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The Tools of Online Connection

By Nancy White, last updated 8/01

As with any communication technology or medium, the ideal is to match the right tool for the audience. Is the need for one-to-one communications? One to many? Many to many? Is the goal to build social bonds? Brainstorm and critique? Accomplish a specific goal? Persuade? Build an audience? All are possible with the net. Some entail building bonds through community, some more simple application of communication tools. Here are some Internet avenues for connecting with audiences. Some considerations for what works for which audience are noted.


Still the "killer app" or application which sends or "pushes" your message directly into your target audience's in-box. Email can be individualized or sent to a larger list of recipients. This is always the first and easiest tool to consider. It is also very easy to abuse, creating useless junk email or "spam" which can alienate your audience. When used in conjunction with a website, can be an effective tool to welcome new visitors or users, provide access information, registrations and directions to relevant website content. A concern of email is the carrying and deployment of viruses.

Email Newsletters

Email newsletters are one-to-many communications devices which allow you to update a large group of constituents quickly and cost effectively. Good email newsletters are pithy and rely on web links for more extensive content, providing easy ways for the reader to judge if they are interested in something and quickly access the material. It is some "push" to get people to pull more from a website. Newsletters are good for breaking news, keeping audiences posted about new website content, or for advocacy call-to-action.

Mailing Lists or Listservs(c)

Mailing Lists are email sent to a group of email addresses. Listserv is a copyrighted name for a mailing list software product, but the term is often used generically. Listservs are used in a number of ways. The two main applications are for one-to many communication like newsletters or for many-to-many communications where each member of a list can respond to the entire group. Some lists are moderated which means the moderator reviews all messages before they are posted to the list. Some are open and anyone on the list can post at any time. Some list groups have formed relationships over time and consider themselves communities.  

Online Conferencing and Bulletin Boards

The next step from mailing lists is web based conversation spaces known as bulletin boards, online forums or conferences. These have gained in popularity and form the most visible nucleus for online communities. Examples such as The Well, Cafe Utne, Third Age, Salon's TableTalk, CNN Interactive and Electric Minds provide open online conversational spaces around which groups of individuals can form some sense of community over time.

These spaces rely on a variety of software applications that provide linear or threaded asynchronous communications capabilities. Linear software presents posts in chronological order one after the other and is favored for more conversational and relationship building interactions. Threaded applications allow specific responses to specific posts, splitting off sub threads as needed and are often used for distance learning and Q&A applications.

Most applications are text based, limiting the interaction to words. Some applications allow the insertion of or linking to images, audio and video files, allowing a wider range of communications options. More options are being added and increased bandwidth will make these more practical in the future. This is important because for audiences less comfortable in a text only environment, the new applications will provide a greater range of tools for expression and communication.

The advantages of online conferencing are that it allows the building of relationships over time and provides a rich contextual environment for sharing of ideas. It can be enhanced with skilled facilitation or hosting. It's drawbacks are that it is time consuming, easily open to misinterpretation in the absence of physical cues and feedback, and not attractive to those who do not like to write or have limited reading and writing skills. It self selects in these matters. In many cases, it requires the user to be motivated to log on and participate. It can also be challenging to bring items to closure in online asynchronous conferencing.  


Often dismissed as a trivial interaction designed for teens, chat offers some unique online interaction features. It can be a useful teaching tool used in combination with asynchronous conferencing, and has been show effective for small group meeting where decisions can be made and details arranged. The advantage is that for a very low cost, you can gather and interact with a small group. The disadvantages are that you must be able to pick a time that works for your target audience which becomes increasingly difficult as you expand to global audiences and groups. Facilitating larger chats requires skilled moderators. 

Instant Messaging

Instant messaging applications such as ICQ, MSN Instant Messenger and AOL's Instant Messenger allow members of a group of users to see who is online at any moment, send instant messages and set up spontaneous small chats. These tools are increasingly used to provide quick user help and feedback (Hi, do you need any help navigating our site?), build relationships and easily share comments. Less formal and faster than email, instant messages tend to be a "warm" communication vector, adding a human touch to the online experience. They provide quick "back channels" when paired with online conferencing.

Internet Broadcasts

Streaming media (audio and video) is becoming more accessible as people have access to faster Internet connections. This is prompting an increase in Internet broadcasting. Tools such as Placeware ("live web event hosting") and Centra ("live business collaboration tools"), allow a one-to-many presentation via the web. Using RealAudio or Windows technologies, you can broadcast content as well as do polling or have limited interaction (Q&A) with audience members. These technologies have applications in traing and dissemination of information, but are less applicable for higher levels of user interaction.

Crossover with Non-Internet Media

It is important to note that online communication tools can be considered as part of the fuller range of tools, including traditional methods such as telephone conferencing, video conferencing, direct mail and other media. By combining the interactive tools available online with some of the targeted offline information delivery vectors, you can meet your target audience's needs.

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