Unmanaged online chat rooms and message boards are about as useful to a marketer as a focus group without a moderator. They're a party without a host.
That's how Alan Warms, founder and CEO of Participate.com, sees the need for the services his company provides for clients that include consumer health site Accenthealth.com, Arthur Andersen, Quote.com, Wrenchead.com and home-repair site OurHouse.-com, which has a partnership with Ace Hardware Corp.
In addition, NBC Internet today hands over management of its chat rooms for its Snap portal and Xoom.com home-page-creation site to Participate, which charges between $500,000 to $1 million annually for its services.
The 2-year-old Participate promotes its services through print ads created by Sparkplug, Portland, Ore., which also created its Web site. Participate's employees glean customer feedback by representing a client in chat rooms, message boards and through e-mails. They also integrate community aspects throughout a site's content, trying to spur more user involvement.
DRIVING VALUE TO CONSUMERS
"You're getting insight into what's important to these people," Mr. Warms said. "We're making recommendations [based on consumer feedback] . . . of what you can do to drive value to the consumer."
In the past two years, most portals have added community services to their sites along with other "sticky" applications to retain customers. Many sites go unmanaged or rely on volunteers to keep interest going. But many sites outsource chats to be managed by a third party, such as Participate or rivals such as TalkCity and Prospero Technologies.
Prospero was formed in January when Delphi Forums, Cambridge Mass., merged with Well Engaged, Sausalito, Calif. Prospero plans to spin off Delphi Forums' community site and focus on selling audience management and other site services.
MORE THAN IDLE CHAT
Dan O'Brien, an analyst at Forrester Research, said it's important to manage communities so they deliver more than idle chat.
"Just sticking communities on a site without a specific goal in mind doesn't add to traffic or usefulness," Mr. O'Brien said. However, "when it's integrated into the business purpose, it has a lot of value."
Mr. O'Brien cited Marthastewart.com, which has regular chats and then publishes the transcripts.
"This is real-time marketing research" that the site can apply to editorial content, advertising, catalogs and TV programming, Mr. O'Brien said. "The consumers help create the content."
Using Participate frees editors of health site Accenthealth.com to focus on writing and health issues, said Karen-Lee Ryan, editor in chief of Accenthealth.com.
"I feel that community is a whole different entity on the Web," Ms. Ryan said. "We thought [outsourcing it] was a better approach than trying to manage it ourselves."
For instance, Ms. Ryan said Participate last month helped launch Virtual Fitness, a motivational program in which a person can match up with a work-out partner with shared interests.
LOOKING FOR 'HUMAN CONTACT'
Participate also has helped Accenthealth publish a biweekly e-mail newsletter that mixes editorial content with community happenings on the site.
"People are trying to find the human contact on the Web," Ms. Ryan said.
Copyright February 2000, Crain Communications Inc.