When Ricci Lumber launched a new Web site four years ago, it asked customers what they wanted. Feedback the Portsmouth, N.H.–based dealer received pointed to "having something better than e-mail," according to Pat Moretti, Ricci's general manager.

In January, after relaunching its site again at the end of 2006, the dealer unveiled the Ricci Lumber Forum. The online discussion board features topics ranging from contractor business issues to tool information and news from builder associations. Ricci employees keep the site humming, adding and deleting topics while interjecting their own opinions. The system uses a pre-designed template that is easy to manage. "The forum is a great way to communicate with the customers and for them to communicate with us," says Moretti, who compares the forum to the discussions that once took place around potbelly stoves in a local hardware store.

Since the forum's launch, it has attracted more than 120 users and gains about 10 new participants a week. About 25% of the users are active each week. "The best part of the forum is watching the discussions from the sidelines," Moretti says. "One can see friendships develop, competitors suddenly helping one another, and opinions no longer held to oneself."

And for those who still might want to talk hot-stove baseball during the winter, the forum features topics dedicated to New England professional sports and local sports.

–Andy Carlo