webinars (also known as e-seminars, webcasts and teleclasses) extend the marketing repertoire, enabling businesses to reach potential customers using a presentation with audio instead of visuals or content alone.

Webinars have drawbacks, however, because people have different learning styles. Some of us learn through visuals, some learn through audio and some learn through tactile experience. Webinars neglect people with hearing loss or no sound on their computers (unless the webinars are conducted by phone). Yet, they do provide an interactive forum that is similar to a live presentation, without the time or costs associated with traveling to the event.

Given the pros and cons, how successful is this marketing approach? Are webinars worth the effort? What works and doesn't work when using webinars for marketing?

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This Week's Dilemma

Adding webinars to the marketing pool

I am attempting to use webinars as a marketing tool in my computer networking company. I have more questions than answers about using this technique for marketing. In your experience, how beneficial are webinars in increasing sales? How much time and effort do you put into the presentations? What are the advantages and disadvantages of webinars? How do you determine whether or not a webinar makes a good addition to the marketing pool?

—Jamie, marketing manager

Previous Dilemma

Building a customer community

We are a new incarnation of a previous analytical instrument company. Our customers are a relatively limited group of chemists and other scientists. I like the idea of a Web-based medium for exchanging information and developing an ongoing relationship with customers and prospects. However, I'm not certain whether a blog, forum or Wiki format makes better sense, given the small size of the community. How do you determine which format to use for your community?

—Mike K., director of marketing and sales

Summary of Advice Received

Companies like Woot, InformIT and Intuit have benefited from interacting with the community. Woot uses forums, InformIT uses blogs, and Intuit mixes it up with a blog, a message board and email newsletter. Your fellow readers recommend doing the following to determine the right format for your company:

1. Ask your customers.

2. Select the one that best fits your business.

3. Consider your resources.

1. Ask your customers

Mike, you might find your customers agree with or prefer a specific community approach. A reader suggests talking with them so you can better determine what format works. You can do this by scheduling a conference call or conducting an online survey. Use those and other kinds of opportunities to find out what they could get out of a community and how they prefer to communicate with each other and your company.

After you gather the information and select the method, you can proceed with a plan on how to best meet those needs.

2. Select the one that best fits your business

If you're in a business where your clients aren't computer-savvy, maybe forums or a wiki aren't the way to go. A blog would work better as the customers easily find and read the content without dealing with the navigation that comes with forums. Wikis involve participants who add to the existing content, something that is not easy for most people. When your prospects and customers get comfortable with the blog, they'll click on "Comment" and interact with your employees.

Jorge E. Irsay V., an independent consultant, recommends using a forum in Mike's situation:

I would think a forum is the best approach to maintain the relationship between customers and your scientists (pick our scientists' brains). A wiki should be fine for internal information exchanges—it would create a sort of KM [knowledge management] instrument and could reflect answers given in the forum, albeit in a different configuration. And any development project would benefit from a blog, plus it could also serve as a means to have prospects' input for design.

3. Consider your resources

A blog can't happen without a writer or two or more. A forum needs facilitators and personnel who read and respond to questions and discussions. Think about how many staff members can spend time on building the community. How often can these personnel check on or update it? If updates can occur only infrequently, then certain formats requiring regular updates to be successful may not be good to pursue. Try to be realistic about what resources are available to you right now. This should help you decide which format to use.

A community offers an opportunity for businesses to interact with customers. Know the needs and skill sets of both your company and your prospects/customers before moving ahead with plans to establish a format to build an online community.

A community of 200,000 MarketingProfs readers read this column and respond to your marketing shouts for help.

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Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.