Small-business owners: Virtual community vendors have something to say to you.

Hear anything? No need to check your hearing, it's just that the virtual community vendors aren't saying anything; they're not talking to you. At least, that's the impression I got after visiting the VirComm 2000 conference early in May, along with Sue Lohman, workz's community editor.

VirComm is the event for virtual community vendors and consultants -- everyone with a product to sell or an angle to push is out there giving talks, offering opinions, and trying to attract customers. When virtual community was a hard sell, vendors and consultants were happy to attract any customer they could. Now that "virtual community" has become the new buzzword, vendors and consultants are looking to attract the big-money customers -- Fortune 500 companies and well-funded dot-coms. Approach one of these attractively decorated vendor or consultant booths and ask what they offer for the small-business client, and you're liable to get a blank stare and an abrupt "Why don't you check out our literature?" as they scan the crowd for a more well-heeled customer.

That leaves you in a bit of a lurch if you're a small-business customer who wants to implement an online community. There are a few vendors still willing to work with small-business clients, but they are an increasingly small percentage of the total.

What Options Do You Have?
Who's the most receptive vendor? Web Crossing seems to have something for every small-business need -- from free discussion and chat software versions that you run on your own server, to small communities that you can host cheaply ($50 per month) on its server, all the way up to its enterprise version software, which can handle huge commercial ventures, such as CNN.

Another receptive vendor was WeTalk Network, a soon-to-be-released application that builds on Web Crossing's technology and adds its own Java applets for monitoring and administering your community. The price for this application and having the community hosted on Web Crossing's server runs a little higher (estimated cost of $500 per month) but is still within reach of the small-business owner with a thriving community.

Finally, WebBoard was receptive to small-business users but seemed less flexible in its offerings. For example, its software could not be scaled down for a customer hoping to build a single community. In addition, the company was unable to host the software on its server.

The biggest trend at the conference was also the one least accessible to the small-business owner -- outsourced communities. The vendors for these services --, PeopleLink, and others -- offer complete community maintenance at $2,000 per month and up.

The big vendors may not be listening, but I am. I'd like to return to VirComm next year with a mandate from the small-business owner, letting vendors know about your needs. If you're thinking about building a virtual community, or if you already use virtual community tools to reach your customers, associates, and suppliers, I'd like to hear from you. You can reach me at

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