Web Design

"Any idea why my chlorinator O-ring keeps stretching out?" a customer posted on Poolcenter.com, a Springfield, Virginia-based online retailer of swimming pool equipment. Before a Poolcenter.com employee could reply, two other customers jumped in to help. "JohnT" thought it might need to be greased. "MattK" agreed. "I had a similar problem last year," he wrote. "I replaced it at the beginning of the season, and applied a liberal coating of pool lube, and the O-ring has lasted all year."

Poolcenter.com founder Rob Cox recently launched the Pool Community. It includes how-to videos; a blog; a wiki at which customers can contribute to articles about pool maintenance; and a long-running forum with more than 5,000 registered users who regularly visit to discuss pool products, post photos of their pools, and troubleshoot equipment problems. "There's a conversation going on now about your company, good, bad, or otherwise," Cox says. "A company like ours is trying to gently steer it in a positive direction. And when members need a product, they're just a couple of clicks away."

The era in which business owners had to be persuaded to create a website is long gone. Now, companies of all sizes are souping up their websites with online communities, employing forums, blogs, and wikis. Whether a company sells pool supplies, electronics, or exercise equipment, an online community allows customers to share opinions and chat about common interests. This active customer participation establishes brand and company loyalty, says Matthew Lees, who specializes in customer communities and social networks as a vice president at the Patricia Seybold Group, a Boston-based consultancy. "It's a great channel to build long-term customer satisfaction," he says. And it doesn't have to cost a lot. Poolcenter.com spent a couple thousand dollars for an initial setup and pays less than $250 a month for Ideal BB and CustomerVision BizWiki, the two programs it uses.

Once customers get talking, companies can use the conversations to identify trends. Over the past year, employees at Poolcenter.com noticed many customers were asking about green products and solar heating in the online forum. When Cox heard about the chatter, he decided to display the company's environmentally friendly products more prominently on the site. Since then, sales of solar-powered pool heaters have increased 380 percent.

At Neat Receipts, a Philadelphia-based company with 60 employees, the online customer community often works like a free focus group. The company, which makes a device that scans receipts into expense forms, set up a blog and a forum to get feedback from customers. After noticing repeated requests in the forum for a Mac-compatible version of its scanner, Neat Receipts moved that project to the top of its to-do list. Before the company released its first Mac scanners this May, it had 2,000 orders.

Online communities can also help you handle customer service inquiries, as Poolcenter.com has discovered. Though four of the company's 27 employees actively monitor its forum, enthusiastic customers field many questions that might otherwise bog down the company's support desk. Some Poolcenter.com regulars help out a lot. "JohnT," for example, has posted more than 1,000 times. "People do like to be the expert," says Cox. "Myself included."

If you have trouble getting the conversation rolling, use what you know about your customers to create appealing discussion groups and tools. That's what Concept2 did. The Morrisville, Vermont -- based manufacturer of indoor rowing machines and racing oars started out with an online logbook on which average rowers could post their workout times. Six months later, using free open-source software called phpBB, Concept2 added a forum in which rowing enthusiasts compare techniques, solicit advice, and wax poetic about Concept2 products. "We've always relied heavily on word of mouth," says David Hart, Concept2's head of interactive marketing. "This community only helps with that."

Concept2, which has 57 employees, is always looking for creative ways to keep its customers engaged. Each week, it posts photos and biographies of two of its 151,000 logbook users. The company also hosts online challenges that encourage people who use rowing machines to reach goals and post information about their workouts. "Indoor rowing can be an isolating activity," Hart says. "This provides motivation and camaraderie." The holiday challenge asked individuals to row 100,000 or 200,000 meters from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. The prize for the winners? A humble lapel pin (and Internet fame). The contest attracted more than 5,500 entries last year.

Setting up an online customer community does have its share of potential pitfalls. For starters, customers aren't always nice to one another. Experts recommend establishing a code of conduct for the community and having someone police comments. Neat Receipts hired a community manager who monitors the forum, looking for valuable information and flagging inappropriate language. Customers can pitch in, too. Concept2 established an informal relationship with a handful of active members who report abuses.

The inevitable complaints about a company's products or service are worth paying close attention to. Ducking criticism can lead to charges of censorship and discourage community participation. Instead, address issues head-on. That's what Neat Receipts co-founder Rafi Spero tries to do in his Ask the Founder forum, in which customers often suggest new features and grumble about software bugs. Spero answers nearly every post, no matter the tone. That way, says Jenn Choi, Neat Receipts' director of customer insight, "customers can see that we're real people."