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(February 09, 1997): This article is by Richard Selzer, publisher of "Internet-On-A-Disk" and author of "The Alta-Vista Search Revolution" (the definitive book for Alta-Vista users).
How to Make Business Chat Work
by Richard Seltzer, email@example.com
"Business chat" sounds like an oxymoron. But when done
right, it can draw active and involved users repeatedly to your
Web site and help you build an archive of high-quality, low-cost
content that will attract more users.
Actually, there are two related classes of software, both of which
can be used for holding online discussions involving multiple
people: chat and forum.
Web-based chat software allows numerous people to exchange text
messages simultaneously in the same "session." It is
often used for quick, casual, anonymous one-liner conversation.
As soon as you type your message, it's available for others in
the same session to read. When a dozen or people actively participate
at the same time, it gets very difficult to read what is said
and even more difficult to follow the multiple threads of conversation.
You need to read fast and type fast, but if you do, and if the
topic is up your alley, the experience can be exhilarating and
stimulating -- whether you are flirting or flaming or brainstorming.
Web-based forum software, like notes and bulletin board, allows
people to leave messages which will be read later. In this case,
writers have the time to reflect -- there is no time limit. They
also can give their messages titles and indicate if these are
answers to previous messages or new threads of thought. Typically,
readers can view the list of messages available, with their threaded
relationships shown. Often they can also have highlighted the
titles of those messages that they haven't read before. And the
messages can be saved indefinitely and can be searched. Here it
is possible to carry on an extended, thoughtful, multi-person
The only problem with forums is a matter of human nature -- we
tend to procrastinate. We know that we can post and read there
anytime that we want, so there is no urgency. If a conversation
really gets going, then the momentum can carry it along. But it
is often difficult to get that kind of interactivity going. The
discussion needs to reach some critical mass before it becomes
compelling. Yes, we intend to participate, just like we intend
to follow through on New Year's resolutions; but more often than
not, it just doesn't happen.
Chat on the other hand has immediacy. And when a chat topic is
scheduled for a particular time, you either connect or you miss
it. Chat also can generate energy and enthusiasm and stimulate
useful ideas because of the element of live interaction.
The ideal would be to combine the immediacy/urgency of chat with
the ability to save the discussions in threaded form, so those
who participated can catch up on what they missed and what they
need to reflect on further, and others who weren't able to connect
at that time can see what was said; and so all can add their followup
thoughts and continue the discussion in a more leisurely and reasoned
That ideal does not yet exist as a single push-button piece of
software. But you can produce results like that if you are willing
to invest the time and effort to do by hand what can't yet be
done automatically. And from this one class of "collaboration"
software you can fashion numerous modes of communication and numerous
For example, you can set up:
- open chat rooms -- live unscheduled chat sessions with random
or self-selected sets of participants
- matchmaker chat rooms -- live unscheduled chat sessions where
the participants are automatically matched/grouped according to
their tastes and interests (e.g., http://www.firefly.com)
- celebrity events -- where a public audience gets an opportunity
to interact with a celebrity at a scheduled time. (e.g., http://www.talk.com)
This could be open to all and moderated, with selected questions
going to the celebrity; or it could be partitioned with a manageably
small number of people paying to actively participate and a larger
audience in read-only mode.
- team meetings -- where the participants in a chat sessions
and/or forums are invited/selected by the leader, and only those
on the member list or those with passwords can participate and
the objective is to arrive at decisions and move ahead with work
on common projects. The chat sessions are scheduled for particular
times, and followup discussion takes place in related forums.
- distance education/training sessions -- where there are content
experts and students; once again the membership is limited, but
the objective is learning. The chat sessions are scheduled for
particular times, and followup discussion takes place in related
- product support and help desks -- unscheduled chat, with related
forum, where people with problems and questions connect to get
immediate answers, either from an archive of previous questions
and answers or from a live expert.
"Business chat" -- the way I use the term -- is a scheduled
public discussion where business people will share their experience
and knowledge with peers. There is a host who sets the agenda
and tries to move the discussion forward in fruitful directions.
People with special knowledge about the subject are invited to
connect and participate, but all are welcome in join in and all
have equal status. All can post at any time; all can ask; and
all can answer.
I started doing "business chat" last summer, when the
Boston Computer Society asked me to host a regular session at
the Boston Globe's Web site (http://www.boston.com).
The Boston Computer Society has since dissolved, but my weekly
chat sessions about "Business on the World Wide Web"
continue. For a volunteer activity, it's been a lot of work, but
I've learned a lot in the process. The following suggestions are
based on that experience:
- Schedule a regular time, so people will remember and return.
When picking the time, remember time zones and work habits. Try
to make it possible for much of the world to connect. I do it
from noon to 1 PM US Eastern time. That works for the West Coast
and is feasible from Europe, but it's midnight for folks in Malaysia
(one person from there has tuned in despite the inconvenience).
- Pick a general subject area, and then schedule particular
topics for each week. These topics will probably be broad as you
start, and become more closely focused based on your experience
and audience interaction. Keep the schedule "tentative"
-- be prepared to extend a topic for an additional week and move
the rest of the schedule up, based on how lively the discussion
becomes. (I've found that it's often in the second or third week
on the same topic that the discussion really takes off.)
- Let people know about your program. An initial note should
explain the rationale, the audience, the format, the purpose.
Then each week follow up with reminder notes. Make such messages
as brief as possible. Distribute them to appropriate newsgroups
and over appropriate email distribution lists. And begin to build
your own chat-reminder email distribution list. Be creative and
persistent -- you need an active audience to make this effort
- Get listed at all sites that list live events of your kind.
For instance, connect to Yahoo! Net Events, http://events.yahoo.com,
click on "add event" and fill out their form. (While
there, you should check out some of the events that they list
to see what else is happening and get a feel for how they are
run.) It can take weeks before your listing is accepted at Yahoo!,
so this only makes sense for regularly scheduled events, not for
one-of-a-kind special occasions. (Have the hyperlink from Yahoo!
connect to a page that lists your upcoming topics and transcripts
of previous sessions, not to the chat room itself, if that room
is only available to you for a fixed time each week.)
- If you have the opportunity, build an "anteroom"
Web page. Here you would post all the information that you would
like people to read before entering your live scheduled chat --
introducing the purpose of the session, yourself and other scheduled
participants, and providing some brief words about today's focus,
with hyperlinks to background reading.
- If you can, establish a way for you to enter the chat room
about 15 minutes before the general public is admitted. That way
you have a chance to identify and take care of any technical glitches
(this is not yet a perfect world) and also to enter a few introductory
messages. You can then calmly await your audience (instead of
fighting to dial in and get connected to the site in time).
- Plan to spend about 5-10 minutes for introductions and 5-10
minutes for wrapup. So for an hour's chat session, you may have
only 40 minutes of solid chat. But that front and back housekeeping
is essential. Remember you are trying to give order to a medium
that is essentially chaotic.
- When people are coming on line, acknowledge their presence
and try to draw them into the conversation, finding out their
strengths and interests.
- Encourage everyone to identify themselves with their real
name and affiliation. (Remember, this is business chat, not a
flirting session. These people may want to contact one another
later). The software often allows you to enter several words as
your continuing identifier. By example, encourage people to use
their full name and email address or URL as their identifier,
rather than a clever nickname.
- At the end, solicit suggestions for future topics, solicit
followup messages to be added to the transcript, ask everyone
to provide email adresses and URLs. Then get them all primed to
return next week.
- Save the complete raw transcript of the session and edit it
to show threads of discussion, and to add HTML coding, including
hyperlinks to other sites mentioned and hyperlinks to the email
addresses of participants. (I find that for a lively one-hour
session with about a dozen active participants, it takes me anywhere
from two to four hours to do the editing, depending on how continuous
or fragmented the discussion was. And the result is sometimes
as long as 20 single-spaced typed pages. To see what I mean, check
- Post the transcript -- well labelled and organized -- at your
Web site, and submit the URL to AltaVista (http://altavista.digital.com)
and other search engines, so people looking for information of
that kind will be able to find you.
- Add new participants to your chat reminder list.
- Send a brief email message over your chat reminder list, letting
people know that the transcript is up, soliciting followup messages,
and mentioning next week's topic.
- As followup messages come in by email, post them with the
Keep in mind that in newsgroups the ratio of lurkers (those who
just read) to those who actively participate is about nine or
ten to one. Statistics are hard to come by for Web-based chat,
but, given human nature, the ratio is probably similar. The transcript
and the inclusion of followup messages in transcripts helps to
draw some of these people out into the open and make them contributors.
By the way, if you run a business chat session at your site, you
might want to set it up so participants, when joining, acknowledge
that they are granting you the non-exclusive right to republish
material from that session in other media, without having to get
further approval from the participants. (Check with a lawyer,
but avoid using legal jargon -- you don't want to scare people
away or confuse them.) That blanket permission would allow you
to include excerpts in CDROMs or printed books, or in other media,
etc. Remember, the future of the Internet is "content".
Wish list for software developers:
- Make it possible to add threads to live chat -- so participants
can label their messages and indicate when they relate to other
messages that have already appeared.
- Provide both chat and forum capabilities in the same environment,
and make it easy to build threaded transcripts from chat and post
them into forum.
- Make it easy to manage large numbers of participants. (America
Online has a setup in their larger chat rooms that allows a moderator
to filter questions from the whole group, passing them on to the
scheduled speaker, and allows discussion among pariticpants in
a single "row", but only the "speaker" can
speak to everyone at once. America Online is great at managing
chat areas -- that's probably their number one asset.)
- Keep text as an option. Graphics, voice, and video will all,
inevitably, be available as part of Web-based chat. I hope that
all modes of communication -- including text -- will be able to
coexist in this space. Different individuals express themselves
better in different modes; give them a choice
- Make it easy for an Internet Service Provider to buy one copy
of the server software and then partition that capability into
meeting rooms that they can rent. And make it easy for them to
charge/bill for that service. Many business people will only need
this capability for a few hours a month -- it's a natural for
rental -- with "rooms" in a variety of sizes, perhaps
up to the online equivalent of a convention center.
- Make it easy for users of such a "rental" chat/forum
facility to see what rooms are booked when and to reserve a room.
- Make it easy to read all the input. Today, there are two basic
modes of operation for Web-based chat. Some software, like that
used by boston.com, requires you to keep clicking on an icon to
refresh your screen and see the latest input. If you don't click
you don't see anything new. Other software, typically using Java,
displays each messages as it is entered; but in an active session
the messages can fly by faster than you can read them. I'd like
to be able to control the pace at which messages appear.
- Allow users to display earlier messages, not just the current
ones. The software boston.com lets me look back 30 messages. But
I'd like to have the ability to scroll back through everything
that has been said in a given session and hence have the ability
to save the whole thing on my hard drive. (As it is now, I'm dependent
on the technical folks emailing me the raw transcript a day or
The message for business people who are interested in using this
capability is: Don't limit what you do to what today's software
makes easy. Do what makes sense. If it takes time and energy to
do housekeeping chores that you wish were automatic, still don't
hesitate to dive in and gain the experience necessary to make
this new medium work for you. Your business needs should drive
the technology, not vice versa. The more you know first-hand about
the headaches and the benefits of business chat, the better you'll
be able to pick what's right for you as more powerful, easier-to-use
software becomes available.
PS -- If you hear about a particular chat session and want to
participate, connect to the Web site with your browser and see
what's required. In many cases (like at boston.com), you don't
need anything more than an ordinary browser. In other cases, you
need a recent browser that understands Java. And sometimes you
may need to download a extra piece of software (usually a "plug-in"
for your browser, and usually free).
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