A guide for using forums for online marketing

Instead of purely focusing on social media for your online marketing, you shouldn’t ignore the power of forums. This is a small guide to use them correctly.

As part of my work for online marketing I naturally use social media. That’s what most other marketers would do, and they should. But when I try to talk clients into using other solutions, such as forums, I often get frowned at, because after all, forums are outdated. Nowadays everybody has moved on to social media… Right? Wrong. Let me try and convince you why.

Forums have been around since the very beginning of the Internet revolution. Maybe some of you will remember back in the day of “pay per minute” Internet access, where people would download discussions through newsgroups in order to read them properly once offline. It was only a few years later that forums became actual platforms. Communities of individuals with common interests were suddenly able to connect, all around the world.

But with all the hype around social media in recent years, people forget about forums. Today, everything is about being “social”. These social platforms get all the praise even if most forums have the same qualities: Marketers can learn from either platform about their potential leads or problems of their existing clients. So although they have similarities, consumers use them in very different ways. If you want to share a random thought or what you just did with your day, you use Facebook or Twitter. But, if you want to discuss about your recent changes with your Harley Davidson with other passionate Harley Davidson owners, then you go to a Harley Davidson forum. Forums deal with specific topics, making the audience more qualified, unlike on social media.

What marketers often think is that they should get similar campaign results with social media when sharing a link on a forum. The problem here is that it gets irrelevant to compare them. People “opt-in” when they like your Facebook page or follow you on Twitter. People come to you. Forums, on the other hand, are public and open to everyone. You come to the people. The members of forums do not want to suddenly see promotional message in a discussion thread. Just imagine how that feels like for a second. It’s like when idiots people drive slowly through the town center with their car windows down with loud unpleasant music. It’s just disrespectful.

If you join a forum, you shouldn’t be thinking about your own interest and sending the members elsewhere with a link. Instead, it you should be there to participate and contribute in a meaningful manner.

So how can you use forums for marketing purposes? This is my two cents on the matter:

Find the right forum

If you are going to use forums in the correct way, you’ll be spending a lot of time on them. This means you’ll have to choose only a few, which correspond to your niche market in order to be profitable for you. A good place to start is by asking various stakeholders of your company (colleagues, customers, partners, etc.) where they hang out online.

Once you gather a list of potential forums, you can filter them by popularity. Good indicators can be the amount of traffic (you can use for an estimation of traffic), the amount of members, and the amount of activity (several posts per day). This doesn’t mean you should leave aside the forums that don’t fit these criteria. If you find a promising forum, it’s actually good to be one of the first to join, as a lot of forums have special privileges for veteran members. However, you should be avoiding forums with a lot of “spammers” (people who just post links and leave for example), as the audience won’t be as serious. Forums with a strong presence of competitors will also be more of a battle.

Read the rules and observe

I can’t stress this enough. It’s so tempting to skip the long list of terms and conditions when joining a forum, but it’s extremely important to read them. Forums work like countries: each country works differently and has its own rules, and if you don’t respect them, you’ll be punished. All analogies aside, this means you’ll be classified in the “spammer” category and possibly banned.  And forums don’t forgive spammers, even if you try to come back with another name. This is often why marketers give up so quickly with forums, yet the rules are your friend, not your enemy. They can indicate whether or not links are allowed or if we can directly send a private message to another member for example.

While reading the rules will tell you a lot, just observing can tell you even more. Instead of diving in and answering as many questions as possible, it’s good practice to learn all the cultural norms and watch how other members contribute. What works and what doesn’t. This will give you a pretty good idea to the best way of contributing yourself.

Whenever you’re in doubt, you can never go wrong if you ask the forum moderators directly if something is allowed or not. As forum moderators are often volunteers, they will appreciate you asking them before doing something stupid, as they’ll be the ones having to clean up afterwards (deleting your posts).

Create the optimal profile

If you’ve made it this far, the first thing to do is to create a user profile. The goal is to establish yourself as an industry thought leader in your area of expertise. Even though the purpose is for marketing, if you want to be taken seriously you should use your own name and not your brand’s name. This will also add more of a “human” aspect, which is much better for interactions with other members. Having a friendly profile picture (a picture of you on holiday for example) along with personal social media links will certainly emphasize this effect.

You should fill in as much information as possible, such as your expertise and experience, but avoid any polarizing opinions (religion, politics, etc.). If you plan to mention your brand in your comments, you must disclose your connection with it somewhere. Other members must understand any possible conflict of interest, otherwise it can have disastrous effects on the brand’s image. Hiding this is not only unethical, but in certain cases could be illegal.

On some forums, it’s quite common to be able to have an introductory post, where you can write a small biography. If you have this possibility, you should say why you joined the forum, and what your goal is. Of course, you should avoid directly saying that it’s purely for marketing. You should show that you’re there to contribute.

Almost all forums also have what’s called a signature which will appear under your posts. As they are always visible, they’re ideal for sharing information, such as a commercial message, but you must be sure they comply with the forum rules.

Add value and be honest

You can’t just come on a forum and shout to everyone “Hey, look, my company exists and has a great product!”. The ideal contributions are ones that are objective. Of course if you are on the forum for marketing reasons, your posts will be biased (and as mentioned previously, you will have to include a disclosure anyway). But as long as you post helpful and useful information, it will be accepted. In other words, if you contribute, it has to add value and not just be an occasion to mention your brand. The best case scenario would be when someone else mentions your brand first, and you can jump in the conversation to thank them (if it’s positive!) and add extra information.

What you must not do is pretend to be someone else. When I personally have troubles with something, I browse online and often find a forum where another person has had the same problem. In the answers, I’ll sometimes see people pretending that they’ve been having a similar problem, and that they found this revolutionary product that solved everything for them and they absolutely recommend it. This marketing attempt is ridiculously obvious and actually reminds me of these pop-up scam videos where a guy (usually on a webcam) tells you how he earns 10k€ per day and generously offers to reveal his secrets. Very annoying indeed.

Creating multiple accounts in an attempt to up-vote your own contributions is also a no go. While this may seem less obvious then pretending to be someone else, it can be easily traceable with your IP address.

Stay polite and earn respect

Staying honest and always adding value will ultimately make people respect you. You can easily help the situation if you stay polite. Being positioned as an expert doesn’t mean you should make others feel inferior compared to you. Too many negative comparisons with a direct competitor for example can cause conflicts.

All conflicts should be avoided. This means staying away from hot topics and keeping it cool. It’s very easy to get angry with a “forum troll” for example (someone taking advantage of being anonymous on the Internet and insulting others for their own pleasure). That being said, usually forums do not have this troll problem as other social platforms on the Internet: you may have noticed that forum threads rarely resemble the comments found on YouTube. On the contrary, you can find on forums discussions that are meaningful and go into depth. Something quite hard to reproduce with a 140 character limit on Twitter…

Reputation matters

If you’re considering forum marketing, you must not outsource the work. Trying to come across as an expert and industry thought leader isn’t a responsibility you can leave to somebody else. There are agencies out there “specialized” in forum marketing. Their packages usually offer adding a certain number of links on a certain number of forums over a given time. This kind of offer is totally counterproductive because forums are all about quality, not quantity. These agencies concentrate on reaching their quantitative target, which will inevitably end up being flagged as spam and you would have basically paid a third party to ruin your brand image.

So you must keep the forum marketing internally, and if possible, on a regular basis. Being an active member and frequently contributing will enable you to have an authoritative reputation. Being one of the first to contribute to a recent thread has huge benefits also: your answer will be the first one people see. With this increasing reputation, it is only natural that other members will read your signature, look up your profile and come to your company. Mission accomplished.



My motto is: "If it ain't broke, break it and make it better!"

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