If Done Right, Forum Marketing Is Time Well Spent

It takes time and patience, but forum marketing can result in relationships — and business opportunities — that make it well worth your while.

Man working at computer

We've all fallen down an internet rabbit hole from time to time. And one of the biggest magnets for this kind of time suck is the online forum.

The first online forums trace back to the early 1980s, before the World Wide Web was even invented. Even today, they often have a simple format and sparse design (they may look outdated, but their members don't seem to mind). Forum sites are typically centered on discussion boards where participants can initiate and comment on various questions or topics. The threaded replies on some forum topics include thousands of comments added over time.

Some of the early online forums still exist — The WELL, launched in 1985, is among the oldest — but as with most things on the web, new players have emerged to pick up the bulk of forum traffic. Facebook Groups, LinkedIn Groups, Reddit, Slack communities, Quora and other well-funded sites claim hundreds of millions of users.

That said, thousands of independent niche forums remain. You can find them for your industry or topic of interest by Googling "(industry keyword) + forum" or including the name of community-enabling software in your search — e.g., "(industry keyword) + powered by vBulletin."

And that brings us to the first thing that stops marketers from using forums: There are so many to choose from. Where should you start? Where should you focus?

Here are some guidelines to separate the contenders from the pretenders:

• Only consider forums with at least 1,000 members.

• Make sure the forum has at least 7,500 posts total and at least 10 new posts daily.

• Avoid a forum if you see spam in the discussion threads because it means the forum is poorly moderated.

• Make sure the forum isn't run by a competitor.

Start with one forum before you add others; it's easy to spread yourself too thin with forum marketing. Once you've found a forum that seems like a fit for you and your business, here are five tips for getting started:

1. Help — don't sell.

Your goal is to provide consistently useful information so that other participants in the forum know, like and trust you. If you're able to do that regularly over time, those participants are more likely to approach you for advice on purchasing products or services in your space.

2. Learn the rules and the culture.

Most forums disallow users from explicitly promoting their businesses. Many also forbid you from contacting other members for business purposes unless they reach out to you first. Some forums disallow linking to your website or links altogether. Beyond these rules, every forum has its own culture. If you're in a technology forum, for example, but it's populated by developers rather than marketers, they may only want you around if you know your IT chops.

3. Make it part of your daily routine.

Most online forums are communities where relationships are built over time. If you only pop in and out when you need something from other members, it will eventually annoy people. Be there for others, and they will be there for you when the time comes.

4. Think twice before outsourcing.

There's only one you, and that's who people expect to see in the forum. If you outsource posting to an intern, employee or agency, this move will very likely backfire unless you're extremely careful. Members can easily identify posts that look stilted, "off" or otherwise inauthentic. More than a few brands have been embarrassed by their efforts to promote themselves in this way on forums.

5. Stay positive and have fun.

Never go negative on a forum, even if people criticize you, your company or your product. Feeding the trolls only encourages them and hurts you as much as it hurts them. If people criticize your company, take their complaints seriously, and thank them for their input. Also, enjoy your experience. If you're not having fun in a forum, chances are you won't stick with it.

Forum marketing takes time and patience to do right, but it can result in relationships — and business opportunities — that make it well worth your while.

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