Maintaining contact with customers and suppliers is a common goal of business. And as increasing numbers of people have established a presence on the Internet, Web pages have been used by many companies as a way of encouraging people to keep in touch.
The only problem with Web pages is that they're essentially read-only - not quite the collaborative environment for which the Web was designed. So, while you might be able to tell people about your new products, often the only way of providing feedback is by clicking on a "mailto" link.
That needn't be the case. There is a growing number of packages, both free and commercial, which you can use to provide a proper interactive forum on your Web pages. Visitors can read messages, reply to them by filling in on-screen forms, and find their way around the different topics. Magazines such as Internet World's sister title Personal Computer World have forums where readers can share technical information, political parties use them to canvass opinion and other sites, such as the X-Files Fan Forum, use them simply to chat.
On the face of it, Web conferencing is an attractive option. It can be integrated easily with the rest of your site, with logos and graphics changed to match your look and feel, and it can also be remarkably easy to set up - Microsoft's FrontPage Web editor includes a "discussion bot", a simple method for people to add forums to their own pages, as long as a Microsoft-compatible Web server is used.
Setting up other packages requires varying degrees of work. Some, such as NetForum, arrive in the form of a mass of Perl code (Perl is a language widely used in Web server scripts) which needs to be installed on your server and configured. The Lotus InterNotes gateway is designed to be much easier to set up and maintain but you need to have Notes running on your network as well, and it may not be a realistic option if your Web pages are hosted by a third party.
Whatever your needs, there is almost certainly a package available now that will suit it, from the most simple systems that provide gateways between email lists and the Web to fully featured products such as Digital's Alta Vista Forum, which provides a set of navigation tools familiar to anyone who has used a news reading program.
But Web conferencing also has its pitfalls, not least of all that it is a lot of work for the administrator. Many of the basic systems lack some important features. They don't, for instance, keep track of which messages you've read, so you have to remember which ones you've seen on each visit, nor do they verify who you are, so your forums are left to be clogged up with messages from people called Mickey Mouse, or worse.
To achieve the security and message tracking that makes a conferencing system really useful, you need a product like Alta Vista Forum, which allows you to create and maintain records of users. This often entails extra work for the site administrator. The benefit is that you end up with a forum where people know exactly who they're talking to and what they've read.
So do commercial Web conferencing packages make Web conferences a reasonable solution? They're certainly a good way to generate feedback but they rely on people having access to the Web and, in some cases, to a graphical browser. While most people do have that, some will still find the speed of Web conferencing unwieldy - graphical buttons slow things down and a busy forum requires people to visit your site regularly. Your Web statistics may shoot up, but without compelling information many people will drop out.
Two alternatives to Web conferencing are newsgroups and email. Email is the more simple solution as mailing lists are easier to create than newsgroups. Newsgroup creation is an involved process which requires you to follow a set procedure. On the other hand, software which manages email discussion lists automatically is available for almost all computer systems; it allows you to deliver information to anyone, even if they don't have access to the World Wide Web. If you're really interested in discussion, rather than having a state-of-the-art Web site, you may well find email's less glamorous technology a better option.
There is a summary of Web conferencing products at http://freenet.msp.mn.us/~drwool/webconf.html.
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