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Business-to-Business Web Communities Serve as Full-Service Central Marketplaces

 By Brian Schraff (schraff@wwwiz.com)

 Imagine a cyberspace one-stop shop for your niche of the business world–a place where industry information and news, advice on software, marketing and management insights and vast opportunities for individual and company networking are aggregated into a single-focused Web site.

Such a clearinghouse for invaluable business building tools exists in a business-to-business (B2B) Web community. And if there isn't a Web community available for a market you are experienced in, you may want to build one yourself.

What Is a Business-to-Business Web Community?

 The difference between a plain old B2B e-commerce site and a B2B Web community is in the type of information and functionality offered.  A B2B Web community is a full-service central marketplace that presents content such as news, industry analysis, Web-based e-mail, market pricing of used equipment, an industry indexed search engine, trading exchange, storefronts, career, real estate and discussion groups (to name a few).  With an incredible proliferation of information on the Internet, Web communities also serve as a consolidator and filter for relevant information.

            Because of the Internet's complexity, these digital marketplaces have spawned middlemen known as metamediaries. Coined by a Northwestern business professor, a metamediary describes a third party that brings together various buyers and sellers online in a business-to-business marketplace setting.  These metamediaries go beyond bringing together buyers and sellers by including additional content and functionality that helps those in the exchange have a heightened awareness of industry happenings. The additional content aggregated into a single site creates a convenient, single source to get industry information, collaborate with peers and make purchasing decisions.

            Fancy cyber-names aside, these metamediaries are expected to help generate sales of $438 billion of online business-to-business transactions in 2003, according to Bear Stearns & Co.  Their presence is likely to result in $57 billion in operational cost savings for B2B Web community users.

            Web communities are cropping up both in vertical and horizontal emarkets.  Examples of vertical emarkets are chemicals, food and agriculture, and energy.  (Chemicals and energy, by the way, are expected to have the highest volume of transactions in the next few years).

            Horizontal emarkets such as bizbuyer.com ( http://bizbuyer.com) and purchasepro.com (http://www.purchasepro.com), on the other hand, offer everything from translation services to office equipment. Basically, these horizontal emarkets are geared toward those businesses ingrained in the small- to medium-sized business markets that need to find qualified vendors. 

            Think of the Web community as a ``dashboard" which helps users manage their jobs more efficiently.

 What Are the Benefits?

Faster time to market through collaborative tools, convenience, reduced levels of distribution, and of course, lower costs are some of the well-known benefits of doing business online.

            For example, VerticalNet ( http://verticalnet.com/), a B2B marketplace with 56 online trading communities, brings together a large quantity of product information and vendors, which result in more choices, competition and better prices.  Web communities also transcend time zones.  According to VerticalNet CEO Mark Walsh, 40% of traffic to his Web community comes from outside of the United States. 

Career and Business Development 

 Visitors to Web communities may seek to further career growth by gaining in-depth market knowledge and contacts.  Many Web communities offer highly focused news feeds, analyst reports, discussion groups and featured guest-moderated chat sessions. Best of all, much of the information comes at no cost.

 How to Build a B2B Web Community

 First, determine the target.  The more specific the targeting, the more beneficial the site will be for your customers.  However, don't make the mistake of being too specific, or you run the risk of narrowing your market to a size that makes your community too expensive to run.

After you build a metamediary, there are daily responsibilities.  Examine your targets on an average day.  Some questions you may want to ask yourself:

 ·      How do they get information about what is happening in their industry?

·      How can they find out the going price for a certain piece of used equipment available in the marketplace?

·      How do they buy and sell products with their partners?

·      How do they get quotes and availability information?

·      How do they collaborate to seal the deal?

 The key is to be an expert in your target industry.  This is often called ``Domain Expertise." What if you're not an expert in the industry?  Hire an eBusiness consultant to help you recognize needs and assist you in finding available content for your site.

            Next, conduct research studies to determine what your prospective constituents need and what services they will use.  Find out what magazines they read and identify the analysts who serve their market.

            A way to make your Web community even more useful is to identify a common standard with multiple companies that provide services targeting your particular industry. An example would be to partner with a company that dominates a segment of the industry.

 

Here is a round-up of key content found in Web communities:

 

·      News

·      Industry analysis and columns

·      Market trends

·      Global/regional news and community discussions

·      Gossip column

·      Real estate

·      Careers

·      Events calendar

·      Education/training

·      Associations/government and analyst

·      Search engine

·      Web-based email

·      Web-based calendaring

 

How Do I Measure My Community's Success?

 

Get to know two words: traction and liquidity.

            Traction, in Internet-speak, means the number of memberships in your community.  The reason traction is so important is because it shows that your community has earned some level of market acceptance. This can also be measured as market share (number of memberships/number of potential members in your community's universe).

            Liquidity is measured by the ease in which people in your community or marketplace can find each other to complete a transaction–of various types.  This can range from knowledge brokering to service offering to product offering.  Ultimately, this translates into the number of transactions on your site.

            Are there other B2B communities that serve your market?  If so, how do you rate in comparison?  Here are some ways to rate your community:

 

·      Unique visitors–how many browsers access the site?

·      Memberships

·      Membership growth rate

·      Discussion threads initiated in a given month

·      Transactions processed in the marketplace

·      Dollar value of the transactions processed in the marketplace

·      Number of pages served (important if your marketplace serves advertising for revenue)

·      Click-stream length–the sequence of clicks or pages accessed by a visitor on a Web site

·      Member compliance–percent of membership visiting on a daily basis, plus their click streams

·      Amount of time logged on

·      Number of emails served everyday

 If you build it, they won't necessarily come. But if you make the information, features and functionality relevant to your industry, your Web community could be like having the best attended business association meeting right on your desktop.

  

Brian Schraff is president of Schraff Group, a fully integrated eBusiness agency with a successful 22-year history. The firm leverages its expertise in advertising, public relations, Internet application development and Internet business consulting to offer its clients truly integrated business and marketing support.  Schraff Group is Orange County's leading firm for hot ramp Internet start-ups, as well as established companies with e-business initiatives. Additional information can be accessed at http://www.schraff.com/.

 

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