Cheap talk: attract repeat visitors with free message boards and dirt-cheap chat rooms – Your Web Site – Internet/Web/Online Service Information – Column

Risa Cohen

WANT TO BUILD A BUZZ ABOUT YOUR WEB SITE, but don’t have a billion-dollar budget? Take a tip from home-based entrepreneur Vicki Andrews and create a cyber-community using free message boards. As founder of A Few Good Women, a consulting company in Los Angeles, Andrews has formed an online environment where self-employed single parents can mingle, trade job leads, and ferret out opportunities. What’s best, she hasn’t spent a dime to create her message board or a day learning programming code. Using a free service from, Andrews set up her board in no time. Today, she draws roughly 10 visitors each week to

If instant messaging is what you crave, check out chat rooms, which are real-time conversations between groups of visitors logged on simultaneously. Can’t afford the hefty server fees? No problem. Today, there are a host of free and low-cost services available on manufacturer servers (see below). But whether you choose to post a message board or host a chat room on your site, the benefits are the same: increased traffic, streamlined customer service, and a head start on possible alliances. To help you chitchat on the cheap, we’ve collected the following Web communication tools and techniques.

Message on a Web Site If immediate interchange is not essential to your business, it’s best to set up a threaded message board on your site. Here’s how it works: Visitors post messages visible to all who drop by your board. When someone wants to respond, he or she simply hits Reply and types a message.

Scouting for a freebie message board and don’t want to deal with programming code? Consider one on another server that you can link to from your site, such as BoardRoom ( If you charge for advertising on your site–and therefore need a board that resides on your server so you can track traffic–another no-cost option is to install WWWboard. This is a free Perl CGI script available at But be forewarned: The setup will require a few hours of programming.

Once you’ve established your message board, your work has just begun. You’ll want to stimulate conversation. Begin by creating several “threads,” or topic areas, then plant provocative questions about topics related to your business. And after you develop a group of regular visitors, pop into your board at least weekly. If you see conversation dwindling, throw in your opinion to keep the talk flowing. Should you spot unwanted messages, delete them while you’re there.

Once your message board catches on, you’ll need to prevent it from becoming a free-for-all. That’s why it’s best to publish clear guidelines describing what you accept and what you remove from your board. For instance, you might state that you discourage advertisements and postings that include foul language. And to save yourself the grief of potential legal hassles, post a disclaimer dissociating yourself from the opinions and statements made on the board. Keep in mind, however, that it’s proper online etiquette to send an e-mail message to the poster, notifying him or her that you’ve removed a message.

For Gil Levin–editor and publisher of Behavior Online, a continuing educational site for psychologists at with visitors who seek mental health advice is an ongoing problem. “Because we’re not equipped to help these people, we e-mail them when we delete their messages. If there’s no way to contact [a visitor who posts to his board], we leave behind a message stating why it was deleted,” says Levin, who receives a half dozen postings a day.

As your board grows in popularity, think about offering the most vocal attendee the job of administrator–it’ll save you hours of online time. Chances are, an active site participant will relish the opportunity to do the job for free. (For more ways to network online, see this month’s Sales & Marketing column.) According to Levin, “The people who maintain our boards are colleagues and leaders in the mental health field. They do it for a reason besides payment: They consider it a way to get their work out to the worldwide community.”

Talk, Talk, Talk Another way to stimulate site activity is to hold chats, or real-time online conversations. Chat rooms are especially useful if you want to offer cyber-seminars, provide online training, or service customers electronically. That’s because you can open the floor to questions and pick specific people to interact in your room.

For educational sites such as Behavior OnLine, chats are ideal. In fact, Levin hopes to add a chat feature this summer. But even if you’re not in the educational market, chats help promote your site–by introducing regularly scheduled guest speakers who appeal to your target audience.

For example, if you’re a florist, you can book horticulturists to talk about the art of floral arrangement. If you own a writing business, line up presentations by famous authors. The trick to drawing a crowd to your guest speaker chats, however, is to promote them beforehand so visitors remember to drop by.

Another essential for conducting real-time chats is the presence of a monitor or forum leader. He or she should be able to manage the flow of conversations so that you don’t have several visitors speaking (or typing) at the same time.

What tools help you hold chats? One option is to point visitors to PoWow ( For $99, you can hold chats of up to 25 attendees simultaneously. To do so, participants download software (which you link to from your home page, but it resides on the manufacturer’s server) to their hard drives. Then you select a time for all to log on. For a free chat room, point your browser to for WWW-Chat. Like PoWow, it lets you send visitors to your home page, thus building traffic to your site. Unlike PoWow, however, attendees will link to a room on another home page. As a result, WWW-Chat visitors are inundated with ads. If solicitations are a turnoff, check out Hot Office’s (; $199 per month for $25 users) chat room/intranet service. And if you have a bigger budget and want to install a chat room directly on your server, consider a full hosting solution such as Ichat (888-242-8669; $595 for 25 users).

Although the rates and features of Web communications tools vary, they’re a great way to get clients chatting with one another. More importantly, they’re an ideal venue to build word-of-mouth marketing for your business.


Each month, we highlight a reader’s Web site that impresses us. This month:

For less than $400 and a few hours of time, Carroll Olson dished up an information-rich site for locals seeking personal chef services in Omaha. Neb. Thanks in part to her brother Joe Rueter (a database manager by day), husband Tim, and Microsoft FrontPage, Olson launched her site 10 months ago without a hitch. How have customers digested her dinner plans? “They love the meal order form,” she says. By linking with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce and home-based business sites. Olson receives roughly 80 hits a day. Her ongoing overhead: $25.95 a month for an ISP.


When WebMaster Risa Cohen isn’t maintaining HOME OFFICE COMPUTING’S site at, she’s busy lining up chats with authors and experts on our AOL site (keyword HOC).

COPYRIGHT 1998 CURTCO Freedom Communications

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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