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E-commerce firms try community

Building communities on commerce sites can help boost customer loyalty, but some companies are finding that monitoring them comes with a price tag and a few headaches.

Building communities on commerce sites may help boost customer loyalty, but some companies are finding that monitoring them comes with a price tag and a few headaches.

With message boards, customer reviews, and discussion groups popping up like daisies, sites such as eBay, Amazon.com, and Expedia have become more than just places to buy. Customers share their experiences, make recommendations, and post criticisms of the sites, all of which can be of value to an e-commerce firm looking for an edge over the ever-growing competition.

In addition, studies indicate that online shoppers are not particularly loyal to individual stores--and e-commerce firms are hoping their community features will bring users back for more.

That strategy is not without potential pitfalls. Analysts are mixed on whether the pros of community features outweigh the cons.

Geoffrey Bock, senior consultant at the Patricia Seybold Group, said e-commerce companies need to "think long and hard" about how they add community features to their sites to avoid contentious forums that might offend customers.

Online auction site eBay encountered the darker side of its community earlier this month when a flame war between some of its users broke out on its message boards. After the flames turned into personal attacks, the company took action against some 25 users, asking some to stop posting to the boards and suspending others completely.

Matt Bannick, vice president of customer service at eBay, acknowledged that although a good community experience can greatly affect a customer's opinion of the site, it is difficult to oversee the company's message boards, both logistically and financially.

Ken Cassar, an analyst with research firm Jupiter Communications, pointed out that a big down side of building community on a commerce site is the cost of monitoring it, as Amazon must do with book and music reviews posted on the site by customers. Commerce sites monitoring message boards and postings run the risk of being "distracted from their core role as sellers of products," he said.

"It may be presumptuous for any one business to believe that it can do both well," he said.

But Bannick said eBay views community building as essential to its business. The boards not only give eBay users an outlet to vent their frustrations--they also provide eBay with valuable feedback.

"We get a lot of criticism," Bannick said. "But the reality is that we have a lot to learn. By listening, we can continue to improve."

International Data Corporation analyst Jill Frankle said the benefits of community interaction on e-commerce sites outweigh any negatives. People are seeking opinions of other online users, Frankle said, adding that criticism of the firm on its sites shouldn't affect overall sales.

"Nobody would be doing this type of thing if it wasn't driving usage or driving commerce," she said.