Newsgroups are online discussion groups that deal with a variety of topics. A common analogy used to describe newsgroups is "online bulletin boards." All newsgroups were originally part of a worldwide network of discussion groups known as Usenet. No one organization "owns" or manages Usenet—it is a self-regulating community of an estimated 30,000 newsgroups, but the exact number is not known since these groups are not regulated by any single entity. Each newsgroup is comprised of a group of users who post public messages or articles to that group. These articles are then organized by subject category and tagged with a standard set of labels for the purpose of distribution from site to site. Each host site pays for its own transmission costs.
Newsgroups differ from discussion lists in that discussion lists are generated via e-mail while newsgroups require a special newsreader software in order to read and post messages. Like discussion lists, newsgroups can be active forums for the exchange of ideas and information, providing a small business with opportunities for networking, learning more about the industry and competition, and marketing and sales possibilities. Newsgroups also tend to be noncommercial (although commercial newsgroups do exist), so it is crucial that participants become aware of a group's purpose, makeup, and rules of etiquette.
Newsgroups are both moderated and unmoderated. A moderated newsgroup is monitored by an administrator who may screen posts to the group, on the basis of appropriateness of content. An unmoderated group is, obviously, not monitored. Articles posted by users appear "as is." Prior to joining or posting to a newsgroup, review its file of frequently asked questions, also known as an FAQ. In addition, some newsgroups will have a charter, which establishes the newsgroup's purpose and general rules. Both the FAQ and the charter can be helpful in selecting a newsgroup in which to participate.
Usenet does not allow commercial messages, and no advertising is allowed for most individual newsgroups. However, business newsgroups generally welcome and encourage commercial discussions, such as debate over products and services, and are useful for this purpose. Commercial information such as product announcements and price lists are commonplace here, providing a small business with the opportunity for free exposure without benefit of a Web site.
The entire archive of Usenet discussion groups dating back to 1995 is now available online from its new host, Google Groups which may be reached at the Web address: http://group.google.com.
HOW TO USE NEWSGROUPS
Participation in a newsgroup requires a special type of software known as a newsreader. For most Internet users, this is a part of a Web browser such as Netscape or Internet Explorer. If you do not have a Web browser, you may need to acquire a newsreader. Check with your Internet service provider (ISP) for more details.
Other computer basics, which may be helpful in using newsgroups, are the concepts of a signature file (.sig) and a plan file (.plan). A signature file is a small file of text which automatically appends to the bottom of all outgoing e-mail messages. At the minimum, a signature file should include an individual's name, company name, and contact information, including e-mail address and URL. The signature file can also be used as a brief advertisement for a company. The key is to keep it short and to the point in order to prompt the reader each time he or she reads your messages. The signature file will then be appended to any message you post on a newsgroup.
A plan file (also called .plan or dot plan, plan.txt, or .profile) is a small information file which is automatically sent to other Internet users in response to a utility command called a "finger." Usually, information sent in response to a finger is comprised of the account owner's name, login name, and some login details such as time of last login. You can provide a more detailed response to a finger by creating a plan file. Some ideas for inclusion in a plan file are the type of business, price and product information, and contact information. Contact your ISP or the maker of your Web browser for more details.
Before using any newsgroups, begin by determining those newsgroups which may be helpful to your business and to which your company or product may be of interest. To ensure the newsgroup to which you wish to post allows these types of posts, be sure to check the newsgroup's FAQ or file of frequently asked questions. Monitoring the newsgroup for a period of time prior to posting is also recommended, in order to ensure you are reaching the correct audience and not ruffling any feathers.
To identify appropriate newsgroups, use the domain or label found in the first part of the name. Business newsgroups are found under the biz. domain or label; for example, biz.imports might be a business newsgroup comprised of importers. Other newsgroups can serve as sources of information about computers and software (comp.), the Internet and networks (news.), and so on.
USING A NEWSGROUP FOR FUN AND PROFIT
Newsgroups can be an inexpensive method for a small business to learn more about its industry and competition, gain opportunities for networking, and generate marketing and sales possibilities.
Newsgroups can be a useful source of information about competitors. By reviewing postings and signatures and "fingering" plan files, a small business can determine who its competitors are and get a leg up on new product offerings. This information can also help a business to anticipate trends in the industry as well as to monitor related industries. According to Jill and Matthew Ellsworth, authors of The New Internet Business Book, newsgroups are "popular for postings of business networking opportunities, including opportunities to form business partnerships." For a small business looking to expand, newsgroups offer the kind of information distribution that normally only big money can buy.
The Ellsworths suggest that prior to posting a message with commercial content, a small business user should begin by participating in a discussion with well reasoned and to the point comments. This can secure a business's standing in the newsgroup and generate interest within in further posts. The unobtrusive use of a signature or .sig with each message provides an opportunity for other individuals and businesses to make contact with the small business, without including commercial content in the message.
Commercial posts to a newsgroup should be short and to the point. Use the subject line to clarify the topic of the post. This will allow other users of the newsgroup to determine if the post is of use to them. Phaedra Hise, author of Growing Your Business Online, recommends keeping language simple and without "sales" emphasis, such as "substantial business opportunity." As with most information online, recipients are not interested in wading through a lot of hyperbole to get to the facts. Hise also notes that it is important to be up front about being a company trying to sell a product, if that is your purpose, rather than posing as just another interested user. Her suggestion is to post a message asking if a specific commercial post would be acceptable to participants prior to posting the commercial article.
Using newsgroups can be a simple and rewarding method of finding out more about industry and competition. Used with sensitivity and purpose, they can also serve as an inexpensive path to marketing, sales, and business opportunities for a small business.
Another tool that may offer similar opportunities, again, if used with sensitivity and frankness, is the blog. The term blog is a truncated version of the earlier weblog. A blog is basically a journal that is published on the Web. The activity of updating a blog is called "blogging" and the person who keeps a blog is a "blogger." Blogs are typically updated frequently, if not daily, using software that allows people with little or no technical background to update and maintain the blog. Another key component of blogs is that they link to other sites and blogs. In this way, bloggers communicate with one another, establish online communities, and comment on topics and subject in the news.
In 1999, the first blogs appeared, still called weblogs at the time. There were, in 1999, a few hundred such sites but software came out that same year which made it much easier to create a blog and the number of blogs began to grow rapidly. Although nobody knows for sure how many blogs exist, all estimates place the number in the millions as of early 2006, 27 million according to Forrester Research. The community of bloggers, the blogosphere, is large and growing. This has tempted businesses to try and take advantage of this new community to reach out through it to potential customers.
Although blogs by their very nature occupy a noncommercial Web space, many believe that businesses may be able to use blogs to establish a communications avenue with customers and reach those who influence opinion through popular blogs. So far, there are few business blogs but that is changing quickly.
Through a blog a business can disseminate information about its products and services, gather opinions from customers and try to mold brand awareness through interaction with popular (well read) blogs. But, as Ben King explains in an article on the subject published in The Financial Times, making a weblog or blog is not simply a matter of sticking the word blog at the top of a column of chatty copy on a normal business Web site. Blogs are more complicated vehicles. "For the better corporate bloggers, the key to success has been to adopt the same software tools as the consumers they are imitating'¦. Of course, these tools do not guarantee a successful blogging project. No one will read a blog that is not interesting, and no software yet devised can guarantee that. The rapid spontaneous back and forth discourse of the blogosphere is not an easy fit with the slow, cautious approach favored by most corporate marketing departments." King recommends that any company wishing to open a serious dialogue with bloggers be ready to study the blogosphere, to be as open and frank about their objectives as possible, and to use standard software packages to develop the blog site.
Blogging is still relatively young. Whether it develops as a useful new tool for business entities has yet to be determined. Blogging is, however, something that entrepreneurs should follow as an interesting online development and one that may become useful in a business's effort to reach out to its clients. And, many companies are profiting from the blogosphere already, by teaching other companies how to use blogs. Forrester Research, for example, offers a two-day seminar on the subject. They explain the need to learn about blogs this way: "As customers increasingly tune out traditional advertising and turn to new communication channels to fill the void, companies must learn how to join in the conversation. Moreover, besides connecting companies and their customers, blogs are also becoming an invaluable collaboration tool within companies to facilitate knowledge management and cross-functional communications." The blogosphere appears to be a trend worth watching.
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"Boot Camp—Blogging Fundamentals: Building a Business Strategy." Forrester Research. Available from http://www.forrester.com/Events/Overview/1,5158,1365,00.html. Retrieved on 13 April 2006.
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Ellsworth, Jill H. and Matthew V. The New Internet Business Book. John Wiley & Sons, 1996.
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Hise, Phaedra. Growing Your Business Online. Henry Holt and Co., 1996.
King, Ben. "A Company Voice True and Clear, Corporate Blogs." The Financial Times. 12 April 2006.
Pethokoukis, James M. "Chatting With Customers." U.S. News & World Report. 27 February 2006.
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