Soon after we set up Deerfarmer.com in the fall of 1998, we started getting e-mails with questions about deer farming. Rather than having to answer each question separately, we looked at some means to publish the questions and answers so that we did not have to continually answer the same questions. We established our "Ask the Expert" section on the website. This worked reasonably well but required the poor Webmaster (me) to manually code and post the questions and answers. There had to be a better way!
Since we were using FrontPage anyway, I discovered that it had the capability to set up a discussion web. This would automate the postings and replies. So in September of 1999, we set up the Discussion Forum as part of Deerfarmer.com. We moved the postings from the "Ask the Expert" section to get discussions started. The Forum was a success with regular postings and responses, not only from our moderators, but from other deer farmers as well. The Discussion Forum became the second most visited section (after Classified Ads) of the website.
However, we quickly became victims of our own success. As the number of postings approached 500, the Discussion Forum became very slow, and frequently would not work properly. The reason, I discovered, is that because of the way that FrontPage works, it has trouble managing webs with over 500 files. Well, Deerfarmer.com has several thousand files because each forum posting results in at least 2 files. Clearly changes were required!
The first step was to find some off-the-shelf commercial discussion forum software that would do the job. I looked at literally hundreds of potential programs. Thankfully, there are a couple of websites that list and evaluate "groupware" software. Once I had narrowed it down to about a dozen candidates, I took a look at websites using that software. There were certain things I was looking for - it had to be simple to use, it had to be stable and responsive with a large number of postings, it had to have good management features and it had to be affordable.
I settled on Discus Pro from Discusware ( http://www.discusware.com ). It appeared to have all the features that I wanted, and yet was affordable (the basic version is free, while the commercial version is only $99). It was being used by over 20,000 sites and had really good support information. It still took me a few tries to get it installed and working. (This is due to me not reading or following instructions). Next I moved most of the previous postings from the old Discussion Forum.
I have set up the Discussion Forum on its own website at http://www.deer-forums.com It is still linked directly to Deerfarmer.com, but has more space and flexibility. Eight forums were set up to cover the major topics. This will make postings and reading more manageable. Discus is a powerful program. You can read and post as you have done before without bothering to register. However, you can obtain an account with userid and password to access some of the more advanced features. Registration can be done instantly right at the site by clicking on the "Edit Profile" link. Once you have an account, you can have Discus e-mail you new postings in one or all of the 8 discussion forums (not just a notification, but the entire posting). Also with an account, you can search for all postings you have not read yet. Another easy way to find new postings is to click on "Last Day" or "Last Week".
Discus is the only software that I was able to find that allowed advanced formatting (albeit using its own unique structure and code). This allows better organization and structure of the posts. You can even add images to your postings. Discuss has an extensive tutorial and instructions with it. Please take the time to learn its features so you can be more efficient and effective in your use of the Deerfarmer forums.
The Discussion Forums are part of the "knowledge management" (KM) services provided by Deerfarmer.com. The various questions, answers and discussions are part of a knowledge database on deer farming. As time goes on (and even now), the Discussion Forums will become a significant knowledge and information resource on the various aspects of raising deer behind wire. The tools (e.g., search) available at the website make it easy to find the answers and data you need.
So how do you get the maximum value from Deerforum.com and other discussion forums? Discussion Forums can serve two important purposes in your deer farming business: a) research and b) marketing. Here are some tips and suggestions about both applications.
Our research shows that other deer farmers are the most valued and used source of information on deer farming. Therefore, Discussion Forums are a great place to get answers and information. The technology allows you to connect with hundreds of deer farmers all around the world - easily, and at your own convenience. To get the best information we suggest:
1. Look before you ask. Do a search of the postings to see whether your question(s) has already been answered. This can be done by browsing the topics in the relevant forums, or by using Search.
2. Post your question in the right forum. This will ensure that a moderator or someone familiar with the topic will see it. If a related question has already been asked, but does not completely give you the information you want, post a clarification question under that topic. This helps keep similar topics together and makes it easier for other people to get the information they need.
3. Be specific and reasonable. It is very difficult to answer a question such as, "what do I need to know to get into deer farming?" That type of information is available on Deerfarmer.com and other deer sites. Also, it is not reasonable to expect a moderator or another deer farmer to take all that time to tell you everything you need to know. However, if you ask a very specific question, you are likely to get one or more good answers.
4. Be critical. In the deer farming industry, as in most others, there may not be one correct answer. People are expressing their opinions, and relating their own experiences. This does not mean it will work for you. Discussion Forums should not be considered a replacement for situations where professional advice - legal, financial or veterinary - is required. Deerfarmer.com is not liable for the results of any advice given in the Discussion Forums.
5. Provide contact information. I strongly recommend you provide your real name and an e-mail (or other contact information). Some people may not be comfortable in posting an answer but would be more than happy to send you a private e-mail or phone you with some great advice or suggestions.
6. Be patient and thankful. You may not get an answer to your question within a day or so. It may be that no one visiting the forums has an answer. Remember that there are other Internet sources, universities, government resources that you may have to use. If someone does provide you with useful or valuable advice, be sure to send them a thank-you e-mail.
7. Contribute and share. Do not wait for someone to ask a question to share your knowledge and expertise. Remember our concept of the Discussion Forums is one of a knowledge database. Therefore, we all must contribute to "populating" (don't you just love all these computer terms) the database. So if you have found a way to keep bird droppings out of your deer feeders, post your solution! I plan to use the Discussion Forums as an information repository (not suppository) for news, announcements, research findings and so on. We all benefit if you contribute and share as well.
The second important (but often less recognized) use of Discussion Forums is marketing. Commercial on-line services such as the AOL and CompuServe prohibit direct advertising in forums other than in designated areas, or sending unsolicited electronic-mail messages that contain any advertising or solicitation for goods or services to discussion group members.
This is also holds for the forums at Deerforum.com. Other than the Vendors forum, where "infommercials" are permitted, we strongly discourage blatant advertising in the other Discussion Forums. However, there are ways you can do some effective marketing on forums if you follow these suggestions:
1. Do respect the rules against solicitation, but learn how you can legitimately market on-line within these limits. When you respond to forum messages in your area of expertise or ask questions of your own, be sure to mention your name and business in the text of the message, or at the end. If you're asked for more information about your business, including prices, it's legitimate to provide either in a public forum message or private mail - but only if you are asked first.
2. Do offer constructive and substantive information in forum messages, and you'll soon be known as the forum's expert on that topic. Other forum members are likely to refer inquiries and questions to you.
3. Do develop a friendly and outgoing forum personality. Be polite and pleasant.
4. Do remember there are many people in forums who are "lurking" - just reading messages but not participating. You will receive private e-mails from some of these folks asking for information on your business.
5. Do know that the marketing experts say people need to hear about a name or business seven times before they feel comfortable taking action. Developing a strong forum presence is a good way to make the seventh time arrive sooner.
6. Do use your real name and provide contact information. The culture of Discussion Forums and chat rooms has been to use fictitious names or "handles." However, here you are networking and trying to establish an awareness and credibility of your deer farm. Using your real name, your farm/ranch name and providing contact information (e-mail, phone and website) on every post is a good way to do this.
7. Answer your e-mail and customer inquiries. If people are asking for more information about your products and services, send it to them; otherwise you and your deer farm will lose credibility.
The successful deer farmers use a wide range of tools to manage and market their businesses. Discussion Forums are one of these powerful tools. Are you using them to get the maximum benefits for your deer farming business?