Forums for Marketing

( Related: How to build a successful forum )

Ever since the Webmaster Forums went online, many forum webmasters and site administrators have asked for advice on running a forum. My reply is usually just two words: “Quick Replies”. In this article, I’d like to discuss forum administration in more depth. I am by no means the leading authority on the subject, so use the advice I offer at your own peril.
Benefits

The benefits of running a forum in conjunction with a proper website are numerous. Perhaps the biggest benefit is in the ability to put a face on your business – branding. Other benefits include added content, and the additional search engine traffic that comes with it; the good will of members who joined to get quick answers to their questions; and loyalty of members who consider the forum to be a community, of which they are a part. Forums are also great for link building.
Branding

One important principle of branding is the celebrity spokesperson. You do not need Michael Jordan or Britney Spears; you just need one person, high profile and active in the industry you serve, to speak for your organization. When you think of Garage.com, you think of Guy Kawasaki. When you think of Oracle, you think of Larry Ellison. When you think of Microsoft, you think of Bill Gates. These men are not famous athletes or actors; they are the high profile spokesmen of their respective organizations. When you want to provide a stronger brand image for your organization, you need to put a face on it. Forums provide a perfect means of accomplishing this on a small budget. A few examples of this: Brett Tabke and WebmasterWorld, “Head Surfer” Robert Marsh and WebHostingTalk, and Doug Heil’s IHelpYou Forums. It’s no coincidence that the most successful forums are closely tied to one high profile person.

Search Engine Traffic

One of the best things you can do to achieve high traffic is added content. But adding content pages often requires research and the use of a high paid SEO copywriter. Forums are often the perfect solution. It’s absolutely free content.

How much traffic can you get from indexed forum threads? When we disabled session ID’s for Google, allowing the Googlebot to index the Concrete Home Forum, the traffic on that site shot up over 400% in the first month. The additional traffic lead to more members posting; more posts meant more traffic; more traffic leading to more posts, and then we’re getting even more traffic from the added posts. So it’s a not too vicious circle of growing traffic.

An example is this thread dealing with pouring concrete over concrete. I never would have thought to make a page dedicated sole to answering the question, “Can I pour new concrete over old concrete?” But that is the exact search string that brings many new visitors to the site. And that is just one thread. Think of the traffic that can be had if you were to have 10,000 or 20,000 threads indexed!

Consumer Loyalty

We never wanted to get into the web hosting business. I personally know nothing about server administration. However, every place we went for hosting was a huge disappointment, so we leased a server and started V7 Inc. I didn’t expect it to take off – promoting our hosting services was never a high priority for me. In fact, to deter people from signing up, we required annual payments instead of monthly. But as soon as we got going, several members of the Webmaster Forum eagerly signed up. Why? Because V7 Inc is seen as community hosting. Forum members are loyal to other members.

Link Building

Say you are a Kawasaki dealership. You want links from other dirt bike, street bike, or ATV related sites. But when you send out emails asking these other sites to link to Beartooth Kawasaki, they reply “No”, because you are a competitor, or because they do not buy from you, or because they want to be paid to link to you because you are selling stuff.

Now say you started a Kawasaki Forum. Anybody interested in Kawasaki bikes, ATV’s, Vulcans, ETC, will link to you because you provide a legitimately useful source of information and a place to get answers to questions from professional Kawasaki mechanics.

This is precisely what happened. After starting the forum, I was pleasantly surprised to find many other sites putting up links to that site without my having to ask for the links. And we all know unsolicited links are the best kind!

Drawbacks

Forums are not all fun and games. If you want to operate a successful forum, you must be prepared to commit a huge amount of time to it. Be prepared to deal with some members bickering with other members. You may be asked to solve differences or pick sides in petty disagreements. You will most likely have to brush up on you people skills and read a book or two on diplomacy. In the end, not all forum members will be happy with the way you administrate the forum, and some will leave in a fit of anger. C’est la vie. Do your best, and chances are you’ll end up with a community, and not just a forum script.

Jump-Starting A New Forum

The hardest is often just getting off the ground. When you start a forum, there is often no community in place. I’ve seen some forums on the Internet that have no posts other than the administrator’s welcome message. Do a search for “Powered by phpBB 2.0.4” or “Powered by phpBB 2.0.3” and go down through the resulting pages. There are many active forums, and a hundred times as many dead forums. Just yesterday I found a construction forum that was started over a year ago. The forum had a total of 20 posts; the most recent post was from four months ago. That post was a simple question to the administrator of the forum; it had not been answered. In fact, looking over that forum right now, none of the questions have been answered. No wonder it is dead – if the administrators aren’t going to commit time and energy to the forum, why should anybody else?

The Quick Reply

This goes to the heart of the problem: Dead forums get deader. Active forums get more active. When my latest addition arrived premature and via C-section, with many worrisome complications, I found it impossible to get straight talk out of the doctors. The doctors seemed so afraid of a malpractice suit that they wouldn’t even confirm or deny that our son had meningitis. “We’re doing everything we can”, was the utterly useless reply. So I turned to the Internet and searched for “premature baby forum”. At the first forum I found, I saw people had posted questions; the questions went unanswered. Why should I post in a forum where my questions aren’t going to get answered? I continued my search until I came across a forum which seemed active, and my questions were in fact answered in under an hour. The quicker the reply, the better. If you are serious about running a successful forum, the first rule is the quick reply.

Active Core Members

Any successful forum has a group of active core members. You, too, need active core members if your forum is to succeed. So where do you find these people? When we started the Concrete Home Forum we spoke to a leading, high profile concrete home builder, and offered a sponsored link on the site in exchange for their participation and endorsement. That company went so far as to send out a mailing to all of their newsletter subscribers requesting their friends and associates to join the forum. If you are starting a new forum, work deals for endorsements. Forge some strategic alliances to get those core members. Another source of core members is your clientele. When Beartooth Kawasaki started the Kawasaki Forum, they invited all their previous clients to join.

If you don’t have access to a pre-existing user base, you may want to offer moderator positions to high profile experts in the industry you serve. Several well-known SEO forums have done this with great success. Not only does it give the high profile SEO something to brag about on his resume; it also attracts people who hold that SEO in high regard and want to hear what he has to say.

Core members may also be found by converting transient members into core members by befriending the transient member, by offering an elevated position in the forum, or by putting the transient member on your staff. Be sure of the person’s aptitude for the position before you put the person in a position of authority.

Building A Community

The one thing lacking in many forums is a sense of community. This is of paramount importance; in fact, if I had to name the one thing responsible for the success of the Webmaster Forum, I’d have to say it is the solid sense of community and friendship shared by many of the members.

I’m no expert on building a sense of community, so here are some random guesses. First, respect your members. Secondly, hold your members in high esteem. Thirdly, respect your members. I have seen a lot of forum administrators not respecting their members; it is probably the fastest way I know of to kill a forum. Asking your members to pay a “subscription fee” to post; asking members to pay a special fee to have a link in their signature line or on their profile; asking members to pay for the “privilege” of having a user-uploaded avatar – I’ve seen forums come up with some awfully stupid ideas. All of these ideas have one thing in common: they overlook the fact that if that forum is successful, it due to the members, not the administrator. If anybody should be paying anybody, it should be the administrator paying the core members for keeping the forum alive. If you are seriously considering running a forum, I urge you to never forget who makes a forum more than just a script – that would be your forum members.

Off-Topic Posting

In some SEO forums, I’ve noticed that strict rules are in place and off topic posts get deleted. Oftentimes the off topic poster will receive a strict warning and face the firing squad at the next occurrence. It’s no wonder these particular SEO forums lack community spirit. Above all else, a friendly forum will live; an strictly administered forum will usually die.

I believe this is one of the main reasons forums fail. People in a community will discuss whatever interests them. In the Webmaster Forum, we have forums set up specifically for SEO, Graphics, Coding, Hosting ETC; the forum that gets the most posts is the Lobby. Members talk about anything and everything – from new trucks to new computers. If the board administration were to stifle off topic posting, we would be stifling the very banter that makes it a community.
Bottom Line Is…

Why would you join a forum? Why would you leave it? Heavy-handed administration is the #1 reason I’ve stopped participating on some SEO forums; a friendly sense of community is the thing that keeps me going back to a number of SEO forums. If you want to succeed, make it fun; make it a community.

Avatars allow people to express their identity, as do signature lines. Prohibiting signature lines or avatars may seem like a fun and perverse way to express your need to control your environment, but I do not recommend such heavy handed tactics if your aim is to have a friendly online community.

The Webmaster Forum

This was not my first forum, so I did go into it with a bit more experience that many new forum administrators. I had previously administrated a forum for contractors, which no longer exists. It was there that I learned that quick replies make all the difference in the world. In case you weren’t listening: Quick replies make all the difference.

You may ask, has there been return on investment? A lot of time has been invested in this particular forum. Some members have chosen to use our hosting services; the majority of our search engine optimization clients have stated that they found us through the Webmaster Forums. The fact that we are active members of the online community instills trust in potential clients. The assumption is: if we were unreliable, the forum would be full of complaints.

Kawasaki Motorcycle.org

Jim Kujala was paying several hundred dollars a month to display a banner ad on a Kawasaki forum. When we learned of this, we recommended operating his own Kawasaki Forum. The result is Kawasaki-Info.com’s Kawasaki Forum. It is regarded by all involved as a huge success. From the start, it has seen good traffic and has resulted in many sales.

Because the forum is legitimately useful, many other related-interest sites have chosen to link to Kawasaki-Info.com. All in all, the traffic and ROI produced by that forum and site has exceeded our expectations on a level we could not have imagined.

Concrete-Home.com

Concrete-Home.com has seen a few ups and downs, but in recent months has finally started to really grow. Allowing Google to index the threads has made a huge difference in the traffic on that site, and the number of leads generated by that site for the sponsors.

A personal conflict between two members resulted in the majority of members leaving, and demonstrates the potential a forum has to damage a site, or mar the company image. More intervention by the administrator might have prevented the community from breaking apart.

Even if something of a personal conflict happens on a board, stick it out and fresh blood will take most likely pick up the slack.

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