Online forums: The hidden gems of the social Web

November 3, 2009

Facebook and Twitter garner most of the attention these days, as PR pros figure out the best way to use social media to communicate.

But while no one is quite sure how to measure the success of tweets and status updates, another social format is proving to be a measurable, effective way to reach consumers at a time when they are forming opinions and making purchase decisions: online forums.

Forums are the hidden gems of the social Web. These are the places where product conversations are integral instead of intrusive. Often, a consumer seeks out a forum precisely for the purpose of product research. 

Instead of general statements like “I’m having PB&J for lunch” or “I’m in line at Starbucks,” consumers post such pointed questions as “What to look for in a car stereo” and “Seeking suggestions for a compact amplifier.” 

In other words, forums are a communicator’s dream — the ultimate way to target your audience.  Advertisers often have a presence in forums, through banner ads or Google AdWords.  But the conversational tone of forums makes the audience much more receptive to an approach that focuses on contributing to the discussion, rather than serving banner or text ads that may not be relevant and that are placed around the edges of the forum itself. 

The best way to connect with audience members in forums is to contribute useful information to the conversations that are already happening among interested consumers.  This makes forums a natural fit for PR pros who are accustomed to using various forms of editorial content to convey messages and connect with customers.   

There are many highly targeted online forums. They attract people with similar interests who communicate with each other by posting messages., and are examples of online communities in which people discuss products, pose questions and seek more information from those who have experience with particular brands. 

Forum content is often product-specific, and the discussion topics reveal that consumers are actively seeking information to help them make purchase decisions. 

These are discussion topics from several recent posts:

• “Looking to buy a digital camera”
• “Any good deals on laptops right now?”
• “2010 Ford Taurus vs. 2009 Nissan Maxima”

Enhancing forum discussions by adding informative posts can be a useful way to reach ready-to-buy consumers. In most forums, posts can include text, pictures, hyperlinks and links to video.

Forums offer additional benefits to communicators — posts are indexed by search engines and carry significant weight in search results. Posts also are archived and continue to live online for a long time, even when the conversation isn’t active.

Over the past year, PostRelease has measured sponsored posts — clearly labeled as such — that offer content that is relevant to the discussion topic. That content might include information about a product or service being discussed on the forum.  Effectiveness was measured in the rates at which people click-through from that post to another link — either to the company’s Web site, or even to a video on YouTube.  Click-through rates during the first week of a campaign average 33 percent.  We’ve found that the effectiveness of individual posts increases over time — with response rates growing as much as 70 percent six months later — because people can discover those posts directly from search engines.    

Engaging micro communities with useful information
Julie Mathis, vice president of consumer technology for Hill & Knowlton, said it best in a news release from this past July, announcing the results of a survey conducted for the agency: “The most effective way to reach consumers online is with highly targeted campaigns tailored to engage micro-communities that form around common interests.”

That said, PR practitioners are often hesitant to enter a space that might not seem to embrace commercial messages, fearing that their presence might be seen as an unwelcome intrusion. But hesitancy is only good to the extent that it gives companies and communicators a chance to think through their approaches. Consumers do welcome relevant, useful information and don’t mind encountering brands online.

In fact, 85 percent of Americans who use social media believe that a company not only should be present on social sites, but also should interact with its consumers via social media platforms, according to a 2008 Cone Business in Social Media Study.

PR skills such as writing concisely, creating messages that favor information over hyperbole and knowing what is newsworthy — what would be of interest to the audience, rather than peripheral — all come in handy when creating a forum post that is informational and interesting, rather than overly commercial.

And remember, the way that you approach a forum should be strategic and thoughtful. 

Here are some suggestions:

Be prepared. Most forums will not let companies post messages, no matter how open and helpful they are. Research each forum’s rules, and carefully follow them. You may have to become an official sponsor before being allowed to participate on any level.     

Be selective. Narrow down the forums that you want to participate in, and craft informational, relevant messages in advance.  You don’t have to respond to particular posts or questions — which can be especially cumbersome — but try to offer content that adds to the discussion.

Be authentic. Once you have permission to post, provide useful information or offer consumers something of value. This might include tips about how to get the most out of a product, exclusive discount offers or even an early notification of a special deal. 

Be transparent. Don’t pretend to be “just a visitor.” Consumers don’t mind encountering company representatives online unless they don’t disclose who they are.
Forums are where the real product conversations happen — and that’s right where communicators want to be.

Copyright © 2009 PRSA. All rights reserved.

Justin Choi
Justin Choi is president of PostRelease, which provides an automated way to insert clearly identified, relevant content into online forum discussions.


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