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Can We Chat?

One reason I enjoy writing for Phillips is that my articles get printed before they're out of date. A perfect example is the process of booking online celebrity chat. As an Internet publicist, I've gotten used to having my work environment re-made every three months. But I was unprepared for the total upheaval in online chats this past quarter. For anyone doing Internet publicity, it's important to understand the dynamic forces shaping online celebrity chat.

Celebrity chat has come of age. When I first started booking author chat tours three years ago, my customers wouldn't buy them -- for good reasons. They had booked authors into chats on Prodigy, Delphi, and America Online, and saw the results:

  • sparse audiences making mostly rude comments
  • missing guests who couldn't get their software to work properly
  • stupid, repetitive questions and lame, one-line answers
  • transcripts so poorly formatted as to be unreadable

Why would any celebrity put themselves through this? Why should any publisher or movie studio or recording company pay a publicist to set up chats? What value is there in reaching 20 people when half of them are either close friends or are paid to attend?

I was finally able to articulate a reason my clients understood: The value of online chat is not the event itself but the publicity it generates. If a chat I book gets plugged on the log-in screen on AOL, millions of people will see the name of the author and the title of his or her book. If a notice for the chat makes the "cyberlistings" in "USA Today," I don't really care how many people show up.

Don't get me wrong -- it's important to have a chat that meets minimum acceptable standards. I want a good audience and I don't leave promotion to chance. I will do everything in my power to get the guest there on time, and make sure technical problems don't ruin the chat. But the real point of the chat is the publicity.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who has figured this out. In July of this year, I had my choice of chat rooms. By August, all the big chat venues were booked months in advance. I couldn't compete against well-known television, movie, and music personalities. I had five chat tours to book and no takers!

Then came the September Surprise. I've never worked in an environment that adapts as quickly as the net. Good ideas are exploited instantly, and bad ideas are dumped faster than you can say "write-off." Thanks to a phenomenon called "portals," chat supply has caught up with demand.

The theory behind portals is that web sites that become communities will get and hold the most traffic. And a very good way to get traffic and build community is to hold celebrity chats. All the sites competing to be portals -- Yahoo and Infoseek and Delphi and the rest -- are suddenly opening up chat auditoriums and booking celebrity chats. And now I'm back to having my choice of venues again. But it won't last.

Now there is too much portal capacity and not enough value. Another shake out is approaching. In the coming months, we will see smaller and smaller portal sites catering to niche users -- "professional portals," if you will, built around special interests. In short, the web will start to look a lot like AOL or CompuServe used to look -- hundreds of special interest communities, each offering chat opportunities. Maybe next month I'll have a completely different story to tell about booking online chats?

STEVE O'KEEFE is author of the books Publicity on the Internet (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), and The Complete Guide to Internet Publicity(John Wiley & Sons, 2002). You can reach him by e-mail at OnlinePublicity@yahoo.com.

Resources: A Few Important Chat Sites

Talk City
The best web-based chat site around, with the most knowledgeable staff in the business. Hundreds of celebrity chat opportunities each week.

Yahoo! Chat
Yahoo! Chat mostly serves as tech host for branded chat series including Time Magazine, People Magazine, and TV Guide.

The venerable search engine recently bought WBS -- the Webchat Broadcasting Service -- one of the biggest and best names in chat. Look for this partnership to blossom.

The Password
I love this site. They are trying to become an intelligent catalog of the web. They do a great job of promoting the chats they host.

A huge calendar of online events. The people pushing Yack have an interesting business plan for distributing their calendar. Will it work?

On Now
Another giant calendar of online events. These calendars will help you quickly find chat venues for your guests.

STEVE O'KEEFE is author of the books Publicity on the Internet (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), and The Complete Guide to Internet Publicity(John Wiley & Sons, 2002). You can reach him by e-mail at info@PatronSaintPR.com.

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