Let's talk about it
Once in a while we forget that the real goal of 99% of websites is to get the potential buyer to talk to you.
If your site is a perfect money making machine, or your clients are amazingly decisive, then I imagine the only communication you would really require is via PayPal or 2CO as the clients rush to give you their cash.
Assuming your site is only semi-perfect and your clients merely human then possibly a little persuasion of the client might be needed once in a while, and that means communication.
Hopefully your whole site is a communication tool geared to your most desired response, generally either "talk to me"," buy from me" or at the very least "agree with me".
Anything that promotes or facilitates communication has to be a plus - so I thought we could look at a few communication options.
Bear in mind that in order for real-time communication to work you need to be real time available, when the virtual phone rings you need to be present to answer it.
And if you are not home, some way of warning the client not to fritter his time waiting for you to "pick up" is a necessity too. I really hate hanging on the phone - virtual or otherwise - so I want to know if you plan on answering or not before I place that call.
We should avoid emphasizing how available you aren't.
An option is your own chat room, but be careful here. Such software can be bandwidth hungry, gobble up server resources and leave you responsible for potential inappropriate use. Plus, it is possible that all the server time and your precious bandwidth is going on private chats that have nothing to do with you, your products or your site.
MSN Messenger is supplied with Windows for a non-download, text only option - so that answers one criticism - and anyone with a free Hotmail account can use it.
Use it with care in terms of file downloads as certain security issues do exist. Furthermore, MSN is now trying to get us all to upgrade to Windows Live Messenger, a Skype clone that is a 17 megabyte download once you fight your way past the slow loading flash intro on the new website.
It even offers the option to make folders on your PC shareable over the internet which I personally consider to be an option terrifying in its security implications, especially to the corporate user.
I didn't bother downloading.
Yahoo! Messenger is about the same but with a smaller download and a better website!
ICQ is a popular option that has certainly stood the test of time, and offers an on-line status button for your website if desired. So far so good but it's an 11 megabyte download and I had to Google their new redesigned mega-trendy website to find where the heck I could get the code for a status button on my website.
I dislike form over function in a supposedly functional site so personally I just walked away.
Skype (http://www.skype.com) answers a lot of these issues without paying a penny.
This is a pity as it's a great VoIP (Voice over IP alias internet telephony) option with good quality sound, a paid option on making calls to traditional telephone numbers and even, for the truly paranoid, a lie detector add-on in the form of a voice stress analyser.
The problem with this option is that the Skype client is a 22 Megabyte download so really this option is accessible to broadband users only or dial up users with a boatload of patience.
For the record, I looked into this broadband versus dial up issue recently in an article called "Does size matter?" (Catch it on my website :-) )
With USA broadband penetration at 80% plus, it matters some. In the UK we are still talking about 40% so yes, the file size matters - and in a big way too.
Google Talk offers a no download chat option that anyone with a free Google account can use - you log in with your Gmail address - which is all good fun if you have one.
It does not show on-line status though, but it does allow you to send an invitation to chat to any e-mail account, generating an email to that account with full details of how to use the talk system and a couple of useful links to get you started, including how to get a Gmail address.
For a "thin" chat client, this is my recommended option.
No - it is not perfect. But so far I am calling it the best of the non-broadband bunch.
Which do you go for?
Ask your on-line audience, ideally.
Look at broadband penetration where they live. Unless its 100%,which it is VERY unlikely to be, ask if your chosen audience are "withs" or "withouts" rather than just looking at the percentages. Even with US penetration at 80%, God forbid the bulk of your market is in the 20%.
If you are running a computer gaming site I would expect your corner of the market to be pretty well equipped. Supposing you are offering accommodation in a five star hotel or a three star hotel. I guess five star clients have more cash...but are they more techy? Would they be obliged to go broadband or would they stay dial-up despite the fact that they can clearly afford it?
Three star clients are presumably less well off but might that be younger and so more net aware?
Even if the surfer chooses not to use the communications software, the simple act of making yourself available gives you an on-line persona that is open, friendly and approachable.
This, in itself, is something worth communicating.