The social media channel with the vast majority of conversations about brands, products and services isn't Facebook. It's not LinkedIn or Twitter, either. Forums and message boards -- old school social media -- are still one of, if not the most popular place to ask and answer questions about brands and products.
Forums and message boards can be found everywhere. Some are stand-alone websites such as KarateForums.com. Others are tacked on to media or corporate sites such including Dell's support forums or Southern Living magazine's community message boards.
My company's research on social media and the banking industry revealed that an astonishing number -- 90 percent -- of all online conversations about banks and their products occurred on forums and message boards. We did a gut-check to see if other industries aligned and discovered forums to be one of the main areas of conversation, either first or second most popular, for every sector we analyzed.
Ironically, few social media strategies include participation in forums and message boards. So I spoke with Patrick O'Keefe, veteran forum administrator and author of Managing Online Forums, (AMACOM, 2010) for some advice on how businesses should participate in the conversation. Here are his suggestions:
Following the guidelines.
Almost every forum or message board has a guidelines section. Look for instructions on how to properly identify yourself and whom you work for, what kind of marketing language is allowed, and how the site's managers feel about dropping links to other websites.
"The guidelines of a forum should apply to all," O'Keefe says. "It doesn't matter who you are or how great you might be."
If you don't see specific information about how marketers and companies can join and leverage the community, find the administrator's contact information and ask.
Remember that people aren't hanging out in forums to listen to your marketing pitch. And yes, forum administrators typically have their antennae alert for anything they consider spam.
"This is not one of those 'it's easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission' situations," O'Keefe says. "You won't be able to ask for forgiveness because you'll be banned and no longer welcome. So, respect the culture." The best way to understand the culture is to watch how other members communicate.
Don't be defensive.
Don't panic if you're happily posting messages and having conversations when the administrator reaches out to say you're being too spam-like. "If you ever violate the guidelines and a member of staff contacts you, don't get defensive," O'Keefe says. "Apologize, ask questions and keep what [he or she] said in mind. Do your best not to repeat that behavior, whatever it was."
Remember that the network's criticism is meant to be constructive and to help you continue to participate in the community.
Forums aren't like Facebook.
A forum isn't your Facebook page or Twitter profile or blog, according to O'Keefe. "On those services, people have to opt in to you in one way or another," he says. "On a forum, everyone can see what everyone else has posted. This requires a different level of understanding and a different approach."
Your primary reason to be on a forum is to participate in other people's discussions, not to start them. So answer, chime in and let the community guide the discussion.
If you want to start a discussion, O'Keefe has a rule of thumb for your company: "I tell people never to introduce their brand into a discussion. If you are the first to mention your stuff, you have probably not handled it correctly. When someone else has already mentioned your stuff and has a question about it, you are probably OK to answer the question -- just as long as that answer isn't a spammy group of links where you try to take them away from the forum and onto your own controlled area."
Related: Social Media Tips for Professionals
The signature is key.
Each of your posts on a forum or message board can include a signature line, like the one on your emails. Generally, you're welcome to mention your company and perhaps even include a link to your website. Putting your company information in your signature could lead more people to connect with you, and it also provides full disclosure should you talk about your brand in forum conversations.
This is as close to a call-to-action or traceable link you're likely to get in most forums. If your primary goals are making direct sales pitches and driving traffic to your website or blog, forums won't serve you as well as direct mail, email marketing or traditional advertising. But you can certainly build relationships and trust in forums, which can lead people to connect with you over time.
So, let your signature be your calling card. But be careful. "All communities are different, so again, check those guidelines," O'Keefe says.