Long-time listeners will know that I believe forums are the most under-appreciated venue in social media. One might say that the forums — as well as Usenet and the bulletin board systems before them — are the true grandfathers of social media. And the fact that they are still around and thriving in force after 20 (sometimes 30) years, shows they have a viability that is simply unmatched in the digital realm. MySpace didn't invent online conversation. Nor did Facebook or Twitter. Open, online conversation was born in forum spaces, where people intensely interested in common conversations would gather to discuss. And while other systems and platforms have come and gone, all trying to reinvent the wheel, forums have continued to march on and even proliferate in thousands of different guises. Even today it is not the Linked In Questions space or the Facebook "Like" page or even the blog comments that are getting meaningful two-way conversation. That honor predominantly belongs to forums.
Why Forums Are Valuable To Marketers
We talk about the value of Facebook and how friends will recommend to friends, and that leveraging a person's social graph will increase the likelihood of extending sales among like-minded people. But here's the problem: Even my wife and I don't agree on everything, let alone my college roommate or the guy I met at a conference. So how "like-minded" are these social graphs? Probably not very much.
Yet a person who commits to a forum is intensely interested in the subject(s) being discussed. They wouldn't have joined if they didn't want to specifically discuss the topics at hand. It's not like a Facebook or a Twitter where you join to either connect with people you know or enjoy an ever-widening circle of friends with a range of interests. This is not a group formed by and for relationship, but one created to facilitate commonality.
Let me put it bluntly: This is where the most intensely interested, loud-mouthed advocates on any subject known to man hang out. Whether it's video games or parenting, you'll find a wealth of key influencers. No Facebook drama to deal with. No overwhelming slew of tweets to navigate. A forum takes you right to the heart of any given online conversation. And the opinions formed here make their way out to all the rest of those venues.
And tell me again why you're ignoring forums?
Putting The Transparency-Gospel To The Test
Now to be fair, I know the challenges here. While forums are the havens of intense conversation, they are also vigilant against the threat of marketing. We all know the horrors stories of forums rising up with a mighty ban hammer against the unwary marketer. And so we shy away from them.
What most marketers don't realize, though, is that in every case this happens it's not in response to the marketing itself, but to irrelevancy.
The absolute, rule-number-one no-no of forums is irrelevancy. Topics and threads are set up for a reason — to stay on topic. Moderators police threads and regularly shift posts from one thread to another, all in an effort to combat the dreaded monster of irrelevance. So when you look at a forum as your cheap way to post about a deal on video games, you shatter relevance in the conversation.
But forums don't hate marketers. They just hate marketing copy. And if you find a forum or thread discussing something of specific interest to you or your product, most forums would totally welcome you into the conversation. In fact, you'd be a hero as the knowledgeable expert (or willing scapegoat, depending on the conversation).
You see, we talk a good game in the social space about being transparent, but it's real easy to pretend transparency when all you have to do is write a blog post, write a Facebook status update or answer a few comments. But forums demand true transparency and a much more intense level of interaction. Which is probably the real reason behind why most organizations only offer passing attention to them.
Yet there's no denying that forums continue to offer us the best source of finding key-influencers on a range of subjects. And we're not talking bloggers here, who will take our message back to their 100,000 monthly uniques. We're talking everydaypeople who will take our message back offline, where 90% of all social interactions still happen. (Thank you Keller Fay Group for the research on that statistic.)
So take some time to revisit how you are approaching the social space and take a look at your forum outreach. It's hard work, but just like building any key-influencer relationship it will always pay off in spades in the end.