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The Great Outdoors

Chatterboxes

By Gwen Moran

Looking for a way to learn more about your customers without the expense of traditional focus groups? Try a chat room. With more people chatting online than ever before, chat is becoming an important new marketing tool for businesses.

Dennis Chominsky, 27, co-owner of PFS New Media, a new media and marketing company in Wayne, New Jersey, helps companies incorporate feedback tools into their Web sites. Chominsky says chat adds a human element to a site, allowing businesses to develop better relationships with their customers. To make the most of chat's potential, follow a few simple steps:

  • Try multichatting. In addition to holding chat-based focus groups, try using chat for customer service support or for online events, such as seminars led by a special guest "chatter."
  • Do-it-yourself or go pro? Once you decide how extensive your chat usage will be, you can decide whether to install chat software yourself or seek some professional guidance. Ichat (http://www.ichat.com) is a popular prepackaged chat software; mega-developers Oracle and Lotus are beginning to bundle chat software into some of their business applications. The more complex your usage, however, the more likely it is you should consult a professional Web site design company to help.
  • Location, location, location. For high-volume chats, you may want to have a chat-based site host your chat. Sites such as Talk City (http://www.talkcity.com) charge from $1,000 to several thousand dollars to host a chat, but their traffic is an impressive 2.6 million hits per month. In most cases, though, Chominsky suggests keeping chat on your site to build traffic there.
  • Moderator assistance? Whether or not to hire a moderator depends on the scope and content of your chat usage. Chominsky routinely trains his clients' employees to monitor chat sessions periodically during normal business hours. "It's unlikely there would be a problem on a business-specific site," he says. However, more controversial or high-traffic sites should consider monitoring their chat sessions at all times.
  • Promote your chats. As with any other marketing activity, promotion is the key to building awareness. Many search engines have listings of chat events you can use to spread the word. And don't forget traditional public relations, advertising, direct mail and/or cross-promotion--all excellent strategies to get people to your chat.
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Kim Gordon is the owner of National Marketing Federation and is a multifaceted marketing expert, speaker, author and media spokesperson. Her latest book is Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars.
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