We've all seen them - empty message boards, ancient posts, unanswered questions - the vast desert of unused discussion spaces. If the Internet is the new frontier, these are its ghost towns. You can avoid creating your own ghost town by making sure your audience needs a community.

Here are the three best reasons to launch an online community:

You have a vocal, enthusiastic, and involved group of customers who could help each other in using your product or services. Do you get lots of e-mail every day? Are your customers constantly offering you suggestions about how to improve your product or service? Do you have customers at all different levels of expertise who could help each other? If so, you might benefit from building a place where your customers can ask each other questions and exchange ideas.

You're interested in developing a new product or service and genuinely want input and knowledge from other people. Does your company do original research - either developing new products and services or entering a new business area? Are you forever cornering friends and family members with your next great idea? Do you have a genuine passion that keeps you out and about, asking questions? If so, you might build an online study group where you can bring other passionate people together to discuss new areas of research.

You have a "natural" community of product or service users, associates, and suppliers and want to give them a place to talk to each other. Is your product or service directed toward a naturally cohesive group of customers? Do these customers have a hard time finding each other? Are they underserved by existing online communities? If so, you might build an online community where your customers can find each other and talk about their mutual concerns.

OK, we've talked a little about how to know if your audience needs a community. How do you know if you're about to launch a ghost town instead of a community?

You're launching a community because:

You keep hearing that virtual community is the next big thing on the Internet. Virtual communities can be tremendously beneficial to your business. They can also be useless, confusing, or even destructive. Unless you can clearly identify why your audience needs you to build a community for them, you're better off not building one.

You want to get your message out to your customers. Virtual communities are more likely to thrive when you want to hear from your customers rather than the other way around. Web sites, e-mail, and newsletters are better ways to get a message out.

You want to lure your customers back from a competitor's virtual community. Virtual communities thrive when they provide a place for people to come together and talk about the things that concern them. If you're the only site on the Web offering this space, you have a good chance of bringing in steady participants. However, most of the attractive demographic groups - women, teens, investors, and others - already have 10 or 20 high-profile sites vying for their attention; and it seems as if there's another one being launched every 10 seconds. Unless you can identify some need that only your community can fulfill, you're not going to lure these overserved customers to your site.

Check out our four steps to virtual community, or get pointers on hosting your own online study group.

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