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Adding customer chat can be inexpensive

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For many marketers, making a Web site more interactive is as easy as adding a little conversation.

Already, a variety of tools exist to create formated discussion boards. And real-time chat, a hallmark of the commercial online services, is about to explode on the Web as new software becomes more widely available.

NetMarketing asked developers and ad agencies what they would charge to add chat and discussion features to a site. Each developer received the same marketing scenario.

Median prices range from $2,150 to install shareware software n a small site to $5,000 for a password-protected board on a midsize site to $38,750 for a Java-based real-time chat.

NOT FOR EVERYONE

But chat and discussion boards aren't a good fit for everyone. Marketers must devote staff to monitor discussions, and must be prepared to respond if users are saying negative things about the company. "That's definitely a two-edged sword and a danger," said Brock Stanton, interactive marketing executive with WestWayne, Atlanta.

What can a marketer accomplish by adding discussion boards or chat? Developers say communications can extend the product message. But they caution against making the brand the sole reason for the discussion.

DEBATING PLASTIC WRAP

Few Web users would be interested in debating the strengths of plastic wrap, for example, but they might be interested in chatting with a chef. As with last month's Web Price Index, this survey showed wide variation in pricing. Developers bid anywhere form $8,000 to $500,000 to construct the Java chat.

"We are still on a quest to define the value equation for new media," Mr. Stanton said.

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