An Exploratory Qualitative Study
Imene Ben Yahia
Center of research DMSP, University of Paris Dauphine , Place de Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny 75775 Paris France
Keywords: Virtual community, brand community, B2C virtual community, perceived benefits.
Abstract: Researches in Marketing tend to design any community belonging to the Website of the company as a brand
community. Through a qualitative study, this article describes, interprets and classifies B2C virtual
communities and thus removes the confusion between virtual brand communities and B2C virtual
communities. The empirical results put also up to date three types of perceived benefits by the participants,
associated to these communities. The perceived benefits seem to depend on the object of the community, on
its orientation as well as on the nature of the participants’ behaviours. The paper finishes with the
managerial implications.
Due to the fragmentation of the society, the desire to
be in a community was concretized on Internet by
the development of "tribes" for which the needs are
collective but also individual (Sitz, 2004). Noting
the increased growth of consumer’s tribes on the Net
on the one hand, and waiting for the same
contributions as off line brand communities on the
other hand, the managers granted a particular
interest to virtual communities and supported their
development (Muniz and O'Guinn, 2001; Jones,
1997). Several researches were interested in
communities created by companies. However, the
majority approached them according to business
models and models of incomes. Admittedly, such
models were many for some time. However, they
did not survive on the Web. Since, the new approach
of companies has rather fit with a relational
perspective. Indeed, the community’s spirit is very
resistant to promotional strategies. New forms of
B2C virtual communities emerge then. Transactions
and promotional strategies leave their place to
mutual help and to the development of relations.
Whereas passion to the brand, related to the
experiential dimension of its product, is essential for
the emergence of brand communities in the real
world, this dimension does not seem essential on the
Web. Some managers integrate, then, communities
in their official Web sites independently of the
nature of their products (with an experiential
dimension or not). Thus, some consumers gather
there without being passionate of their brands. This
gave rise to various types of B2C virtual
communities. However, in marketing literature,
some researches consider any community belonging
to the official web site of the company as an official
virtual brand community. Indeed, this latter is
defined as “a community specialized (because the
brand is in its center), based on a whole of social
bonds among the users and the passionate of the
brand. Members share the interest to the brand and
to its consumption” (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001).
It is then advisable to examine this social
dimension in companies’ web sites. The first
objective of this paper would be to specify these
concepts and to remove any confusion between them
by proposing a typology of B2C virtual
The second objective of this paper is to explore
the participants’ perception of B2C virtual
communities. Indeed, in spite of their interest in
them, the majority of managers remain hesitant to
invest in virtual communities because of the
disinterest of the net surfers. Moreover, the
investigation of the perceived benefits of these
communities brings a complementary lighting on the
consumer’s behaviour on the Web.
Ben Yahia I. (2006).
In Proceedings of the International Conference on e-Business, pages 235-241
DOI: 10.5220/0001429002350241
First, a review of the relevant literature on virtual
communities is presented. Secondly, a state of the
art on the potential reasons of the participation in
virtual communities will be established. Then, the
qualitative study will be detailed. It is based on some
cases of B2C virtual communities. The last part of
the paper discusses the theoretical and managerial
2.1 Dimensions
Initially associated to the "vicinity" (Wellman and
Gulia, 1999), the term "community" indicates a
group of individuals who, occupy the same physical
place, show common characteristics, or share the
same interests. Various definitions of virtual
communities are proposed in the literature:
- people who share common interests and objectives
and for which the electronic communication is the
first form of interactions (Dennis, Poothri and
Natarajan, 1998);
- groups of individuals who meet regularly to
discuss subjects of interests with the other members
(Figallo, 1998),
- socio-cultural regroupings who emerge when a
sufficient number of individuals take part in public
discussions by putting sufficient heart at it so that
networks of human relations would be woven within
the Cyberspace". (Rheingold, 1993)
Some dimensions quoted in the last definition
seem to better characterize a virtual community: a
group of individuals, social ties, a shared interest, a
dynamic process and relations which last
2.2 Characteristics
Several characteristics of virtual communities are
quoted in the literature. However, only those which
seem interesting within this framework are retained.
The place of meetings: in their definition of the
virtual community, Fernback and Thompson (1995)
point out the concept of place. According to them, it
should be specified and symbolically underlined by
a subject of interest. Thanks to the concept of place,
it would be possible to distinguish companies’
virtual communities from the other on line tribes
such as communities created on the initiative of net
The orientation of the community: Markus (2002)
distinguished between the social orientation of the
community, the professional orientation and the
commercial orientation. The social orientation
combines the relational orientation and the
experiential orientation. The former is reflected by
the construction of relationship between members. It
is the base of the birth of virtual communities. It can
coexist, to different degrees, with other orientations.
The experiential orientation reflects the hedonic
aspect of the community and translated the pleasure
shared between members. This aspect characterizes
particularly brand communities in the real world
(McAlexander and Schouten, 1998). The
professional orientation refers to the networks of
experts and the collective training (Markus, 2002).
Finally, the commercial or transactional orientation
describes web sites of purchases and sales, and web
sites of products’ evaluation.
The object of the interactions: according to
Newcomb (1953), the interaction is always directed
to a project or to a common interest. It functions
according to the model ABX, more precisely an
interaction between a person A and a person B is
always done in the direction of an object X. The
object X can be replaced by "interest", "passion",
"meets", "brand"…Thus, virtual brand communities
differ from the communities of consumption
(Kozinets, 1999) since the object X is the passion to
the brand and not the commitment to the product.
The participants: are generally composed of the
administrators, the regulators (moderators) and the
users. In the case of communities created by
companies, moderation generally concerns the
employees of the company but can be sometimes
carried out within volunteer members of the
community. Participants can adopt two types of
behaviours. The experiential behaviour is described
as the expression of pleasure, emotions, and feelings
(Hammond and alii, 1998); it is characterized by a
total immersion of the individual in the environment.
It results in a distortion of time and of the
impression to exist known as “the telepresence”. The
behaviour directed towards a goal reflects the search
for information and its retrieval.
A community in the web site of the brand let’s
think that it is about a virtual brand community as
one gets along in the real world. Some confusion is
then noted between B2C virtual communities and
B2C virtual brand communities. Thus, managers
wait for the same managerial implications as those
associated to off line brand communities.
Considering the importance of this point, a
question is posed: should we consider all companies’
virtual communities as virtual brand communities?
In order to answer to this question, this paper aims to
examine the central objects of B2C virtual
communities as well as their orientations
2.3 Reasons of Participating in
Virtual Communities
Several researchers were interested in the reasons of
taking part in a virtual community. Thus, they
identified the motivations of the member
(Hemetsberer, 2003; Hertel, Niedner and Herrmann,
2003; Krogh, Spaeth and Lakhani, 2003; Hertel,
2002; Bezroukov, 1999; Armstrong and Hagel,
1996; Maffesoli, 1988), the required benefits from
participating (Butler et al., 2002) and also the
perceived value (Bagozzi, Dholakia and Paro, 2003).
Although several studies were interested in the
reasons of participation, it seems more relevant to
me to focus on the perceived benefits by members
rather than on the benefits that they seek. Indeed, the
participants use the virtual communities which meet
their needs the best. So, it is extremely probable that
the consumer is not naturally searching for some
benefits but that he discovers them during his use of
the community. Consequently, perceived benefits
rather than required benefits are explored in this
3.1 Description
The methodology is directed towards a qualitative
approach. Whereas virtual communities created by
net surfers are countless on the web, B2C virtual
communities are more difficult to find. Newspapers,
reviews, books, ‘forums’ and ‘newsgroups’ were
consulted. Considering the constraint of the low
number of active B2C virtual communities, 7 cases
were selected (Starwars, Microsoft, Linux, Pimkie,
Meilleurduchef, Orange and Doctissimo). Then, a
two-step exploratory qualitative study was carried
First, a netnography was used (Schouten and
McAlexander, 1998) in two communities (Pimkie
and Microsoft), and none participating observation
was used on some other communities (Orange,
Starwars, Doctissimo and Meilleurduchef). In order
to avoid what Sherry (1995) negatively described as
"Blitzkrieg ethnography" (i.e. to limit oneself to
simple visits of the website), these positions were
kept for 18 months.
Secondly, semi-directing interviews were carried
out with participants of three communities (Linux,
MS and Pimkie). Managers of three B2C virtual
communities (Microsoft, Doctissimo and Pimkie)
were also interviewed. This type of method enables
to approach the research’ s topics while maintaining
intact the freedom of the respondents as well as the
flexibility of the interview (Giordano, 2003).
Regarding the specificity of the field studied and the
little information available on the subject, the
principal advantage of this method relates to the
internal validity of the study and to the richness of
the produced data.
The empirical saturation was reached at the end
of 20 interviews. The collected data was then
analysed and interpreted. The empirical results
followed by a discussion are presented in the next
3.2 Results
The qualitative analysis distinguishes between four
forms of B2C virtual communities according to their
objects and to their orientations. Virtual brand
communities are, then, only one form of B2C virtual
communities (1), proposes a typology of the
perceived benefits by the participants (2), and
identifies some factors that influence benefits’
perception in the B2C virtual community (3)
3.2.1 Typology of B2C Virtual Communities
According to the empirical results (cf. Appendix 1),
the object of the interactions in the B2C virtual
community is either the product of the brand, or a
topic related to the activity of the company. The
orientation of the community is either informational,
or social (relational or experiential), or a
combination of these orientations. By informational
orientation, we design the interest of the community
to the information’s retrieval around the
functionalities of the brand’s products or even
around subjects of interests.
A definition of B2C virtual communities is then
proposed. They are: “interactive spaces on the Net
created by companies to consumers, generally in
their official Web sites, and reserved to groups of
Net surfers around their products, their brands and /
or around sets of topics more or less related to
Table 1: Types of B2C virtual communities.
companies’ activities. The orientation of the
community can be informational, social or a
combination of these two orientations
Considering this definition, four types of B2C
virtual communities are distinguished (Table1):
B2C virtual brand communities (Muniz and
O’Guinn, 2001): the passion to the brand is the
object of the participants’ interactions. Over the
informational orientation of the community related
to the characteristics of the brand’s products (the
degree of its functional dimension), the community
is endowed with a social orientation related to the
share of a common passion to the brand and to the
use of its products. Thus, a proposition of B2C
virtual community is proposed: “"It is a community
specialized on the Net (because the brand is in its
centre), generally on the official web site of the
company, based on a whole of social bonds among
the users and the passionate of the brand. These
members share the interest to the brand and to its
consumption. The orientation of the community is
essentially social, particularly experiential, but an
informational orientation can also coexist with it".
B2C virtual communities of practice: the
functionalities of the brand’s products represent the
object of the interactions. Thus, the participants
come to get information and to solve their problems
(Debackere and Rappa, 1994) rather than to share a
common passion to the brand. The orientation of the
community is functional (Orange) or even technical
B2C virtual communities of interests (Hagel and
Armstrong, 1997): the brand is not the object of the
interactions. It can even not exist. Two cases are
Communities of conquest: the brand is not
known by the participants. Consequently, the
company creates a community in its official web site
around its activity. In this case, participants share
their common passion to the topic rather than to the
brand (ex: www.Meilleurduchef.com).
Communities of audience: participants gather
around topics which interest them in the portal’s
web site created by the company. They form
homogeneous segments of audience exposed to
companies’ ads. It is in this direction that
Doctissimo widened its audience by buying the
communities Ado.fr and Mamo.net.
B2C virtual communities of relations (Hagel and
Armstrong, 1997): participants’ interactions relate to
general sets of themes interesting the members such
as love and friendship. The community has a
relational orientation. The company seeks to retain
the participants in order to remain near well
identified customers (Pimkie)
3.2.2 Perceived Benefits
Three types of benefits arise: (1) cognitive benefits
corresponding to the resolution of problems, to the
optimization of competences and to being informed
about the brand, (2) emotional benefits
corresponding to the setting in contact with the
company and to social incomes such as the
community spirit and the value’s expression and (3)
hedonic benefits corresponding to the design of the
web site and to the exploration of the other identities
(Table 2). The importance of benefits’ perception
arises clearly in all forms of B2C virtual
communities. However, it seems that benefits’
perception is different from one form to another of
B2C virtual communities. Factors that seem to
influence benefits perception in B2C virtual
communities are presented and discussed in this
3.2.3 Factors Influencing Benefits’
Some factors seem to influence benefits’ perception
in the community. Indeed, the empirical results
underline that perceived benefits depend on the
orientation of the community, on its object and on
the behaviour of the participants. These factors are
presented in this section:
B2C virtual
B2C virtual
community of
B2C virtual
community of
Not found in
selected cases
and social
B2C virtual
B2C virtual
community of
Whereas hedonic benefits and emotional benefits
are strongly evoked in the communities with social
orientation (brand communities, communities of
relations, and communities of interests), they miss
completely in the communities of practice where the
orientation is informational or even technical
(Microsoft). In fact, only cognitive benefits are
mentioned by the participants in these communities.
In the communities around the brand’s products
(of practice and in brand communities), participants
seem to be more interested in benefits associated to
the brand and to its products, such as cognitive
benefits, benefits of setting in contact with the
company and hedonic benefits associated to the
share of a passion to the brand. However, in
communities around sets of topics, emotional
benefits corresponding to the expression of value
and hedonic benefits related to the exploration of
other identities are those which underline, the most,
the speeches of the respondents. Besides, whereas
the informational benefits about the brand are
strongly evoked in communities around the brand’s
products, these benefits do not arise at all in
respondents’ speeches concerning communities
around topics.
The nature of the participant’s behaviour seems
also to influence his perception of benefits. Indeed,
those who have a behaviour directed to a goal
valorise the cognitive benefits. Respondents claim
that they don’t care at all about the other types of
benefits. However, participants who have an
experiential behaviour perceive emotional and
hedonic benefits. These participants seem to be more
loyal to the community than the others.
The proposed typology of B2C virtual communities
puts forward their various forms and raises
confusion with virtual brand communities. The latter
are only one form of B2C virtual communities.
Some brand communities have already existed in the
real world. Internet is only a new interface for
members’ interactions (Microsoft). Other
communities did not exist before (the communities
OSS and Starwars). Internet was primordial for their
The empirical results underline that some brands
can not make consumers emerge around them. In
this case, the company stimulates the desire of its
community’s integration by choosing sets of topics
as the object of members’ interactions. A very
interesting result relates to the community
"Meilleurduchef". Although this brand is rather
unknown by consumers, its community is rich.
Brand information News and information
Resolution of problems Availability, access and relevance of the
information, Resolution of problems
Provision of technical resources
Free information
Cognitive benefits
The optimization of
Fast Familiarisation with the central
object of the community
Improvement of competences and
Contacts with the company To tie direct contacts with the company
Proximity of the company when ever a
problem occurs
Preferential Treatment from the company
The spirit of the group Help and mutual support
Serious of participation, Respects
Emotional benefits
Value expression of the
Reputation in the community
Association with others
Exploring other’s identities Discovering different identities and one’s
Hedonic benefits
associated to the share of
brand passion
- associated to the web site
Pleasure related to the share of a common
passion to the brand
Animation, design, variety
Table 2: Typology of perceived benefits.
Indeed, members gather there to share their passion
to cooking rather than their interest to the brand.
Progressively, this brand becomes known by
participants and arouses their interest. Thus, virtual
communities not only retain consumers in the web
site of the company but can also be an efficient
strategy to acquire new customers.
I tried to explore the perceived benefits in B2C
virtual communities. These benefits seem to depend
not only on the characteristics of the community but
also on individual variables (the behaviour of the
participants: experiential or directed towards a goal).
It would be interesting to explore other individual
variables such as “the expertise with the brand” in
nearest studies.
The empirical results point out the importance of
benefits in B2C virtual communities. It would be
interesting to spread out the field of research by
exploring the impact of these benefits on
participants’ retention in the community and also on
the quality of their relationships with the brand.
Considering their potential influence on benefits’
perception in the community, further researches
should control the orientation of the community as
well as its object. The paper point out the perception
of benefits related to the setting in contact with the
company. This type of benefits is very interesting as
it offers the opportunity to companies, especially
those which begin on the market or those which
want to cure their image, to build stronger
relationship with their consumers.
The company can also support the experiential
aspect of its community and thus enrich social
presence in it. The qualitative study arises that some
employees of the companies take part in the
interactions in their communities. However, in all
the studied communities, their participations are
reduced to the administration or to the moderation.
Examining the investment of the company in the
community could also be an interesting way of
research to explore the factors that favour
participants’ relationship with the brand.
The distinction between a B2C virtual
community and a virtual brand community has
significant implications. Indeed, their operating is
different and so, managerial strategies should be
different. From an academic point of view,
researchers should then examine the object of the
community as well as its orientation before
considering it as a virtual brand community.
A question arises: could virtual communities
evolve in time from one form to another, while
gaining in experiential orientation for example? An
answer to this question is of a particular interest for
managers. It underlines the need for a permanent
follow through their communities to control
perceptions of the participants. A new question
emerges: should the experiential aspect of a brand
community be categorically related to the passion to
the brand? In other words, can the experiential
aspect corresponding to the design of the community
and to the exploration of the other identities
compensate the absence of an experiential
dimension of the brand? If so, can a B2C virtual
community of practice become a B2C virtual brand
community? In the case of an evolution of the
community from one form to another, it would be
very interesting for researchers to examine the
influence of this change on participants. This impact
can result in behaviours of approach or of escape for
example. This evolution of the community could be
even caused by researchers within the framework of
a comprehension of consumer’s behaviour
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Appendix 1: Comparison of B2C virtual communities.
Nature of product/service Orientation of the
Object of
Nature of the B2C
virtual community
Microsoft Data processing products
Brand’ products
Community of
Linux Open Source
Social and
Passion to the
brand and to the
use of its products
Brand community
Doctissimo Health service
Informational and
Specific Themes Community of
Pimkie Clothes
Relational Relational themes Community of
Starwars Science fiction films
Social (relational
and experiential)
passion to the
Brand community
Le Meilleur
du chef
Household electrical for cooking
Social and
passion to cooking Community of
Orange Phone operator
Informational Information about
the brand
Community of