Use Moderated Discussion Groups to Kill Two Birds with One Stone.

by Tom Snyder on Aug 17, 2000

A major goal of your Web strategy is to begin, develop and nurture a relationship with your site visitors. The goal is to take first time visitors, turn them into repeat visitors, develop them into loyal partisans, and ultimately make them customers, members or people who will actively refer new business to you.

One such way of accomplishing that is to update your site on a regular basis. Upon return visits to your Web site, people want to see fresh new information each time they come back. In these days of customer service being the exception rather than the rule, people will appreciate the fact that you’ve made a commitment to them that manifests itself in timely, accurate, helpful and relevant content. As we discuss in our sidebar article this month, finding out what to update and how often to update it is not complicated. Committing the resources to do those updates, however, is another matter. But no one ever said that “knock-your-socks-off” service was easy. If it were, everyone would do it. As you undoubtedly know by personal experience these days, that is not the case.

The other way of developing a relationship with your site visitors is to build a sense of “community.” While some may dismiss the concept as psycho-babble, it is common sense that people will feel comfortable in an environment where they feel they belong. That comfort comes with communicating with other people with similar interests, opinions and values. If you can provide that kind of comfort level to your site visitors, they’ll then also be comfortable be with the prospect of making a buying or membership decision.

A tremendously effective way to have your site update itself, and provide the feeling of community is to provide your visitors with a moderated discussion group.

Moderated discussion groups are an offshoot of the old, mostly extinct Bulletin Board systems of the pre-internet days, and the Usenet newsgroups that still remain extremely popular today. The concept is to have a “place” to go where people with common interests can leave messages that proffer opinions, ask and answer questions and discuss disagreements about a particular subject. There are over 27,000 newsgroups, with topics ranging from antiques to zen. Access is provided by newsgroup reader software (Outlook and Netscape’s mail reader have it built-in) or by going to Messages are displayed in a hierarchical format so that you can browse the individual message subjects chronologically, or you can display them by “threads,” thus seeing the original post, and all the subsequent replies, as well as replies to those replies.

Newsgroups have an advantage over live chats because visitors don’t all have to be online at the same time for a lively round of discussion to develop. People can come and go, post new subjects and answer a few older ones. Threads develop over days and weeks. Old messages don’t just scroll of the top of a chat window, they remain posted for people to look at months, and years after the they were first posted.

Over time, each develops its groups of partisans (some casual, and some hard-core), personality, cliques and rules. Many of them have moderators who attempt to maintain order and enforce rules. Even though people sometimes break those rules, and spammers both flood the groups with unwanted messages (and even use these groups to mine email addresses for subsequent unsolicited bulk emails), these groups remain popular. I use them, among other things, to post our company’s job openings, solve programming and system problems, get advice when working in Photoshop and Flash, find MP3’s of old, out of print recordings and discuss theology. As a part of the Internet, though, the newsgroups are an entity of their own, and defy control.

A moderated discussion group is something that you can put in your Web site to build your own virtual “Usenet newsgroup.” But with a discussion group, you get to pick the topic as well as control everything that gets posted. Instead of opening up a news group reader to go there, people go to your Web site with nothing more than their browser and click on a link to go there. A topic pertinent to your business, organization or area of expertise will provide a logical fit.

Things will start slowly, but if you promote the group, post some messages yourself designed to evoke response, and get some of your staff members, and friends to do the same, traffic will begin to pick up. It will take some time for the group to achieve its own critical mass, but once it does, you’ll be amazed at how quickly it will become a daily stopping place for dozens, if not hundreds of people. If you frequent the area yourself (which you should as part of your administrative duties), you’ll be able to answer questions, thus positioning yourself as the expert. You’ll also have help from a lot of other self-appointed experts. But, if it works as planned, in the midst of the posts, you’ll begin to find people recommending your products or services to others.

While trying to decide between cable TV and a satellite dish, I spent lots of time in two moderated discussion groups. I got lots of advice on all the services and systems available, and even had one guy volunteer to come up from Chicago to help me install my dish! I learned a lot, got the correct solution and had fun in the process. Because the board was not a part of electronics company’s Web site, there were several recommendations made about where I could get my equipment. Had that board been a part of, or, they would have had a better chance of getting my business, and if they had actually had their own people moderating the group, they could have offered me a price and closed a sale right on the spot.

While over a dozen of our clients have used moderated discussion groups in their sites, Milwaukee Harley-Davidson has achieved the greatest level of success. The moderated discussion group on their site has had a response that has been overwhelming. The group is broken into several major topic groups. “Mechanics Corner” is for people who do their own motorcycle maintenance. “The Open Road” is a forum for exchanging trip reports, route, lodging and restaurant information. “Special Events” highlights reunions, bikefests and promotions at the dealership itself. “Discussion Board Comments” gives people the opportunity to offer feedback about the board itself.

The board began in 1996 in the original site we designed for them. By mid 1998, the board had already become so popular that it became difficult to administer. By the end of 1999, there were so many archived posts, the administration became impossible, and we had to build a new improved discussion group that could handle the traffic. The discussion groups receive a combined total of 75 to 100 new posts every day.

The area is administered by staff members at Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, who make sure that competitors don’t post messages in their group, although one day someone posted message trying to encourage people to try out the discussion group on a local competitor’s Web site. That post was met with a good-natured, but decisive verbal trouncing from fans of the Milwaukee Harley discussion group. Staffers from Milwaukee Harley-Davidson answer questions, make suggestions and by just being in the discussions position themselves as the experts. Occasionally an inappropriate post has to be deleted, but participants are given a lot of latitude. A “swear-filter” automatically replaces profanities and vulgarities with ****’s.

Earlier this summer, when thousands of Harley-Davidson riders converged on Milwaukee for a “reunion,” a local TV station was looking for an angle. They actually featured the discussion group in their evening newscast, giving Milwaukee Harley-Davidson free promotion that money couldn’t buy.

Current strategies for capitalizing on the group include giving coupons for percentages off for merchandise and special service deals to discussion group participants. Contests and prizes for participants are also planned.

The moderated discussion group at Milwaukee Harley-Davidson’s Web site results in thousands of hits per week, and the attraction is compelling content, provided by the visitors to the site themselves, with little actual effort on the part of the owners of the site. It’s obvious that several dozen people have that site bookmarked and make it a daily destination. Visitors are comfortable there and have built a true community smack-dab in the middle of the Web site. And while many of the participants are not local, and the dealership can’t sell bikes outside of their territory, an e-commerce module that sells dealership logo merchandise is just a click away, and the dealership ends up becoming one of the places out of town participants MUST visit when they come to Milwaukee.

My company can build a customized moderated discussion group for your site. Features like private discussion boards for members only, automatic e-mails when someone’s post is responded to, keyword searches and other custom functionality can be put in your discussion board to meet your needs and the needs of your site visitors.

The investment isn’t huge, but the benefits are substantial. You get a regularly updated area of your site, that you aren’t responsible for providing the content for. People bookmark your site, and come there regularly, if not daily. Not only will it drive traffic to your site, but, if properly designed, administered and interacted with, it will position you and your company as the experts in your field. It will give you promotional opportunities galore. You’ll build an unbreakable bond with your visitors.

You can’t ask for more than that.

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