Forum marketing is a great way to make your online business stand out from the crowd. Forum users are generally net savvy and open to making online purchases. Many forum users are also respected experts and bloggers in the specific topics covered by the forum.
Forum marketing is a high ROI strategy because making a good impression in front of this savvy and influential audience can help your marketing message spread far and wide.
Follow this step-by-step guide to effectively use forum marketing as a part of your overall online marketing strategy and avoid some common mistakes.
1. Find the right forums
Not all forums are worth your time. Successful forum marketing means finding the right community for your business.
Look for popular forums that cover your niche topic. Start by asking your employees, suppliers, and customers which online communities they hang out in. Also try searching forum hub sites such as Board Reader, Big Boards, and Board Tracker using niche-specific keywords.
Narrow your list to 5-10 forums that will be worth your time using the following criteria:
- Look for forums that have at least 1,000 members and 10,000 posts.
- Make sure the forum gets at least ten to fifteen new posts on a daily basis.
- Ignore forums that are overrun by spam.
- Avoid forums hosted by your direct competitors.
2. Create an account as soon as possible
Seniority is important in forum communities. Users with older registration dates are given more deference than newer users. Some forums even prevent new users from posting for the first few days after their initial registration. Given the tremendous advantage of early registration, you should create your forum accounts as soon as possible.
Effective forum marketing means that it is part of your long-term strategy. Think of forums as a permanent marketing channel for your business, instead of just one of many targets to blast your hot new advertising campaign.
3. Check the user agreement and posting guidelines
During the registration process you will be asked to agree to the forum's user agreement and posting guidelines. Read these rules and guidelines carefully. There is a lot of boilerplate legal language in these documents, so it is tempting to just skip over them and click yes without reading. However, many forums have unique guidelines that you need to pay attention to. Some of the most important issues to look for include:
- Are users allowed to place links in their posts?
- Are users allowed to promote their own businesses?
- Are users allowed to post commercial messages in their signatures?
- Are users allowed to contact other members for commercial purposes?
- What restrictions are placed on new users?
- What special privileges are given to veteran users?
4. Pick a good user name and avatar
Your user name and avatar are the first things other users will notice about you. Pick a user name that is easy to remember and pronounce. Using your real name might be appropriate, especially if your name is closely identified with your brand. Stay away from bizarre number combination or weird misspellings. Do not pick user names that only have meaning for you but would otherwise be nonsensical to everyone else (e.g. your favorite grade school teacher's initials).
Avatars are small pictures attached to all your posts. A good head shot of yourself or cute pictures of your kids or pets make the best avatars. Avoid using any pictures that might be considered offensive or controversial.
5. Create a compelling profile
A good profile can help you establish credibility on the forum. Provide a solid description of your expertise and experience. Feel free to add in a couple of personal tidbits to humanize your profile. Information like your hometown, your pet's name, or your favorite sports team are good ways to break the ice. Stay away from sharing potentially polarizing information such as political or religious affiliation.
Provide contact information so other users can get in touch with you if they are interested in learning more about your business. A lot of spammers and identity thieves search through forums for personal information. Therefore, you should only share information you wouldn't mind being made public, such as a throwaway webmail address.
6. Introduce yourself
Many forums encourage new users to introduce themselves to the community by making an introductory post. This is usually done in threads especially designated for welcoming new members. These threads are usually called some variation of "Say Hi Here," "How Did You Find Us," or " New Members Check In Here."
Your introductory post should include a brief description of your expertise and an explanation of why you joined the forum. Let the other users know that your main goal is to contribute to and learn from the community. Do not make any marketing pitches in your first post. If you try to sell anything in your first post you will very likely get banned.
7. Spend some time lurking
Resist the urge to start posting right away. Forums are tight-knit communities that tend to shun and haze newcomers. Spend some time reading the forum to get a sense of the community's special quirks and cultural norms. Figure out who the influential users are and note which topics are perennial favorites. Learning this information will help you fit in more quickly.
8. Make valuable contributions to the community
This is the key to successful forum marketing. Whenever anyone asks a question related to your products or services, dazzle them with incredibly useful answers. These situations are opportunities to demonstrate your expertise and to generate good will. Backup your advice with links to trusted sources, and respond to follow up questions quickly.
Leave out your sales pitch in the beginning. Any hint of bias in your initial posts will erase all your hard work. By keeping your answers objective, the entire community will start thinking of you as a trusted expert. They will soon start asking you for your recommendations. When you get direct inquiries for recommendations you may then safely mention your business without appearing biased.
9. Put your website's address in your signature
Forum signatures are blocks of text or graphic that are attached to the end of all your posts. Most people use signatures to display their favorite quotes or links to their favorite websites. Some forums also allow users to use signatures to promote their own websites. If you are in a forum that allows self-promotional signatures, make sure you take full advantage of this opportunity and create a forum marketing signature that works.
Do not abuse this opportunity by putting flashy images or long advertising messages in your signature. An accurate, short description of your business and a link to your website is the best way to go.
10. Stay away from drama
Do not get drawn into heated arguments. It would be a shame to get banned just because you started arguing whether Han shot first with some 14-year-old kid from Scranton. Here's how you can avoid the drama:
- Constantly remind yourself that your mission here is to build good will for your business.
- Stay away from charged topics like politics or religion.
- Resist the urge to respond to criticism. If you have to answer, at least give yourself a couple of hours to cool off before responding.
- Use emoticons to indicate when you are being facetious.
- End discussions the moment you sense that it is getting contentious. Just say you agree to disagree and that you want to move on to other more pleasant topics.
11. Create win-win marketing campaigns
Once you have the respect of the users you can start more aggressive marketing campaigns. Focus on marketing techniques that provide a benefit for the forum community. For example, offer the forum members special discounts, free samples, or fun contests. Be sure to get the permission of the forum's moderators before you start these campaigns.
12. Be careful how you outsource forum marketing
Many marketing firms use bots or low-skilled foreign workers to spam forums. This is not the type of marketing you want. Forum spam may bring in a little temporary traffic to your website, but in the long run these campaigns can seriously damage your reputation. When you hire a marketing firm, make sure they understand that you will only accept ethical marketing practices that will enhance your image.