Editor’s Note: In light of our recent affirmation that forums and message boards are a bountiful home for consumer interaction and engagement around brands and products, I thought it appropriate to invite some solid expertise here to help advise us on how to proceed in exploring online forums for marketing purposes. Today’s guest post is by the person I regard as the foremost expert on managing online forums in the U.S., if not the world, Patrick O’Keefe.
I regularly find myself in the position of having to defend online forums, without actually wanting to be put into that position.
It’s kind of awkward and strange because forums don’t need defending. They don’t need me. They don’t need anyone. Forums were around before you got into “social” (professionally) and they’ll be around after you make your exit.
Yet, I regularly run across people who compartmentalize them in a way that is odd and unfair. It usually goes something along the lines of: forums are old, dying, outdated, no one uses them and they never evolve. These thoughts are incorrect. When these comments are made, most of the time, the person just doesn’t understand forums and needs to make a bold statement to appear confident.
For some reason, some people choose to look at different tools and different platforms in an adversarial way. As if convincing themselves that it is “Facebook vs. Forums” makes their lives easier or more manageable. I don’t understand this.
I started in “social” (or, as I like to call it, online community management) in 2000. For a year or two before that, I had done some forum moderation. If you could see the tools we had at our disposal 12 years ago and compare them to the tools that we have now, you wouldn’t be thinking in an adversarial way. You’d be thinking in a grateful way, amazed and appreciative of the choices that we now have available to us, when it comes to all of the tools and platforms.
I may have written a book about managing online forums, but I use and love Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, SlideShare and other platforms. It is never an either/or scenario. It is a matter of choice and using what will work best for you. In this post, I’ll be discussing how you can get the most out of a forum you don’t own or operate, as a brand representative of some sort, whether that be agency or in-house.
The Power of Forums
When you type a question into Google, there is a fair chance that you will end up at a forum. And I literally mean a question about anything. Electronics, cooking, car repair, vacations, taxes – anything. Why is this? Is it because forums game the search engines better than anyone else?
No, actually, it’s sort of the opposite. Search engines are finding where real knowledge is shared and exchanged and it is bubbling to the top of their results.
Pick a topic. It doesn’t matter what. There are online forums dedicated to that topic where people are engaging in a meaningful, passionate way right at this second. In many cases, this also extends to products, companies, celebrities and more. If you are trying to reach people interested in that topic, this is the place you need to be.
What is true of most generic platforms, like Facebook, Twitter and Google+, is that people use them to share their thoughts on anything and to engage with individuals. If you want to check up on your friend from college, you use Facebook. If you want to share a random thought that popped into your head, you use Facebook or Twitter. But, if you want to discuss the martial arts with other passionate martial artists, you go to a martial arts forum.
In the entire social web, generally speaking and with plenty of exceptions, forums are where the deepest, most engaging conversation around specific topics and interests occurs.
When Jason told me that 90% of the discussions occurring online around banks and bank products were in forums, I was a little surprised. Not because I didn’t think that a lot of it occurred there, but just because I thought there might be a broader mix. But, it makes sense. If you want to ask questions about banks and discuss bank products, where do you go? To your Facebook friends? Or to an online community dedicated to finance, banking and/or investment? (And yes, if you have a friend who is uniquely qualified to offer expertise, you’d probably go to them, as well).
Forums Are a Different Beast
I run into people who use Facebook and Twitter and then are perplexed that they weren’t allowed to post a link on a forum. They think they should be able to do what they do on Twitter on my forums and when they can’t, they think that I am being difficult. When, in reality, they are guilty of thinking they are entitled to something, which is ugly.
You have to consider the nature of online forums and structured online communities. On Twitter, I have to opt-in to you. I have to click the “Follow” button to see what you say. The same is true on Facebook. You don’t enter my stream unless I explicitly opt-in. These are your profiles. This is not the case on forums where everyone can see everything. It is a community space and not your space. As such, the guidelines for the forum must be respected at all times.
You have to think of each forum like its own country. One forum will have totally different guidelines and social norms from another. Many countries subscribe to similar standards of law, but even in those cases, there can be local laws and slight differences than what you are used to.
Failing to understand this can lead to backlash and can end up with you being rightfully tarred as a spammer. Do you think that it is easier to ask for permission, than forgiveness? Not on forums. It’s hard to ask for forgiveness when you’ve already been banned. Initially, joining in a forum may seem scary. But, it’s really not that bad once you have the proper handle on it.
Understanding How to Engage on Forums
It is easy enough to locate a forum that has an audience you’d like to reach. Perhaps they are already talking about your company or product. Or you did a Google search for “<insert your topic here> forums” or “<topic> community” (without the quotes) and found a forum that you can identify with. Generally speaking, you only want to join forums where the level of conversation is one that you and your company can comfortably be associated with.
When you join a forum, you are joining to contribute to that forum. Not to take advantage of it and not to siphon people off to your website. I recently had someone join a forum that I manage and they started a thread to link people to a blog post they had written. This was removed and I sent the member a nice, polite message to let them know. In his response, the member said that he didn’t have time to post replies on my forums or any forums, only to link to his blog, because “life is too short.”
That’s great. Just don’t expect to be welcome on many forums. You have to want to be there. If you don’t, it shows and people will pick up on it. If you are actually interested in contributing, let’s talk about how you can get started on the right foot. An individual forum may allow you to go further than what I describe below, but to understand that, you must become better acquainted with the community and, perhaps, talk with the staff. What I lay out here will give you a good foundational basis for that.
The Guidelines Are Your Friend
Pretty much every forum worth engaging in has posted policies of some kind. Read these closely. Some brand representatives see this and think they are the enemy and that your job is to find a way around them to push a message or advertise something. This is a bad way to look at them.
The guidelines are actually your best friend. They serve as a vision statement for the community, discussing what is allowed, what isn’t and what sort of people will be attracted to the forums. For you, they are a cheat sheet. They give you a leg up on what you can expect.
You should always respect the guidelines. Never bend them, let alone break them.
Observe the Norms
Before you jump in, take a look around. See how others contribute and how top posters and especially staff members share. Like the guidelines, this will help you to feel comfortable and to participate in a manner that respects the community. Get the lay of the land, like you would in any environment that you are new to.
Your Signature is Where You Link and Identify Yourself
If the community allows you to have a signature and include links in it (check those guidelines), that is where you can include a link to your stuff.
Just as important, depending on whom you are and who you work for, is the need to identify yourself, in the interests of full disclosure. It is vital that people know of the relationships that you may have to companies and interests discussed on the forum so that they can view your words accordingly and trust your perspective.
To try to hide these affiliations is ethically and, perhaps, legally wrong. If you share thoughts that relate to the company you represent and people find out that you are affiliated with them, you are dead. If you share thoughts that relate to competitors of your company and people learn of your affiliation, you are dead. If you comment on interests and initiatives that may, in some way, help or harm your company and people learn of your affiliation, again, you are dead. Always, always disclose.
If you are stupid and slimy enough not to disclose, you better be lucky enough to get away with it because a small enough company can be killed by the resulting attention. Many of the people who try to deceive members of a community are eventually caught because they did it for too long and got too greedy. It just takes one minor detail and then you are exposed and your name is dirt.
One last note on signatures and identification. On a forum, a person posts – not a company. For example, “Social Media Explorer” doesn’t create posts. Instead, Jason Falls, the CEO of Social Media Explorer is the one who posts and this is clearly identified. A person at the company contributes to a forum, not the company itself. It’s a small, but important distinction.
Contribute ON the Community
You participate in a forum to contribute to the forum. Not to send people elsewhere. The one exception to this might be the case of, for example, a software company that has a substantial knowledgebase and FAQ. If you join a forum you don’t run and answer questions by simply linking to your FAQ over and over again, that might come across as a bit spammy.
Instead, your job is to add value to the forums themselves, not to send people in a million different directions. Even if it means copying and pasting answers from your own FAQ, rather than linking to it. It may be OK for you to link to an FAQ conservatively, but run that by the staff first.
That sort of example aside, answer questions in the forums and provide answers in the forums themselves. Not as links to articles or blog posts that you’ve written. When you provide value and when you provide good answers, that is where you see the real value of forums. People respect your knowledge and look to you for your expertise. They look at your signature, visit your website and you are top of mind for them when they think of that particular topic. Forums are a tremendous way to demonstrate genuine expertise.
This is tricky because it isn’t the cleanest thing to measure and the people who think you can measure everything will be disappointed. As my friend Ted Sindzinski said recently in an article on social ROI, “as good as metrics are, they only tell you the story of how to grow those metrics and that isn’t always a part of the greater tale of what’s making you succeed.”
Contribute Good Stuff
It’s important to contribute good stuff for the reasons we just discussed, but also because posts on forums can live on “forever.” You need to be aware of what you contribute and ensure that you are adding value and representing yourself and your brand in a positive manner. Many large forums have outlived many of the buzz social media platforms that have come, gone and are no longer accessible.
When you make a post, count on it being accessible for a very long time. On forums, you can’t just delete a message or close an account, like you might delete a tweet or close your Twitter account. When you contribute to a forum, your contribution is linked to the contributions of others and removing those contributions damages what others have added by removing the context. For this very good reason, many forums will not allow for the mass removal of posts.
Don’t (Be the First) to Mention Your Stuff!
A great guideline to follow is to never be the first to mention your company, product or services. Don’t be the first to introduce your commercial interests into a thread. If someone brings it up, excellent, you can probably thank them or answer their questions on the forum.
But, you don’t want to start a thread to say “hey, my company exists!” You don’t want to be the first person to mention your new product. You don’t (obviously, I hope) want to post press releases. You are here to offer value, not mention your company. I suspect that some of you reading this may say, “well, then I’ll just befriend a veteran member and persuade/pay him or her to mention my stuff.” No. Stop. Don’t do that, either. That falls into the whole disclosure issue I described and, frankly, is sad. You’ll get caught and you’ll pay for it. As someone who has caught people and made them pay, trust me when I say you will pay.
There may be dedicated sections in a forum where it is OK to mention your stuff. Make sure that you understand the particular guidelines for participating in those sections and that you participate in an exemplary manner.
If You Are Ever in Doubt, Ask the Staff
Finally, if you ever have any question as to whether or not something is OK, ask a staff member. Usually you can do so privately, which is ideal, but sometimes you might have to do it in a dedicated forum. It’s amazing to me how many people miss this step and assume it is OK to post that message advertising something that I then have to remove. By then, they’ve already got a strike against them and we have a negative relationship.
When you ask a staff member, you are giving yourself complete confidence in posting. Generally speaking, the staff will appreciate that you asked first, rather than doing something that was inappropriate and led to them having to spend time cleaning it up. Plus, you will also be building a respectful relationship with them, which can help you down the road if you have any ideas for a partnership or more traditional advertising campaign.
The social web is a big place. It’s always funny to me when I meet people who think it primarily consists of Facebook and Twitter. If you believe that, you really are missing a majority of the social web. It’s a lot bigger and more diverse than that.
Forums and structured, focused communities offer a great deal of value, representing a concentrated audience of the people that you probably want to reach. They are engaging now, around your company, your products and your industry. I’m not saying everyone should join a forum and start contributing, just that you should be aware of them as a legitimate, powerful platform. Engaging with individual forums should be a strategic option you consider, right alongside engaging with people on Facebook and Twitter. They are worth your consideration.
Patrick O’Keefe is the founder of the iFroggy Network and has been managing online forums and communities since 2000. He authored the book “Managing Online Forums,” blogs at ManagingCommunities.com and can be found on Twitter @iFroggy.