to
upgrade its provided level of interaction. Should the users accept
the reception of nondemanded information from one source (the
site's promoter), why would they not accept nonrequested opinions
from the people interested in the same domains with the additional
and very important attractiveness of communicating one's own thoughts
and influencing the others?
- Occasional group
- While in the real world it is completely natural to make occasional
meeting places possible (as in the case of INET'98) in order to
avoid the spatial and time distances that limit the interaction
capabilities, the virtual world makes these distances disappear.
In a virtual meeting place the only time limitation is that belonging
to the object of the meeting itself.
Thus, while INET'98 will extinguish itself for time reasons probably
to give way to INET'99, the truly occasional virtual communities
will tend towards their definitive extinction while those that
have an object of intense relationship will become "shared
- Shared interest group
- The motivations to belong to the communities of daily interaction
can be transferred with success to the virtual world: emotional,
transactional, recreational, etc.
We should observe that in the real world a lot of people belong
to communities in which they interact very little except when
they have a concrete reason to access them (for instance, professional
or consumer organization). Actually, these kinds of shared interest
organizations have the risk of becoming mere lenders of services
or the motive for occasional social meetings.
Something like that happens on the Internet. We usually bookmark
a lot of addresses simply to attend to specific needs that we
could have at any indeterminate time. That includes even sites
containing forums about subjects of our interest.
The problem on the Net is that due to the facility of placing
new sites and the disappearance of distances, the exclusivity
rights expire soon and those organizations which resign themselves
to a low level of interaction with their members risk losing definitely
their attention. Therefore, only an intense and permanent interaction
can guarantee the subsistence of this category of virtual community.
Many new companies have accessed the Net and converted it into
their source of business. We have already quoted some of them,
such as StockMaster or Amazon. Others like Cybermom 
(a site for American moms) focus not on the people's need of carrying
out transactions, but that of sharing emotions.
On the other side, the preexistent companies or organizations
that decide to get onto the Net have a very valuable asset to
take care of, which is their customers or users and the loyalty
degree already obtained.
We will consider the interaction level as a fundamental classification
factor. So, our basic parameters of analysis will be the interaction
category with regard to the targeted virtual community and the
interaction category with regard to the addressed real community
of customers or users.
The next figure is a from/to table which shows the different possibilities
of getting a virtual community started from a determinate real
community. We shall introduce the idea that the higher the level
of interaction in the community, the better the level of relationship
or identification among its members and the community's promoter.
That is a question of human psychology.
Feasible strategies of introduction onto the Net
- New business area
- A new category of real community named "latent"
has been included in the figure; that is, the appearance of new
successful businesses on the Net is based on targeting common
interests or the needs of people who have not yet been brought
together in the real world. The Cybermom case is a clear example
- Natural relationship area
- Every company in the market place or organization giving service
to a community has a brand, identity marks, and prestige earned
during its life. Its customers or users have been linked with
it for months or years.
When relationship possibilities are extended through access to
the Net, we can suppose that, in the general case, members of
the real community will expect a similar kind of relationship
in this "new" environment.
Also, at the beginning, the organization which promotes the Net
service probably would only be prepared for a similar external
level of interaction.
- Area of support to the natural relationship
- Making the decision to use a site on the Net in order simply
to support the real-world organization's activities is one possibility.
And this is the same kind of decision as products' promotion in
the classic media.
Naturally, new feasibilities are added, as, for instance, in a
professional organization with a lot of interaction among its
members, the supply of a personalized information search service,
or the planning of occasional debates on the Net.
- Area of relationship's improvement
- In the previous section, we have emphasized the opportunities
that the presence on the Net provides for a transition from low
levels of interaction to higher ones. Getting onto the Net at
a higher level of interaction with customers or users will contribute
to improving the relationship with them, to getting their loyalty,
and definitively to increasing the organization's value.
In the introduction section, we have put forth the need to be
cautious with results of new technologies. Now, we want to mention
Forrester Research Inc.'s work and its Technographics Service
dedicated to the quantitative and qualitative analysis of people's
attitudes towards technology.
They surveyed 125,000 North American consumers and segmented the
answers, obtaining 10 user categories. About half of the users
turned out to be "Technology optimists" and the other
half "Technology pessimists." Inside the Technology
Optimists group, depending on their category, their interaction
expectations were also very diverse.
So, appearance on the Net opens great opportunities but also presents
real risks of being misled. This means that a tuned cost/profit
analysis for a Net service project becomes very difficult and
trial-and-error stages are necessary.
What follows is a lifecycle that focuses on solving these difficulties.
- Stage 1: Initiation
- Through this stage, save exceptions, we should get onto the
Net in the natural relationship area or else in the area of relationship
This doesn't mean avoiding ambitious projects but taking profit
of the launching phase to test users' community with a view to
the next stage design. We are not talking about surveys. The best
survey on a Web site is observing what surfers are doing. We are
referring to, it can be said, planting "seeds" in relationship
improvement direction and seeing how much they can grow.
For instance, a good seed for Amazon could have been, before making
the main investments in the Recommendation Center, adding to a
first Web site's version a few personalized recommendation options
and checking its users' acceptance. The virtual world opens new
interaction possibilities that are necessary to imagine and invent
but also to test.
Naturally, the contents generated in this first stage must be
attractive enough to invite users to a next visit. So, basing
the contents on the company's history and photos of its managers
is not a good idea.
- Stage 2: Relationship improvement
- Once a good seed is planted and the appropriate feedback obtained,
it would be possible to get into the relationship improvement
area. A more precise cost/profit analysis can be attained.
Nowadays, the idea of converting home pages into menu lists seems
obsolete and Web designers model them as access tunnels guiding
the surfers to the main options. That is one of the reasons for
associating a change in the site's focus with the redesign of
its main motives and metaphors.
As this lifecycle can be recursive until finding the best way,
this stage could become the "Initiation" stage of a
new phase in the site's evolution.
- Stage 3: Maintenance and consolidation
- Once the site is successful in relationship improvement, maintaining
the site alive becomes essential, and cost analysis must take
this into account. Even when reaching the multidirectional category
of interaction and thus assuming the fact that part of the site's
contents will be provided by the community itself, contents supplied
by its promoter are equally important. Should the members perceive
that after migrating their debate to, for instance, a chat room,
they are going to obtain the same results, they will do it.
There is also another question to focus on. As time goes by, people
change and so certain "Technology pessimists" or "interacted"
belonging to our real community will change their minds and be
potential customers of our site. Maintaining the primary options
which have been useful for community's integration and guiding
new visitors to them can be a good idea to enable the engagement
of new members.
The lifecycle we have described is not a theoretic invention;
many Web site's histories can be described through it. That's
the case of Gallina Blanca and its Avecrem site 
of whose evolution we are going to tell.
Gallina Blanca is a Spanish company focused on the production
and commercialization of prepared food products (soup, rice, vegetables,
etc.). Avecrem is one of their line of products.
A year ago, they decided to create a Web site for promoting their
products based firstly on providing cooking recipes. For example,
the section "What could I make today?" gave, and still
gives, recipes using the ingredients the person says, in a very
easy way, he or she has.
They have decided also to include an additional section designed
as a question/answer service about cooking subjects. Very soon,
this section became especially active and they had periodically
to answer quite a lot of questions.
Several weeks after, they observed that some users were themselves
able to answer some questions. Then the promoters delayed their
answers and this trend increased. So, they decided that the multidirectional
seed had taken root.
Three months after their first version launching, they redesigned
the Web site, creating two additional sections named "Share
your best ideas" and "What are you in the mood for?"
focused on dialogue about cooking subjects. The number of visits
to the site grew continuously. They observed that obviously, the
frequency of users' participation was not very high as cooking
subjects are not a motive of daily interaction.
As they wanted to attract new people to the site, they got into
a third phase and recently launched a cybersoap on the site accompanied
with several debate sections about it. So far, they have obtained
again a great success.
Even now, their interaction object has a time limit. So, during
the cybersoap broadcast they will have to think about how to take
profit from this new interaction inertia in order to advance a
little more in the loyalty of their community members and, if
possible, to move nearer to the "shared interest group"
In the first sections, we established a comparison between real
and virtual worlds in terms of interaction possibilities. The
initial idea is that people's uses and attitudes cannot be very
dissimilar in both cases.
Analyzing the diverse interaction categories, we observed that
the virtual world tends to open up new opportunities for a closer
We classified the strategies for getting onto the Net in function
of two parameters: the addressed real community and the targeted
Through the first stage of our proposed lifecycle, we suggested
starting a not-too-ambitious virtual relationship with customers
or users and, at the same time, testing new interaction possibilities
of adequately targeting relationship improvement.
This paper is intended to clarify possible strategies for the
introduction of companies onto the Net. The enrichment of our
strategies table by referencing success cases can help us to avoid
duplicated work and to concentrate on new forms of innovation.
At this moment, we perceive the opportunity to segment our strategies
table by adding a second line of parameters.
For the real community, the user category related to their attitudes
towards technology can be added and works like Forrester's can
be a great help to us. For the virtual community, we have the
type of products or services already tested successfully on the
The final purpose is not to be able to copy already existing solutions,
but to support our idea that the best way to innovate is to have
a clear idea of what has already been invented.
- Information Strategy Online, "Net
Gains in the Market Place," http://www.info-strategy.com/internet100
- John Hagel III, Arthur G. Armstrong, "Net.gain,
expanding markets through virtual communities," Harvard Business
School Press, 1997
- Manuel Castells, "The Information
Age: Economy, Society and Culture," Volume I, page 371, Blackwell
Publishers Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996
- StockMaster, "Web Financial Services
- Amazon.com, "Earth's biggest bookstore,"
- The Cybermom Dot Com, "A Home on the
Net for Moms with Modems,"
- Forrester Research Inc., "Technographics