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Start-ups target real-life communities for Web page building

A new generation of start-ups is revisiting the Web community model and changing it by providing the tools for companies and organizations to do the building.

Taking a page from the movie Field of Dreams, companies seeking to create Web communities have built first, assuming users will come.

The strategy, embodied by companies like GeoCities, Tripod, and TheGlobe.com, has delivered audiences that hang around longer on average than many other sites, according to analysts. But the companies haven't figured out how to turn that extra attention into extra revenues.

Now a new generation of start-ups is revisiting that model, opting to provide tools for others to do the building.

Unlike the first wave of Web communities, these companies are not trying to garner advertising dollars by amassing home page publishers on their Web sites. Instead, this new breed seeks to become the invisible toolbox that bigger Web sites can rent to build the communities themselves.

Take WeGo.com, which aims to give offline communities such as church groups and political organizations the ability to ramp up sophisticated online sites without requiring extensive technical know-how.

"There's no loyalty in communities," said Kir Kahlon, WeGo's chief executive. "The way our play is different is we're focused on real-world, preexisting communities."

Another company making a similar move is HomePage.com, which offers technology for Web sites to let users create individual home pages.

Although analysts warn that the community market is already crowded, making it a tough one for new companies such as WeGo and HomePage to break into, they said the new business model appears to address some of the holes in earlier community strategies. Although unproven, these companies could be the ones to watch.

"For WeGo.com, instead of building virtual communities, they're going out and finding real-world, consumer-type communities," said Kent Allen, an analyst at research firm Aberdeen Group. "They are defining where these are and enabling them with basic Internet technology to establish their communities online."

Finding an audience
The term "community" remains a loosely defined idea on the Internet that encompasses divergent Web features, from message boards to home page building and chat rooms. But all of these applications have a similar objective in trying to appeal to users drawn together by common interests.

Kahlon wants to market WeGo's community play at an obvious group: real-world communities, such as the Boy Scouts or the American Association of Retired Persons. The company will build Web services on these communities' home pages such as chat, message boards, e-commerce features, and online file sharing.

The Palo Alto, California-based start-up plans to launch its service Monday when it announces it will partner with the College Democrats of America (CDA). With the deal, WeGo will add features such as calendaring, discussion forums, and Web site publishing for CDA site members.

Down the road the company will generate revenue by marketing services to partner site members and by facilitating commerce between the organization and its members.

Although that revenue model remains untested on the Web, some analysts think the company is smart to focus on specific intercommunity transactions and marketing.

Meanwhile, HomePage, the latest company to emerge from Internet entrepreneur Bill Gross's Idealab, this week announced a deal with AOL's instant messaging client ICQ to become the home page provider for ICQ's members.

Like WeGo, HomePage supplies raw materials that Web sites can offer to their users. The 45 million registered ICQ users can build personal home pages using HomePage's tools.

Mary Lou Fulton, the president of HomePage and a former executive at GeoCities, said the company differs from other home page sites because it resists the urge to become a hub for Web site publishers. Instead, it wants to supply the materials for other companies to create their own communities within their own sites.

"We haven't created hierarchy, or a system of navigating through pages that attempts to monetize traffic based on communities of interest," Fulton said.

No room?
Still, some observers wonder whether these companies are wandering into an already saturated market with limited wiggle room for a new community play.

Lisa Allen, an analyst at market research firm Forrester Research, wrote in a September report that community sites have succeeded in creating user loyalty. These sites have also come up short in creating profits, however.

Allen's report found that among 20 content sites surveyed that have community features, the community side contributed 22 percent to traffic but only 7 percent to the site's overall revenue.

"Sites view community as a cost center that generates repeat traffic, not revenue," Allen wrote.

By creating virtual worlds about topics, issues, or lifestyle, these companies continue to believe that community members will use their services longer, view more advertisements, and conduct more e-commerce transactions on their sites. This belief has led to numerous high-priced acquisitions, including Web portal Yahoo's acquisition of home page community GeoCities this summer for close to $5 billion in stock.

But if one believes that history and experience make one wiser, then in targeting real-life communities, perhaps this new breed has figured out one way of turning traffic into dollars.

"There's been so much effort in, 'Let's build it and they will come' instead of going to [outside communities] and helping them flush it out," Aberdeen's Allen said.