Chatrooms: Marketing opportunity or business risk?

The history of chatrooms can be traced back as far as 1973, albeit for a rather select audience that was mostly seated in various university computer labs. The 1980s introduced bulletin board services (BBS) that allowed threaded discussions specific to a variety of topics. My recollection of these was that they were slow, difficult to follow, and attracted few true subject matter experts. Obviously, I was not a fan, but it was a very important time in the evolution of chatrooms. Data was gathered that would guide the requirements for the next generation of hardware development and communication protocols. The results paved the way for online communities with specialties ranging from aerodynamics to zoology.

The 1990s saw the explosion of web-based communities. Training programs, banking, and dating all brought massive numbers of participants into online communities. The latter half of the 1990s brought the adoption of social networking and 2004 launched TheFacebook and public adoption was forever carved in stone.

Chatrooms

We have been indulging in communication via chatrooms ever since. But what is the intrigue? Why does this phenomenon continue to explode as a communication medium? In many cases, it is the intrigue of chatting with new people or people from another geographical location. For some, it is the opportunity to gain knowledge by communicating with other experts in the field who were not previously available due to geographical boundaries. Many thrive on the game of creating a new persona and the ability to hide in obscurity. But as a corporate enterprise, of greatest importance is understanding if there are benefits to indulging and promoting the use of chatrooms for business purposes or if the allure of time-wasting indulgence for all the reasons noted above will have a negative impact to the bottom line.

Because we all define terms based on our own perspective, let’s quickly run through what my perspective has done to some basic terminology.

Chatrooms are defined by the following few and very general details:

  • They exist on a computer network or the Internet.
  • They are usually for members who wish to discuss a specific topic.
  • They are a place where users can communicate in real-time.

In terms of a business project, if the above three points were listed as objectives, it would probably pass through governance channels with little discussion. We live in an age of instant gratification, and our customers are growing to expect support channels via online chat. If one of our strategic objectives is to leverage technology to better engage our customers, the implementation of online chat is a great target.

Online chat can be implemented via any number of applications that offer SMS or MMS. SMS stands for short message service and means exactly that. MMS stands for multimedia messaging service and is becoming more of today’s standard. MMS is not limited as to the size of the message, although your service carrier or IT department may impose a limit. MMS also includes the ability to send pictures, or audio and video files. So, while we still seem to use the term SMS text messaging, for the most part, we are in the process of expecting MMS as a service.

Chatting and texting are basically the same thing. Texting refers to the act of sending a message while chatting refers to the entire conversation. I use the terms interchangeably.

Enough about terminology, should the enterprise bother with chatrooms?

Chatrooms
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If we take a moment to think about the number of potential customers who are chatting in an online community at any given point in time, that is the number of potential sales that could come our way. A challenge is that the potential for advertising dollars has become so lucrative that advertising has infiltrated online communities to the point where some have prohibited any kind of advertising. Fear not, as marketing geniuses have fought back and now offer subject matter experts who participate in online communities intending to not only assist other participants but to also guide them in a certain direction. Sorry folks, there is still no free lunch!

Online communities are often set up and sponsored by interested businesses. This is effective not only to market to prospective customers but also provides substantial crowd-sourcing data.

So, as a business resource, the chat that occurs in online communities can be a very effective marketing medium. The challenge lies in that the objectives for business chat and the objectives for personal chat are supposed to be quite different. Beware the large grey area between the two.

What are the risks of engaging customers via online chat?

There are terabytes of published data with the intent to raise awareness about the dangers of online chat. But as we sift through, most of the research is dedicated to personal safety concerns and is directed toward individuals who over-indulge or are under the age of the majority crowd. While the business world does need to educate itself about such matters, we also need to ensure that business risk is addressed.

The most often cited concern is the sidebar conversations that evolve during online chat sessions. Business objectives can easily be pushed aside to be replaced by the personal objectives of the parties in question. This is easily put into perspective. Think of the last in-person business meeting that you attended. Undoubtedly, there are often those whose agendas are not part of the meeting agenda, and these individuals that I like to refer to as “random variables” can greatly reduce productivity.

Like business meetings, chatrooms need to be well-facilitated by experienced resources who have an in-depth understanding of the stated objectives.

A story…

I recently made a call to Apple support regarding a charge I was disputing. First, kudos to Apple as it was a relatively painless experience! After we figured out what do to about the charge, I quickly interjected as my support person was about to end the call. I had a question about Apple TV I wanted to be answered and without any sort of background I quickly jumped in and blurted out my question. I almost LOL’ed as my support person reprimanded me for not giving her the details that she needed to give me an appropriate answer. This is training, folks! And we need to ensure that training is done thoroughly and ongoing to get the best results from the implementation of any chat room. Business chatrooms need to be facilitated and managed as a business tool. And when they are, the results will speak for themselves.

In addition, not all employees will be well-suited as an online chat resource. We want employees who have proven problem-solving and communication skills, are responsible, honest, and patient. Notice that technical knowledge is not the key skill for facilitating online chat.

Online chat is an upcoming leader for support, customer communication, and even employee communication. Risks are few, and strategically they can support marketing strategies and crowd-sourcing. What are we waiting for?

Featured image: Shutterstock

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