Internet in Business mentor Jakob Nielsen responds to the following question from an inc.com reader:
Our business is conferencing, or bringing people together to network face-to-face with their peers. We have just begun to invest in our Net presence. Other than chat, bulletin boards, Webcasts, and list serves, how might we create a community for promoting online networking opportunities?

Jakob Nielsen responds:I suggest you stick to real-world conferences as the main solution to this problem. There are great benefits to PPR (physically proximate reality) relative to VR (virtual reality) when it comes to human communication, networking, and informal contacts.

My suggestion is based on experience. I have just returned to Silicon Valley from a major lecture tour of Europe, where thousands of people paid large amounts of money to be in the same room as me. No Webcast could have done the job. People want to be with the speaker and "feel" the physical presence. Plus, they can network during the breaks. No Internet technology even comes close to having lunch with somebody or going to the pub after the seminar.

Within the realm of Internet technology, I recommend avoiding chat and Webcasts. Why?

In my opinion, discussion groups, such as bulletin boards and e-mail lists, are the most promising approach to fostering community. Bulletin boards have the advantage of being more permanent, but e-mail lists have the benefit of reaching out to users without waiting for them to visit the site. Of course, a busy executive will not want to get flooded with irrelevant e-mail, so it will be essential for you to moderate the e-mail lists closely. I also advise maintaining an archive of the e-mail lists on your site -- both to make the content searchable and to be able to use old postings, which often contain good answers to new questions.

I particularly recommend using ephemeral discussions tied to seed content. By this I mean the opportunity for users to add their own comments to any content on your site. Whenever you post an article, you should have an area at the bottom for user-contributed follow-ups and comments. You cannot predict in advance which articles will spawn the most comments, and the discussions about the articles will usually last a shorter amount of time than mainstream discussion groups. But it is very satisfying for users to be able to comment on something they disagree with or to post their own experience if they feel that they have something to add. These postings will quickly enhance the value of the original articles.

Finally, you should think of whether there are ways of following up on the physical conferences in cyberspace. If you had a provocative speaker, you could open a discussion group along the lines of "Now that you have been back in the office for a week, have you seen any examples of the blunders Mary outlined in her keynote?"

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