Puzzled by the way several people were using the word "scam," I looked it up in several dictionaries and presented a logical dissectopm of its meaning. To illustrate a point, I made the kind of argument I used to offer in college classrooms: "If you use the word 'scam' in this sense, then it would allow you to label a scam my course where I teach people how to get published, since in fact very few people do go on to get getting published, percentage-wise, after taking the course. Obviously, I don't believe my course is a scam and no one has ever made any such complaint." What happened next mortified me. Within a matter of hours, the thread evolved into a debate assuming that my course was a scam. Like the hapless Sorcerer's Apprentice who only made a disaster worse, the more I tried to mop up the damage, the more people spun off on their own, disconnected from my original post, discussing me in the same breath as bona fide scammers.
The lesson couldn't have been more dramatic: a discussion group is not a lecture hall. I had no power to set the ground rules or the context, or to control what my audience did with the thoughts I shared. Their agenda could and did differ from mine, and while I could watch my comments being taken out of context and distorted, any protest I made about a misreading had no special claim to attention. As this example shows, the bulletin board medium can trip you up if you don't appreciate its peculiarities. Here are the fruits of my observation and experts' analyses, along with ways to up the chances that you become the beneficiary and not the victim of your efforts to schmooze.
Second, try to restate your business identity or business message in every followup post. You have tossed away a valuable opportunity when people come across a message from you like "Sure, I'll be glad to send you a copy. What's your address?" or "It costs only $20 a month for as much time as you want." Compare the effect of rewording those replies as "Sure, I'll be glad to send you a copy of our free report on keeping your tropical fish healthy. What's your address?" or "The Internet access provided by our company in 75 major metropolitan areas costs only $20 a month for as much time as you want." And unless your online area discourages the practice (see below, Local Differences), sign every post with at least your whole name and your business name, business slogan or a revealing occupational title. For example:
Norris Kruntz, Financing for "Unfinanceable" Upstart Businesses
Never assume the entire audience knows what you do just because the regulars do. Take a cue from skilled radio talk show guests who know that listeners are continually leaving and joining them -- they always toss in phrases like, "As I'm always careful to tell my therapy clients," or "As I explain in Chapter 2 of my book, MegaBusiness Secrets..." Sandwiched amidst substantive information, this slides by as a clarification rather than as huckstering. Recognize that even the regulars may have only a shady understanding of your scope of business. Over the space of a month or two, I interacted with a fellow named Dan Veaner, from Lansing, New York. Although I connected him with the product he had created, called "Catalog-on-a-Disk," until we exchanged E-mail messages for some reason, nothing he said led me to understand that this was a program for creating a catalog on disk rather than a singular disk-based catalog for specific products. It's a good idea to develop and test a brief spiel that truly communicates what your company does and then insert it as appropriate. For instance: "As you may know, we have created a program that anyone can use to place their catalog, complete with interactive order form, attractively on an IBM-compatible disk."
In some ways, cyberspace is a radically egalitarian environment. You have the right to mount a soapbox, but any brainless jerk also has the right to either shout you down or ignore your brilliance. Other media upgrade you at least to a podium and a microphone. For example, if you share your information in a newspaper article, people can disagree in a letter to the editor, but not all of those get printed, and you usually get the privilege of the last word. Implicitly the article carries a greater claim to attention than the reply, unlike the free-for-all melee in a forum or newsgroup. Similarly, most promotions you send out into the world lack any sort of talk-back feature. With online schmoozing you can't stop someone from tagging onto your message, "Hey, aren't you the one I sent $30 to last year and wouldn't refund my money?" All you can do is shout back "No!" According to Bryan Pfaffenberger, author of The Usenet Book, Intel CEO Andy Grove stubbed his toes against the participatory nature of Usenet when he posted a message in newsgroups downplaying the flaw in its Pentium microchips. That message got sent around everywhere with comments attached like, "Can you believe this?" Grove's response might have had a different effect in another medium, Pfaffenberger says.
E-mail, more than snail-mail, voice-mail or any other kind of communication, seems to place everyone at the same level. That's great when people respond with interest in how you can help them, not so great when people bombard you -- or your suppliers and customers -- with complaints for having somehow offended them. I believe this great leveling effect accounts for humorist Dave Barry's comment that he never receives letters through the mail that start off, "Are you the real Dave Barry?" as many E-mail messages that reach him do. If you prefer the role of distant, lofty authority, disconnect your modem immediately.
John Glenn, publisher of a guide to translation agencies, heard those snakes hissing after he posted a very casual comment in CompuServe's Foreign Language forum, his prime pond for prospects. In a thread titled "pornography," someone asked a question about Japanese pornography that commonly appears in that country on CD-ROM. "I chimed in to say that they had them in the U.S. as well, I'd seen them in a CD store the other day. I didn't add, 'Glenn's Guide to Translation Agencies' after my name as I usually did, but I'd joined the forum as 'John Glenn/Glenn's Guide,' and CompuServe added that automatically in the header of my reply." Of the droves of people reading that thread out of curiosity, one asked, "What is 'Glenn's Guide'?" and suddenly everyone drawn there was learning about his product in the puzzling context of pornography. "I got about 20 inquiries from that thread, but it was uncomfortable for me. Someone even suggested it was a good idea to get attention with the word, 'pornography,' and I had to keep explaining that I hadn't done that."
As a corollary to this, if you're soliciting business online, respondents will be getting in touch 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Since telephone calls and faxes will come in day and night, weekday and weekend, be prepared. Turning off your company's fax machine when you go home for the night or the holiday is unacceptable -- people in Europe who don't know that it's Thanksgiving or in Nova Scotia who don't realize you're in Hawaii may simply conclude you've gone out of business. The same goes for companies that allow phones to ring forever outside of office hours. Yet if you're a homebased business and allow your business line to ring in your bedroom, the impression you give could be even worse. Before breakfast one morning I called an 800-number for a sample copy of a newsletter I'd seen discussed on American Online. From the sleepiness of the "hello?" it was obvious I'd woken up the publisher. I wondered about the viability of a publication whose creator had either no money or no business sense.
Be especially sensitive to expectations about so-called signature files. Sometimes nicknamed ".sigs," on the Internet these function as the electronic equivalent of a business letterhead. Once set up by the user, they get inserted automatically at the foot of all of his or her postings. For example:
***************************************************************** * Publicity/Publishing Coach Marketing Makeovers * * Marcia Yudkin, P.O. Box 1310, Boston, MA 02117, U.S.A. * * Phone: 1-617-266-1613 Fax: 1-617-871-1728 * * firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com * *****************************************************************Since professors and researchers started this tradition, on the Internet this format doesn't usually count as commercial promotion, unless you take it too far. How far is too far? Even the most staid newsgroups and mailing lists seem to tolerate four-line signatures and regard eight lines as too much, and accept a simple description of your line of business but not necessarily a brazen sales pitch like "Call IDP for the best desktop publishing in Iowa!"
However, on the commercial online services you'll have to tone down a signature like the above, or leave off everything but your name and a minimal identifier. "We had to make a rule against the Internet kind of signatures, because they were abused," says Janet Attard, a sysop on GEnie and America Online. "People were posting one-line messages and ten-line signatures." I was severely chastised on a Prodigy bulletin board for mentioning one of my book titles along with my name, although on CompuServe this was not usually considered overly promotional. When in Rome, you might say, it's safest to observe what the Romans do and follow their example, being perhaps a teensy weensy bit more daring than the norm, if you like.
Another issue on which expectations differ is the extent to which people will put up with the same old questions. Participants in newsgroups and mailing lists are supposed to familiarize themselves with the FAQs -- Frequently Asked Questions, available in standard places like "news.answers" -- and not to bother the regulars with them. By contrast, on the commercial online services a question that has come up a thousand times before will almost always receive an informative, courteous reply, although possibly a "canned" one. This difference makes sense when you consider that in contrast to the no-one-in-charge, no-one-collecting-fees-for-participation Internet, services like America Online and Delphi make money by catering to newcomers and making sure they feel comfortable spending their time exchanging messages.
Before joining in on discussions, you may want to know how long contributions remain accessible in that online region. Some newsgroups and mailing lists maintain archives of all messages, while others don't. On America Online, GEnie and The Well, your messages stay visible indefinitely, which feels spooky to me for off-the-cuff conversations. I prefer the way postings disappear sooner or later from CompuServe and Prodigy -- but you may have the opposite predilection. You may also wish to investigate the extent to which postings are screened, sifted and possibly rejected or edited. Prodigy maintains its status as a family-oriented service by filtering out messages containing profanity, the sort of thing that I've heard has created problems for some men named "Dick." Some moderated groups simply include or exclude offerings, while others may trim them in ways objectionable to the one whose name is on it.
Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase "the global village" to describe the effect of electronically linking people all over the world. Jay Linden, an Internet provider and consultant in Toronto, calls the Internet "the world's largest, most diverse small town." Perhaps we just need to change that to "villages" and "small towns" to remind us to check out the local customs before we hang out our shingle and walk up and down Main Street shaking hands.
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