Mike Hennessy was looking for practical advice about running his growing business, so the owner of Eryn Computer, a four-employee technology consulting firm in Vineland, N.J., signed on to several online message boards and waited for the chance to interact with other entrepreneurs.
Instead of receiving the advice he wanted, however, Hennessy saw the boards fill up with multi-level marketing schemes. 'I was on three small-business boards, and for the most part it was a big waste of time,' says Hennessy, who estimates that 95 percent of the postings in the boards were full of pyramid schemes and get rich quick scams. 'They use terms like matrix' and how quick you can get to the top',' he says, explaining why he left.
Not all boards (also known as forums) are clogged with peddlers and scam artists. Thanks to free forums provided by Delphi.com, Yahoo! Groups, and even vendor Web sites, there's a wealth of places where business owners can go to share ideas, seek advice, and network with potential clients and partners.
Phyllis Panzeter, CEO of Reality Check, a 13-person QuickBooks training company based in Santa Fe, N.M., belongs to, and actively participates in, six boards on a weekly basis. '[They're] all business software related,' she says. 'Networking and drumming up business is a pleasant by-product.
I usually help people who have questions about QuickBooks before they call Intuit's technical support, and it's a great educational resource for me. I'm learning and helping others at the same time.'
Message boards aren't new; they're the latest incarnation of the electronic bulletin boards that became popular back when DOS was a cutting edge operating system and the Pentium was a gleam in Intel's eye. Now there are hundreds of online communities where you can find information on growing your business, finding new talent, accounting and taxes, and more. Today's message boards are loaded with more features. Most have scheduled chats with business experts, free newsletters, free e-mail, and even password-protected private forums to keep things hush-hush.
'[It's a chance for a business to connect] with customers and prospects, enhance service, and let customers help each other out,' says Dan O'Brien, a media research analyst for Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass. 'Companies will assign a senior engineer to contribute to a forum and that seems to work for them,' he explains. 'They measure costs by counting the number of phone calls they get to sales and the calls they don't get to technical support. If this cuts down on the number of service calls, this makes them happy.'
From Visitor to Moderator
Setting up your own board can be quick and often free. It takes no more than five minutes to register and create a public or private board, says Rusty Williams, vice president of strategic partnerships for Delphi.com, a Cambridge, Mass.-based forum service provider.
Delphi.com offers two free services: Public boards that are open to anyone and password-protected private boards designed to keep the riff-raff out. As the moderator of your own board, you have the ability to delete unwanted messages from scam artists or rude posters, and you can also receive an e-mail notification when a new post has gone up, Williams explains.
If you're looking to hire a company to set up your online community and help manage the flow of posts for you, Web Crossing (www.webcrossing.com) offers pricing packages from $100 a month on up. According to Heather Duggin, a community management team leader, most businesses opt to have Web Crossing - or its free counterpart, World Crossing (www.worldcrossing.com) - host the forum. 'Most small businesses don't want to host a forum on their own [Web] server, simply because they don't have one,' said Duggin.
For a company looking to host a board on its own, Prospero Technologies (www.prospero.com) offers an array of message hosting and management services. Their clients include AARP, Amazon.com, and the Golf Channel.
A Sense of Community
One of the strengths of message boards is the benefit of building a community with your customers. Although it's easy to believe that the entire world is the competition, many participants who patrol business boards are actually offering free business advice.
When Doug Thomas isn't working as a contracts and quality specialist for General Technology Corporation, an electronics manufacturer in Albuquerque, N.M., he's an avid participant on a small business message board where he dispenses advice freely. 'My interest is seeing other people's problems and offering assistance,' he says. 'Besides, I'm an equipment nut, and I'm a nut for marketing and sales effectiveness.'
For a board to be successful, you need to attract as many Doug Thomases as possible. One way to do this is to move important (not private) offline conversations to the boards, suggests Delphi.com's Williams.
'You can take that e-mail conversation and have it online,' he said. 'Make a concerted effort to create an e-mail distribution list of your forum participants, and let people know that the discussion is taking place.'
And don't forget to take a broom to your message boards once in a while. Web Crossing's Duggin says her company offers a sweeping service' to clean up any problem discussions, spam, or irrelevant posts. 'We monitor for quality posts, and we'll remove any that don't fit the client's needs,' she said. 'If they don't go in every weekend, we'll do that for them.'
So if you think that just because you have an e-mail address, Web site, cell phone, and pager, you have all of your lines of communication covered, think again. There are plenty of clients out there who not only want customer satisfaction; they also want customer interaction. That's where message boards come in, offering the chance to interact with others. 'Small businesses have to [keep the lines of communication open], and online forums are a much cheaper and more effective way to share these discussions,' Williams concludes. Phil Albinus covers technology from his home office in Westchester County, N.Y.
Free Online ForumsYahoo! Groups
Custom-built Online CommunitiesProspero Technologies
Building a Successful ForumWhether you participate in message boards or run them, there are a few practical steps to make your favorite board a success.
1. Avoid the scams. If the posts read like they're from sales zombies, bail out now. Before you know it, your e-mail in-box will be loaded with get-rich-quick schemes.
2. Use an alternate e-mail address. Set up a unique e-mail account for use on the board to avoid receiving spam. That way, if you stumble into a spam-filled zone, you won't clog up your regular e-mail account or server.
3. Share advice. Many participants offer free counsel with the karmic belief that they'll be helped down the road. Even hard-as-nails consultants with a killer hourly fee will gain something in return.
4. Don't spill the company beans. Loose lips sink ships and drown profit margins. Keep that merger or new idea quiet until it's official. Not only could your competition read your public board postings, they could also pretend to be a harmlessly curious friend.