MOST COMMUNITY INTRANETS ROLLED out by builders during the Internet boom were long on hype and short on substance and commitment.
Talk to the average builder, and he'll say he's tried community intranets, but they didn't really live up to their promise. Other familiar refrains are that community intranets don't work, they are not worth the expense, and the residents don't use them.
True, most community intranets fail or are underutilized. But builders and developers that have paid attention to their community intranets report some excellent results.
Ken Knorr, director of information technology for developer Pringle Development in Leesburg, Fla., says community intranets at two of his company's retirement communities help Pringle reduce cancellation rates.
“As soon as customers close on a lot ... when they get home, they have a password waiting for them, so the intranet is part of the experience from day one,” says Knorr. What happens with retirees is that they can fall in love with a new home, sign a contract, and then cancel when they get back home up north.
“With us, they immediately become a part of the online community, and suddenly, they are communicating with their new neighbors,” Knorr explains. “It's a lot easier to move if you have friends,” he says. “By the time many get here, they know who their neighbors are and have been getting ideas on what clubs they want to join.”
Royal Build-Out Pringle's NeighborLinks intranet runs at the company's Royal Harbor project in Tavares, Fla., and the Legacy at Leesburg in Leesburg. Both are retirement communities. Royal Harbor will build out at 755 homes by 2006 with roughly 1,400 total intranet users. The intranet at Legacy at Leesburg will ultimately have 1,000 homes by 2007 and 1,600 users. Homes at the two communities sell from $120,000 to $300,000.
Knorr says the intranet is included in residents' association fees. It costs $2 per month per home. Residents use the intranet to access calendars with lists of activities, home pages for clubs, and community documents and to sign up for clubs. Royal Harbor has 49 clubs, and each has its own message board, chat area, and photo albums. The intranet also includes an online voting system for local HOA votes.
Knorr says that a generational shift is under way in Florida and that many of the new residents who are buying retirement homes are younger and more receptive to new technology.
“We are starting to see the first wave of the baby boomers,” he says. “These people are coming out of the professional workplace and are very comfortable with computers,” Knorr says.
Digital Village The real test for builders and developers is deploying an intranet that truly becomes a digital community with an e-commerce feature that's either self-sustaining or brings in revenue for the developer or the HOA.
South of Tampa Bay, in Bradenton, Fla., Lakewood Ranch, a project of LWR Communities, broke ground in 1994 and now has 4,200 homes on 7,000 acres with a population of 10,000. About 70 percent of its residents are families; the rest are retirees. Townhomes start at $130,000, and single-family homes range up to $5 million.
Polly Webb, vice president of marketing at LWR Communities, says the intranet is the perfect way for the developer to communicate with residents and for residents to communicate with one another. Webb says the intranet is especially useful at a new community, where the social fabric isn't fully formed and people may not even know where to go for a quart of milk or to get their dry cleaning done.
LWR launched its Digital Village intranet at Lakewood Ranch, which consists of five villages and more than 60 neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is assigned an administrator, typically a local resident who volunteers. The administrator is responsible for posting information to the site for his or her specific neighborhood. When the Digital Village launched, residents paid a $20 annual fee to sign up, but now the fee is included in a resident's HOA dues.
“It's been very interesting, and the residents have been proactive,” Webb says. “When we gave training sessions at the country club, we had 100 to 200 people show up, and the older folks attended and adopted the new technology as well. I was very surprised.”
Every resident can create and post classified ads, and they have access to community newsletters, events calendars, homeowners' manuals, and minutes to local board meetings. They can go online and reserve activity rooms and conference line voting feature for local board elections.
Lakewood Ranch staffers train the neighborhood administrators in how to post content on the Web site. Each administrator is assigned access to many of the intranet's special features. For example, the administrators can design forms for local neighborhood events that residents can access and submit online; take surveys of the residents to find out what new services they may want; post newsletters; and develop and post slide shows of events that were held in the neighborhood.
Both local merchants and doctors have their own links to the community's intranet. LWR gives merchant and medical participants rights similar to the local administrators. The merchants post promotional coupons and directions to their stores, and they make use of the survey feature to find out how customers rate their service or to find out what new products they want them to carry. Restaurants poll residents on what new foods they want them to serve. Doctors post preregistration forms online to relieve some of the paperwork burden that first-time patients endure.
“The administrators can design whatever forms they like,” says Corinna Decker, Internet administrator at Lakewood and project leader for Digital Village. “The empty-nesters have very active clubs, and they all have events with online sign-up sheets,” she says. “We're looking to have the schools and religious institutions go online,” Decker says, adding that Digital Village is only scratching the surface of its true potential.
Although this master planned community didn't launch its intranet until February 2003, Lakewood's site has come a long way in a short time. One reason Lakewood was able to get up and running so quickly is because the developer used an off-the-shelf intranet product from Resident Interactive, an Atlanta-based software company. Going with a packaged product saved at least one year in custom coding, says Decker.
E-Commerce Frontier E-commerce is the next logical step for community intranets. Pringle Development has discussed e-commerce but has yet to pursue it. And Lakewood Ranch is taking baby steps. At press time, Decker was setting up links for residents to pay for tickets to the local wine festival and jazz festival online. And some of the local restaurants were testing allowing residents to pay for food online.
One developer that has forged ahead with e-commerce over its community intranet is Carma Developers in Calgary, Canada. Carma has 10 communities in North America, two of which are in Colorado. Intranet usage at the Carma communities ranges from 35 percent to a high of 80 percent at some communities, depending on the demographics of the neighborhood.
David Harvie, the company's senior vice president of planning and marketing, says the communities with the highest use tend to have a higher proportion of midcareer professionals with families. He says the HOAs pay an outside contractor about $8,000 to $10,000 annually to maintain the company's intranet, and online membership for residents is covered in their HOA fees.
Harvie says the main e-commerce feature the company experimented with is an online concierge service. Residents at its Tuscany development in Calgary can go on the community intranet and purchase theater tickets and movie passes and make travel reservations. Tickets are delivered once a week to the community clubhouse.
“Most of the services are entertainment-based now,” says Harvie. “We will add more services as the community grows and [as] they become available,” he says, adding that Tuscany residents will soon be able to register their children for youth sports teams and pay for the teams online as well as pay HOA fees online.
Although it's still unclear whether community intranets help builders and developers sell more homes, the intranets are a great way for builders to foster a sense of community at a new development. Residents who feel good about their new homes can improve the builder's overall brand recognition through positive word of mouth, which leads to higher referrals.
“I don't think the intranet helps us sell more homes,” says Harvie. “But it does help us develop the type of relationship we want to have with our customers in terms of feedback.
“It's a great way to get information out to the residents and [get] responses back, even if it's something small like maintenance at one of the parks,” Harvie says. “One thing we do notice is that as our communities mature, more of our repeat buyers are people who use the intranet.”
Builders and developers interested in doing this properly should think in terms of at least a $50,000 to $100,000 start-up cost and hire an Internet administrator at a reasonable annual salary for the region in which they do business. The best model builds the ongoing maintenance costs and access fees into the annual HOA dues.
So many Internet projects fail or underachieve because top management doesn't believe in the Web and won't allocate the resources. If you decide to move forward, do so because it's part of your vision for the project and the lifestyle you want to offer your residents. Today's home buyers will respond if you show them you're serious about building a digital community.