Build a Chat Room
Chat rooms are an ancient part of the net, a utility used
by geeks for net-decades before it was mainstreamed by the likes of
America Online and made easy to use by numerous off-the-shelf chat
Legions of net users -- 25 percent of them according to a Stanford
University study done in 2000 -- use chat, and it's not hard
to see why. It's a friendly, casual way for folks to chat with
people around the country and the world, about topics that interest
Topics cover every imaginable aspect of human existence, and a
few unimaginable (or at least biologically impossible) ones as well.
That same Stanford study found that most chat users tended to be
under age 25 and anonymous, backing up the old Internet assertion
that on the net, no one knows you're a dog (or a green-tentacled
monster from the Planet X).
One-to-one with your favorite geeks
Now back up a sec. Those of us who own small businesses --
especially small speculative fiction businesses -- pride
ourselves on being connected with our customers. We're not some big
faceless corporation looming out there in power-tie land -- we're
the little guys, and we actually like talking to our customers.
Oh, the big companies like to talk to their customers as well,
but they throw a lot of jargon like 'focus groups' and
'audience research' to junk up the process.
Not us. It doesn't matter if it's at a convention,
on the phone, or via e-mail, we want to be down there
in the trenches, hearing what people have to say about our products,
what they think about Jar Jar Binks, and whether or not Star Trek
will ever re-bound.
And that's where chat comes in.
Having a chat room on a web site is like having a booth at a
convention, only it's a booth that you can open up whenever
you want, to do whatever you want. Here are just few
- Feedback: Ok, everyone hates the word 'feedback'
-- it makes you think of smarmy business-types with perfect teeth
and weird cologne, but hearing from customers is generally a good
thing. Chat provides a freeform way for customers to tell you
what's on their mind.
- Research: Online surveys and print response cards are
great for picking your customers brains, but they're pretty much
one way. Chats give you the ability to ask a question... and then
immediately ask a follow up question.
- Promote new releases: Got a new product coming out?
Tell people about it with a chat. But don't just tell them about
it, give 'em the chance to meet the folks behind the curtain --
the designers, the writers, the editors, the programmers -- if
people are into what you sell, then they'll want to meet the
people that make it possible.
- Meet new people: Go to the same conventions long
enough, and eventually everyone's face starts to look familiar.
Because anyone in the world can use a chat program (assuming they
can get to the Net), it can introduce you to customers you've
never met, or even known of, before.
- Keep 'em coming back: Regularly scheduled chats give
people a reason to stop by your site -- and to do so on a regular
basis. It doesn't take many chats to develop a small cadre of
- Create content: Everyone says content is king on the
web, but creating it is always such a pain. Chats create two kinds
of content though: the first is the live, free-flowing chat
itself. But if you log the chat, archiving every word that's said,
you'll instantly create more content that you can toss up on your
site for the world to see.
And that's just on your side of the screen. There's plenty you
can do for customers as well -- here are just a few ideas:
- Open forums: Let folks pick your brains about your
products -- how many times have you wished that you could ask
designers a question about the rules of a game? Or why that book
you love was never released in paperback?
- Interviews: People love meeting the faces behind their
favorite games -- chat let's them do that.
- Flipside: Promoting releases, letting people talk with
your designers -- in short, all the items listed above -- are just
as good for the people visiting your site as it is for you.
Chat is a great tool, but as Yoda said, one must beware the
The Downside to Chat
Most of the problems with chat aren't really problems in a
'gee, I hope that nuclear bomb doesn't blow us up' sort of
way. Instead, they're challenges that folks using chat --
especially as a business tool -- need to be aware of...
- Chat is flaky: I've used a lot of chat programs over
the last few years, and all of them suffer from the same problem:
they're unstable. It's not uncommon for people to be kicked off
line, either by the chat program itself, a technical glitch on
their end, or their pet cat walking across their power strip.
Accept that it's going to happen, and don't stress too much when
it does. Most chat users are proficient enough to find their way
back to your chat room. If your chat program consistently kicks
people off of course, you'll need to fix it or ditch it.
- Chat is linear: This really screws with the heads of
people who aren't used to chat. Chat takes normally non-linear
conversation, and 'stacks it' so that each line appears one after
another. This is confusing for newbies -- especially for older
users -- but it's normal. Attend enough chats, and you'll get used
- Chat promotes unreal expectations: Twenty-five percent
of the net may use chat rooms, but that doesn't mean that they are
going to use your chat room. Many folks host their first few
chats, and are crushed when only two people show up. They begin to
wonder if its worth it, but consider this -- those two people are
probably two customers you've never talked too before. And if they
come back for the next chat, they are two loyal customers who want
to talk to you.
- Chats must be scheduled regularly: In order to build up
traffic to your chats, they must be scheduled at regular times --
such as 9 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the month. This means that
you must have someone available to attend that chat at the same
time every month. Scheduling chats in addition to your regular
chats is a good thing, but you've got to have those regular chats
as a foundation.
- Chat must be promoted: Chat isn't something that people
will use just because you stuck it on your site. In addition to
your regularly scheduled chats, you need to promote it heavily,
preferably through your e-mail newsletter, print newsletter and
- Chats are international: It's great that anyone in the
world can talk with you via chat... but it also means that if you
have a significant audience in a given country, you need to
schedule your chats to accommodate the time difference between you
and them. It's also absolutely crucial that you put time zone
information in your chat announcements -- what good does it do to
tell someone that your chat is at 9 p.m., if they're in Australia
and you're in New Jersey?
- Chats are a time sink: Yes, chatting with customers is
great, but it takes time, and done right, it takes the same amount
of time every month. It seems obvious, but it's easy to forget...
until you get home, sit down in front of the TV, and suddenly
realize that you've got a chat in 20 minutes.
A tool, not a 'killer app'
The Internet advice-mongers like to scream about the next
'killer app' that all sites must have or risk
self-destructing. At one point, they claimed that chat was one of
those, and that companies without chat on their web sites were on
the fast road destruction. Chat is not that important, but it is
a good tool. You just have to know how and when to use it.