Online forums and message boards can be fertile grounds for finding new customers or gaining insights from those you already have. Marketers should take these platforms seriously, but not lightly. One misstep and the brand you represent could be tossed out.
Seventy percent of marketers are looking to expand their mix of social media, with 33 percent now looking to Internet forums as a social platform to reach consumers, according to recent report from Awareness, a Burlington, Mass.-based provider of social-marketing management software.
One in five Americans use forums to discuss and recommend products, and 64 percent of online women post product recommendations on message boards, according to PostRelease, a content-marketing company based in Long Beach, Calif.
For the uninitiated, forums and message boards have a personality of their own. They predate today’s social media and social-networking sites and utilities. There are millions of these sites, populated by users who are often highly opinionated and influential about the forum’s subject matter. That’s why marketers interested in using forums to connect with their target market must be careful about how they spend their time in these sub-cultures of the online world.
Here are eight do's and don’ts for marketers from Sanjay Sabnani, CEO of CrowdGather, a leading network of community forums.
1. Do register. Look for a "Welcome" or Introductions" sub-forum to introduce yourself. Be honest and ask how advertising and sponsorship works on the site.
2. Don’t post marketing messages right away. You could be banned, and your product or service could be maligned on a site that ranks high on search engines.
3. Do contact the site admin. Send a private message to the site’s owner or head admin, explaining your product and ask about becoming a paid sponsor.
4. Don’t pretend. Portraying yourself as a regular member when your only interest is commercial in nature is likely land you hot water sooner or later.
5. Do consider advertising. You might want to look into promoting your product through a combination of banner advertising and sponsored posts. Many forums have "sticky" threads that they sell to sponsors. These discussion posts are “stuck” atop the forum index to gain maximum visibility.
6. Don’t push it. Incessantly bringing up your product or service when it’s not related to the topic at hand could get you banned. Make sure your message is on topic and engaging. Forums are a hybrid of communication, entertainment, and education. Tailor your message accordingly.
7. Do contribute. Become a valued contributor to the site. Use your account to talk to other members, reply to questions, or to ask your own questions. This way you become a known entity and marketing opportunities become available to you.
8. Don’t ignore criticism. Immediately respond to complaints and criticism. Don’t make it personal. Attack the arguments not the person.
Remember: Internet forums and message board posts are archived and searchable, making this the promotion that keeps on giving. Take advantage of that.