Virtual communities present an excellent opportunity for marketers to exploit the “network externalities’ effect. The key to promotion on the virtual community is the critical mass of members that can be reached. Marketers start by building a loyal constituency of consumers through advertisement on discussion forums, sponsorship of discussions, providing links to experts in specific areas for free consultation, and use of knowledge from other forums to honestly counsel community members. The well defined nature of the community then helps the product promoters to better target their messages.
Marketers may also open discussion forums to specifically attract new members with the profile of interest. For example, Toyota (http://www.toyota.com) sponsors a discussion forum on “Gardening” in its virtual community of car users. Through this forum, Toyota is probably hoping to attract members who are interested in gardening, and fit the profile suited to sell its “Family Vans”. Related discussion forums are ways to increase the breadth of the discussion and thus attract members who may not be currently interested in the products, but may have the profile to be buyers in the future.
The real benefits of the Internet will be exploited when marketers use the interactive capabilities of the new medium and build a personal community environment for the consumer member, understand each consumer as an individual in addressing promotional messages, provide all related services at a single point, and make the virtual community a truly worthwhile place for the consumer to visit.
The Internet may have its greatest impact on the operating task of the marketing function and remove barriers to exchanges by fundamentally transforming the consumer need fulfillment process. In the following section, we will discuss how Internet changes these marketer-to-consumer relationships and its effects on interactive marketing.