Before Facebook was conceived or Twitter was launched, before “community” became the flavor of the day and the term “social media” was even coined, people were meeting online to discuss topics dear to their hearts. All over the web and in myriad languages, people gathered in discussion groups and on forums, where they chatted to their hearts’ content about topics they found interesting. And despite the popularity of social networks, forums and discussion groups have not lost their cachet.
ProBoards.com, the internet’s largest free forum host, is home to more than 3 million forums, with more than 20 million users. Industry associations, publishers, special interest groups and brands host countless more discussion groups and forums. People flock to these groups to ask and answer questions, networks and simply to hang out with like minded people. Most are also easily found via search engines, when search queries pull up related discussion threads.
Case in point: My farrier recently suggested that I consider a hoof supplement for my horse (i.e. vitamins to help grow stronger hooves), but he didn’t recommend one in particular. So, being the intrepid Googler that I am, I turned to my favorite search engine and plugged in a pretty specific search string: “best hoof supplement for TB.” (TB is the shorthand for the horse’s breed, which happens to be predisposed to hoof issues.) Okay, so clearly I am an advocate of forums, but even I was surprised by the results of my search.
ALL of the top results were from forums. This search was done with personalization turned on, and the top result is from a forum I frequent, however, I do not visit the other forums listed in the search results. So, while Google knows of my affinity for one of the forums, the inclusion of the others suggests that forums generally are pretty good search engine fodder.
Opportunities for communicators:
You can find discussion groups devoted to almost any topic, from caring for all types of animals to fixing mountain bikes to planning healthy lunch box meals, and the discussions aren’t limited to consumer issues. B2B groups abound as well, discussing supply chains, technologies and issues specific to professions and practices. In my mind, these are perfect virtual focus groups, and you can join in, interact, watch and listen to your hearts’ content.
Despite their focused subject matter and audiences, these groups aren’t on the PR radar screen. Some organizations do have social media monitoring in place, and keep tabs on brand-related conversations online, but generally speaking, that’s the extent of the interest in these groups. As a long time denizen of a variety of groups related to personal interests, I think that’s a mistake. While discussion groups are not appropriate places to push messages, they provide a number of opportunities for the dialed-in communicator.
- Market intelligence. The discussions on forums can be a rich and unending source of market intelligence. Members will discuss hacks – how they’ve modified an item to meet their needs, frustrations, unsolved problems and theory. They will share tips, tricks and tactics, and offer candid assessment products, services, vendors and suppliers. Everything is on the table. I personally think of forums as ongoing market research groups. Actively listening to these groups will reveal what is on your audience’s mind, and will surface trends and issues quickly. There’s far more value to be had than simply monitoring mentions of your brand.
- Industry research & insight. If you frequent discussion a discussion group, over time you’ll see subjects pop up again and again. You’d think the group would be annoyed at answering the same question over and over again (and in fact, many discussion groups have published FAQs which are in and of themselves rich sources of information for PR pros,) but the reality is that people will try to fill in gaps in information. When you see a question – especially one that starts with “What’s the best …” or “How do I …” recur over and over, that’s an opportunity. There’s a gap in public information. People pose questions on forums when they don’t find answers in search engines. Fill that gap!
- Connections with enthusiasts and influencers. Many forum discussions name products. People will weigh in with comments about how much they love or hate their [item, product]. They will relate experiences. In addition to identifying enthusiasts who advocate your product, you will also start to see who on the forum carries more weight. Chances are good these folks have followings outside of the forum too, and are solid influencers. You’ll also find bloggers in the group. Forums are great places for connecting with enthusiasts and influencers on a personal basis, and you may find opportunities to work with brand advocates who can amplify your message.
Rules of engagement:
Like any social network, forums are personal. People make friends on forums, and build associations that last years. Just as Twitterers will hold ‘Tweet-Ups’ to meet in person, it’s not uncommon for forum members to meet up at events. So as you venture forth in forums, it’s important to remember that the denizens of discussion groups are not gathered around their computers, eagerly awaiting marketing messages. They are seeking interesting and valuable information, and interaction with other enthusiasts and experts. Bear that context in mind.
As I mentioned earlier, I think there’s more benefit to be had in interacting with forum members, but you need to do so as a member of the community. You have to be friendly, interested and knowledgeable. You can also derive a lot of information from simply observing the interactions on the board as you would observe a focus group. There’s so much to be gleaned from watching and listening, especially over time.
If you decide to start interacting, especially on behalf of the brand or organization you represent, keep a few things in mind.
- Don’t feed trolls. There are rabble-rousers and troublemakers on forums. Don’t bite when they bait you, especially if you’re new to the board and don’t know the players and the vibe.
- Get to know the board’s style. Are the conversations grammatically correct and more technical in nature? Or does the board have a more free wheeling style that is OK with abbreviation and “text speak.”? Does the board support, advocate or eschew certain trends or practices with in the field of interest? Finding and communicating within that context is important.
- Respect specificity. There are different disciplines and interests in all broad categories, from cooking (vegan, country, gluten-free, light) to cultivating daylilies (heirlooms, natives, hybrids) or cycling (road, off-road, cyclocross, fixie). You can see where thinking in broad terms of cooking, daylilies or cycling could be way too broad. Focus on specific topics to which your brand or organization is highly relevant.
- First and foremost, be helpful, and stay on topic. This is a good time to remind ourselves that forums are about them, not us. When you interact on forums, your answers and comments should be about the topic at hand. Segues about related products generally aren’t well received, unless the information being relayed is new and (here’s that word again) specific to the discussion.
- Be transparent. If you are a representative of a brand or organization, put that in your bio, and put a little disclaimer in your answers reminding others of your affiliation. I’ve found that doing so actually increases my credibility, and furthermore, folks are often pleased that someone from an industry player is listening.
After putting some queries out to the PR community, my sense is that forums and discussion groups are broadly overlooked. As a long time denizen of a variety of niche forums, I know the influence these groups generate. I’ve been a member of different online forums for years – well before the advent of social media. Those forums taught me the power of online communities to influence decisions and create virtual networks of people who could do some real-life heavy lifting: I’ve been involved with regional efforts to collect native plant seeds for prairie restoration efforts, moving rescued horses around the country to foster homes, and lobbying for various legislative issues. The influence of organized and connected online enthusiasts is real.
To find forums clustered around topics near and dear to your heart (or your business!) type your keywords plus the word ‘forum’ or ‘discussion group’ into a search engine (e.g. “daylily forum” or “cycling discussion group”) You’ll find your people. They’re out there, talking, interacting and waiting for you!
Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media. She’s been active in online groups for more than 10 years, and currently counts groups devoted to daylily cultivation, wild mushroom identification, cycling [road] and dressage training among her favorites.