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Involve Your Visitors

The best way to build your reputation and draw visitors to your Web site instead of others in your category is to have many ways for users to communicate with each other and you and your staff. Obviously, it would be virtually impossible to set up an e-mail address and answer all your visitors' questions personally—unless you are selling products or services and want to support these by giving your customers personal attention.

For other communication, it is a good idea to set up forums and perhaps a chat room for your site.

If you choose to set up forums, be sure to create many specific forums for each category discussed on your site (assuming that you have more than one). Be sure to assign at least one moderator, who is an expert in the category in question, to each part of the forums. Not only do you need moderators to make sure that visitors follow the "rules" of your forums, but moderators can also offer assistance to users and move or delete topics when necessary (this is possible in almost all the forum/message board software currently on the market).

It may be a good idea to implement a rating system (included with most forum software) to give forum members titles such as "junior member" or "expert" after posting a certain amount of messages. Just make it very clear in your forum guidelines and rules that posting two-word messages or pointless replies will not work, to prevent people from randomly posting low-quality content just to get a higher rank.

One option available to most forum software always brings up an important question: Should you let visitors post on your forums without registering? The advantage of not requiring people to register is that you will probably have more posts and topics on your forum. But the big disadvantage is that the mean quality of the content of the posts will probably decrease, and you have no (easy) way of preventing certain people from posting messages. Also, people may use up valuable bandwidth without posting relevant content. I personally would opt for a "forced" registration before posting, for this very reason. If you choose to keep your forums open to everyone, do so only until you have built a member base of considerable size; then switched to forced registration. This way, you can first focus on making your site more popular and then focus on improving the quality of your content.

Chat rooms seem to become less popular over time. The advantages of having specialized forums over chat rooms are listed here:

  • Forums can be much more easily moderated and can filter out unwanted content.

  • People don't have to be in the same place at the same time to read messages left by other users.

  • No specialized software is required (on the user's side) to visit forums.

  • For the above reason, the bandwidth required may be smaller.

Most forum software allows users to post HTML content, instant smilies, font types, quotes, and so on in their messages; most chat room software doesn't.

One of my favorite forum software programs is Infopop's Ultimate Bulletin Board (UBB). You have probably already seen this somewhere online because it is very popular with designers and site holders alike. For more information about this program, visit http://www.infopop.com.

You may also want to let users leave comments to certain content (posted by you) on the site. This not only helps you to get feedback on your content, but it also makes users feel like they are being listened to. This, in turn, increases the chance that they will visit your site more often. Depending on the programming language you are using for your site, this should be a fairly easy feature to integrate. You may also want to consider simply setting up topics on your forums for feedback.

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