|The Small Business Library|
September 11, 2000
Newsgroups -- The Oft-Forgotten Part of the Internet
What are they?
If I told you could go to a place where EVERYONE there was ACTIVELY INTERESTED IN YOUR PRODUCT OR SERVICES, I suspect you would seriously consider visiting, just to have a presence in such a gathering. Well, such a place exists -- on the internet. That place is Newsgroups.
Every day, individuals with shared interests voluntarily enter a "virtual community" of sorts where questions are asked and answered and ideas are shared. What brings these people together is a common interest. It is around such interests -- ranging from jukeboxes to gardening to money markets to LINUX operating systems to everything else -- that Newsgroups are formed. You need not know how the actual process of setting up a Newsgroup is done, but know that there is already set up a group for nearly every interest.
Visitors to these groups can "post" messages -- questions, comments, or other ideas -- that will be displayed to all who visit the group. They may also post "replies" to the questions and answers. Frequently, discussions will follow and multiple sides to an issue will be provided.
What results is a wealth of information literally at your finger tips!
In my experience, there seem to be basically four types of Newsgroup visitor. Askers, answerers, discussers, and lurkers. Askers are those who go to the Newsgroup with a specific questions seeking an answer. Answerers are those who go there and provide answers to the askers' questions. Discussers frequently answer questions, but often turn the topic one way or another with remarks like, "that reminds me of a time when...." Lurkers are those who just read what everyone else has written. Of course, a person can switch roles anytime they wish -- there are no REAL rules.
Why use them?
So, given that there is no real rules to how they are used, why would you want to take time to participate in them? How about this: EVERYONE visiting a newsgroup spent effort to get there, SELECTED the group because THEY ARE INTERESTED in the group's topic.
If you have a product or service related to the topic of the Newsgroup, these are HOT prospects. They have pre-qualified themselves as interested individuals. Remember the "askers" who are there? They have questions and needs -- perhaps for your products!
Are there any DANGERS?
Wait! Don't log in now and start posting invitations to visit your store or web site! "There be dragons out there!"
Yes, there are dangers in dealing with Newsgroups. If you show up for the first time blazing your products or services begging folks to give you their money, one of two things will happen.
First of all, nothing may happen. If this is the case, it is because you found a newsgroup that invites such blatant self-promotion. While these exist, the only folks who visit them are probably people posting promotions. As a rule, the most active Newsgroups -- the ones visited frequently by large numbers of individuals -- typically frown on such postings.
That brings up the second possibility, should you make a kamikaze run of advertising. You will fail to win any new customer and will offend a large potential market. You will be heaped into the abyss of indifference (if you are lucky) with all the other unwanted "Spam" that is sent to the Newsgroup. Worse, you may become the object of angry "flames" disparaging your good name as well as your mother!
So, how do you tap this rich fertile soil of interest without offending those you seek to win over? It is all a matter of approach.
Newsgroups welcome knowledgeable input related to their topic. If you can post an answer to a couple questions a day (take ten or so minutes) you will become "known" among the "regulars" and later, your good advice will become associated with your business.
Be sure to include a real e-mail address and any other way you wish to be contacted in your signature. Such subtle promotions are generally acceptable. When you provide a particularly insightful reply, visitors may be motivated to check you out further.
If you have a web site, be sure to list it. Include the "http://" thing and many times, an automatic link will be available to the visitor.
I spent a few months participating a jukebox newsgroup. There was this guy, Tom, who answered about every other question with VERY helpful advice. At the end of each answer was his e-mail address and his phone number to his speaker repair service business. Every now and then, someone would ask about fixing a speaker. Tom (if not someone else in the group) would suggest sending them to him for repair. He earned his reputation by giving advice and as a result, when visitors needed the service he provides, he got the business.
I have seen this happen in a gardening group too. A man who sells lawn equipment frequently gave advice on maintenance issues. When regular visitors decided to buy equipment, they would often call him.
If you don't want to spend ten minutes a day getting involved in a Newsgroup, you may wish to try this approach: Read every post for three or four days and get a feel for the group. Pick out one or two of the "regulars" who seem balanced and level headed and who seem respected by others in the group. E-mail these people directly asking how to best present a "one time only" invitation to check out your business. Also ask how "once a month" postings about special offers would be received. Weigh their advice carefully and act accordingly.
How do you get started?
Well, first you need to find a newsgroup. There are tens of thousands of Newsgroups. Your ISP should have provided you with news server information that will connect you to many, many groups. Netscape and Outlook have newsgroup support built in, once you configure your browsers. AOL also provides newsgroup support, but the interface is "clunky" and difficult to use.
Once you find the group that will best fit with your products and services, you are ready to start. Most newsgroup readers (e.g. Netscape, Outlook, etc.) treat the messages fairly similar to e-mail messages. The Newsgroup appears as a "box" or "folder" and you can view the posts to the group by selecting it. Your "new message" and "reply" features essentially operate as you would expect.
I recommend for all but the bravest of souls to take time to read all the posts you can before posting your first message. This will help you get the feel for the group and understand the atmosphere better -- and thus, avoid any awkward blunders.
An alternative to using the newsgroup software of your browser is to use web site based newsgroup services. One of the most widely used is www.deja.com
Another option is to download special software designed specifically for newsgroup reading. I have not found this necessary -- I am quite happy with using Netscape's built in Newsgroup features.
As a last note, there is a type of similar service to provide discussion groups. It is called "listservice" and functions much like Newsgroups. However, you have to "sign up" for these and the messages are delivered to your inbox rather than into a Newsgroup destination.
Finding and participating in an appropriate Newsgroup could mean big growth in your business. Becoming established as a reliable source for free advice will create the kind of reputation people turn to when they are ready to pay for a new product or service.
If you are serious about using the internet to its fullest potential to build your business, consider using Newsgroups.