Rob Frankel - Branding Expert

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Why Chats Don't Work -- and Why I'm Starting One.

This week, I'm writing to you from the doghouse. It seems that Ann Handley, my editor, felt that my columns weren't "hands on" enough. Not enough actionable stuff. Ann asked if this week, I could write about something a bit more useful.

So this week, we're going to discuss the art of digital flower arranging.

Nah, just kidding. But since the edict has been issued, it seems silly not to discuss something that's always been a thorn in my side, ever since my first client suggested a totally original way to increase traffic to a web site. This particular client sat me down, looked me straight in the eye and uttered the words that strike fear into the heart of every web marketing consultant:


Whew. How do you politely tell someone -- someone who's paying your day rate -- that their idea is, well, awful? I'll tell you how. You tell them how their suggestion is a good one, but that it's somewhat out of place. Then you give them an example of where their suggestion works in spades.

Pretty crafty, eh? Allow me to elucidate.

The first thing I did with Mr.Ain't-Chat-Wonderful was to explain that if we were to do any chatting, it would definitely not be done with any Java-based animal. Too many crashes. Too much blocked access for our Java-challenged friends. If the idea of chats are to include people in a lively exchange of ideas, I proffered, then it had to be of the HTML variety. Simple, clean and more often than not, really cheap.

The big myth about chat features is that people actually use them. But the ugly truth about chat is that practically nobody uses them, with the possible exception AOL, where 35 year old men pretend to be girls and 14 year old girls pretend to be interested.

If you cruise the net as much as I do, all it takes is a brief skip down Yahoo's Events page to see what I mean. Drop in on any one of a dozen special interest chats -- legitimate ones -- and you see the same messages posted again and again: "Is anyone here?" or "Am I the only one here?" Hardly the stuff from which traffic bonanzas are made.

Sure, AOL can hawk their celebrity forums from now until doomsday, and yes, those events will attract a certain amount of interested eyeballs. But let's face it, are you about to pay Janet Jackson to sit on your site while zillions of frenzied fans fight their way in to query about her shoe size? I think not.

So when, exactly, does chat work?

I'm so glad you asked. Because I just installed a nice, clean HTML one. And I'm inviting you -- yes, you with the funny necktie -- over to my place to see why.

Frankel's Free Clinic will be open for one hour, every Monday morning, from 9 AM Pacific Time to 10 AM Pacific Time. One hour. That's it. I figure this is a great chance to meet some of you in real time. Spew some free advice. Give out a few leads. Maybe make a few contacts.

Now, what are the chances of Frankel's Free Clinic being a success? About 100%.

Here's why:

Back when Frankel & Anderson was NOT a purely digital agency, we had a drop-in policy for advertising wanna-be's, photographers and illustrators. The deal was that anyone trying to break into the business could drop in and talk to anyone in the shop about furthering their career. No appointment needed, but they had to drop in between 8:30 and be gone by 9:00.

A number of those people hold major jobs in major agencies today. I'm glad I had a hand in their success.

We're bringing the same philosophy to the web with Frankel's Free Clinic. If NOBODY shows up, it will be a success. And if EVERYONE does, it will be even moreso. That's one way to make chat a really successful addition to almost anyone's website.

It's called "giving something back."

I'll see you Monday morning. Don't bother wearing a tie.

Rob Frankel

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