- What are Forums?
- Why are they good for business?
- How do I use a forum?
- You are the expert
- Getting testimonials
- Hard selling
- When to link to your site
- Identifying the right forum for you
- Speaking of Google
If you are in business, you'll appreciate the importance of word-of-mouth recommendations and having a good reputation in your community.
But as well as real-world communities there are virtual communities which offer just the same opportunities to not only spread the word about yourself, but to get your customers to do it for you.
Used wisely, online forums can be an excellent marketing tool. This guide gives some recommendations on how to make the most of them for your business.
Forums are online communities of people with shared interests. They allow contributors to talk, share ideas, pass on tips or just gossip.
For you as a business, this is what your customers are doing in the real world - but online it can happen more efficiently and to a wider audience.
For every line of business, there will be a forum. What the forum offers you is a self-selected group of key marketing targets.
You know that people who have signed up to, for instance, a self-build and DIY forum are going to be interested in.. self-build and DIY.
If you are a company selling reclaimed bricks, or a DIY company, or a planning consultant etc, members of this forum will be potential customers.
But more than that, they are also a potential sales team - and this is the key to unlocking the potential of forums.
A forum is not a place to advertise your business, it is a place to court that potential sales team.
All forums will have an Alpha Group - those members who dominate the forum, are known to other forum members, are quoted widely and referred to often.
These will be the most active people on the forum, and also those who have a level of knowledge and a willingness to pass it on that has earned them the respect of more casual users.
The Alpha Group is your target - you either woo them, or you become one of them.
Most forums allow you to see how many posts people have put up. Use this, and look for names that crop up time and again in other posts, to identify the Alpha Group members.
One of the most common uses for forums is to find out information that is hard to find elsewhere.
For instance, on the DIY forum, people will be asking questions such as how to get permission for a redevelopment in a planning protected area.
What they are looking for is expert advice. If you are an expert in planning law this is where you ride to the rescue.
So you've positioned yourself as an expert on the forum. This does two things - you've immediately made contact with someone who might want to use your services. You've not hard-sold to them, you've helped them. Now they - and other readers of the post - know you are a helpful person and that you know about planning law.
As well as that, you've positioned yourself in the eyes of the Alpha Group as a fellow expert. What the Alpha Group like more than anything else is to be seen as the source of all answers. This can either be answers they provide direct, or tip offs about a fellow Alpha Grouper who can help - ie "this sounds like one for DIYDave, he's the planning expert".
When this happens, you have your online referal - just like good old-fashioned offline recommendations. Just make sure you also tip users off about other experts on the site, if you are seen to be promoting other Alpha Group members, they are more likely to do the same for you.
But the recommendations don't stop there. If, through the forum, you get work and you do a good job, people will talk about you online.
When someone next asks a question about planning law, the person you helped will chime in with "DIYDave sorted this out for me in no time, you might want to PM him".
Personal Message. Most forums allow you to send private messages to users, ie messages that don't appear on the public forum. Use these for any direct business transactions, for instance offering professional services.
And use them wisely - don't PM people without first asking permission, and don't do it too often or you will labelled a spammer.
Another tactic to avoid is blatantly selling online. Don't plug your business, don't keep talking about what you do - let your posts speak for themselves. Don't put links to your site into your text (except where appropriate, which we'll come onto) don't fake testimonials about your business.
The Alpha Group have highly tuned Spam Radars - if they get a sniff of someone trying to use the forum to advertise directly, you won't get anywhere near them.
Some forums will allow you to include your web address in your signature. If so, great. Make your signature subtle - ie, no sales talk just the company name and web address and maybe a line about your area of expertise. Just say what you do, not how great you are.
If the particular forum does not allow links in signatures, there are ways to get a site link without spamming.
Having a resource area on your website is always a good idea - offering free expert advice is great for SEO - but it also give you an excuse for linking to your site.
If someone is asking about a particular area of planning law, and you have a free guide on your site to just that area, then you can post a link.
Give your advice, and at the end say "we've written a guide to this very subject that might be useful" and link to it.
To be on the safe side, add another couple of links to guides elsewhere. Again, this just helps reduce the risk of being labelled a spam merchant.
Ok, so now you know how to use forums. But how do you find the right forum for you.
To be accepted as an expert on a forum, you need to be a regular poster. A couple of posts a month won't do - you should be on there every day ideally, even if only for long enough to answer one post.
So, unless you are a big enough company to employ someone to do your social media marketing for you, you need to target one, maybe two, forums and stick to that one.
In order to identify the forums to concentrate on, think: what area am I an expert in?; who are my customers?; what are core products/services?; what subjects are my customers interested in?.
Think like a customer and put some typical customer questions into Google. If one forum pops up in the search results for these questions more than others, this is the one to use.
The other key benefit for using forums is SEO.
Not only will you get good links to your site (following the tips above), but people will find your posts when carrying out general Google (or other Search Engine) searches.
Because of the number of links and relevance of copy, forums have excellent natural SEO. People asking the sorts of questions your customers ask of the search engines will find these forums - and if you are on it, they will find you.
- Find a forum that answers typical customer questions
- Concentrate on this forum
- Post regularly
- Position yourself as a friendly expert
- Recommend other Alpha Group members in your posts and they will do the same for you
- Don't directly sell your services. On the forum you are a helpful person who just happens to run a business, not a business
- Only link where your link is directly useful in answering a question. Don't link to product or paid-for services pages
- Link to other people as well as yourself
- Actively woo the most regular posters on the site
- Create a resource area on your website that you can link to when appropriate