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How Online Stores Can Develop Communities
liteblb.gif (981 bytes) Why Customer Assistance Sucks

 liteblb.gif (981 bytes)  Going Global

liteblb.gif (981 bytes)  How Online Stores Can Develop Communities

Why do users come to your site?  By mistake, sure. But what other motives bring people to a storefront?

Phil Greenspun, of MIT, suggests that many sites believe that users are so bored that they want to stare at a blank screen for several minutes while a flashing icon loads.  Other sites seem to think that users are eager for brochures, with huge logo Gifs. But no!  He points out, "Users are doing us a favor by visiting our Web sites."

In his new book, Philip and Alex's Excellent Guide to Web Publishing, he and his dog Alex give a low-key argument for putting tons of information on your site, to answer user questions.  He dings Nikon for refusing to put up instructions on their cameras, and blocking any kind of discussion among customers, so you can't get the info from the company, or other customers.  On the other hand, he really likes General Electric's site, because they post owner's manuals and installation guides for every GE product.  He dings Oracle for dragging its feet about posting information about its flagship database, whereas AOLserver publishes full details.

Greenspun points out that if two users ask the same question, you need to beef up your answer, rather than complaining about how dumb your users are.

In the world of customers, you have hundreds, thousands of points of view, tidbits of information, moments of insight.  If you let them contribute these ideas to your site, you increase its value enormously, but you risk losing control.  You are no longer speaking with a single voice, like every Ford commercial in the country. Greenspun advocates the multiple truths of ordinary life, against the one-truth thinking of billion-dollar corporations.

To start, he says, you should put up magnet content--really inteersting stuff that draws people to the site, not to buy, but to learn. Wow, what a concept!

Then comes the tough part: "Develop the technical means for collaboration."   Set up a question-and-answer forum, a classified ad system, an add-a-comment link after every article, so users work together to build a big repository of knowledge.   Respond to questions, yes, but watch users answer each other.  "User feedback might be annoying at times, but if you want to be insulated from your readers, why publish on the Web at all?"  Greenspun gives away the software that lets you set all this spinning, at

The sad news is that you can't provide these services without some programming. Phil kindly explains how that works, in the rest of his book, Philip and Alex's Excellent Guide to Web Publishing.  For more tidbits from the book, go to

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