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Forums as marketing tools - tips and pitfalls

A piece of advice to be found on many marketing oriented sites for boosting traffic is: "add a forum". That's a little like asking the question "how do I get rich?" and then receiving counsel such as "make money".

Here's the truth about forums as a traffic generating tool - unless you are extremely lucky, developing a successful forum is damned hard work and you could be struggling for months to get it moving. 

Can the effort be rewarding though? Yes, I still believe this to be the case. The community that develops around your forum can provide an excellent feedback tool for improving your products and services. An active forum with informative content can also attract new clients through increased search engine presence and word-of-mouth referrals.

Years ago, if you launched a forum and it was half-decent, then nudged it along with some basic promotion; the traffic would come to you in droves. Like all things on the web now, there's very little new under the sun, so if you are planning to implement a forum, think very carefully about it - do you have the time to put into it and the determination to nurture the community during the initial stages? When I started my first forum on TTB, I was still working full-time in the "real" world and really didn't have the time to oversee it and it didn't do too well.

Through the thousands of forums I have visited in the past years, the other mistake I see people make is implementing a forum too soon after a site is launched. 9 times out of 10, the board is doomed. The reason for this is that people who visit new forums can be put off by the lack of activity. A deserted forum can also negatively affect your own site and business generally - people may think that what you are offering must be of low quality.

I think that the best strategy is to launch your site first, build up a bit of traffic, establish a relationship with your visitors via email or a blog and *then* launch a forum. The exception to this is where you have an actual product you are selling and the forum is there to purely offer support for that product.

Forum pre-launch/setting up tips

While the following are specifically related to forums, many points can also be applied when setting up a blog.

Survey your visitors

You may have a stack of traffic and think your visitors would like a forum, but have you asked them? Send an email out to your subscriber list to gain a general opinion or run a survey - it's also a good opportunity to ask for volunteer moderators. Of course, if you're trying to get the drop on your competitors, this is a step you may have to skip.

Ask a few short questions like

  • should we have a forum?

  • would you participate?

  • any specific topic you'd like to see?

  • would you like to be a moderator?

If you get very few responses, see it as a sign that your user base isn't interested - even if the responses you do get are very positive.

If the response is good, keep your subscribers informed as to the launching of your forum. The more "buzz" you can build, the greater the chance that when they are actually launched, your subscribers will quickly join in.

Recruiting moderators

If you can get 3 or 4 people to assist you in overseeing your forum; it's highly recommended. These people will know other people whom they can attract to the forum. If you're on a tight budget, then paying for their services may not be viable, but perhaps you can offer them free products or a small share of your revenue - this can motivate them to not only oversee their particular category but to put some effort into promoting your forums. Depending on the popularity and reputation of your site, moderator status in itself may be payment enough for people to get interested.

Having other moderators assist can also provide you with a means of having fresh content posted, and fresh content posted by different users will give the impression of some sort of activity in the early stages of your forum's development.

Software - remotely or locally hosted

There's literally hundreds of different forum packages available, both free and premium. One of the first things you need to ask yourself is whether you want to run it as a locally hosted (on your own server) or as a remotely hosted application.

The advantages of a remotely hosted application is that setting up is very simple and the company will keep the software updated for you; leaving you free to monitor and post content.

The disadvantages of using a remotely hosted application are restrictions on customizing, if the company goes broke, it becomes too expensive, or if you have some sort of disagreement with the service and they terminate your account.

Using a locally hosted package will allow you greater flexibility in customization and greater control over your data. Running your own software does require some technical skills - basic script installation skills for the initial setup and more advanced skills for customizing and applying patches for security holes that will inevitably become apparent. 

If you do decide to use locally hosted software, ensure that you check with your web host first regarding compatibility. Even if the software is compatible, some hosts may refuse to host certain packages if they cause too much load on their servers.

Software - search engine friendly?

Most free forum software packages are not "out of the box" search engine friendly and will require some modification, whereas many premium packages are already optimized for search engines. It's absolutely crucial that your forum can be spidered by search engines, so you need to weigh up whether you have the skills/time to make modifications to code, or whether you may be better off buying a package already SE friendly. 

Start off with only a few categories

When you are setting up the software, the temptation is to create many categories for specific subjects. Avoid this practice. Remember that the amount of posting by visitors during the initial months may be very light. It's better to have 4 categories with 25 posts in each, than 20 categories with only 5 posts.

Make a category for the forum-shy

All popular forums have "lurkers" - those visitors who frequent the board but never post. These visitors may not post simply through a lack of confidence or fear of being heckled. By creating a "general" or "meet and greet" category and inviting people to introduce themselves and test forum features, you may motivate some of the lurkers to become posters. It's a category where you can also ask questions that everyone can answer, like "where are you all from?", helping to foster a greater sense of community.

Weirdos and spammers

Some *very* weird things can happen on forums - every psycho in the world seems to gravitate to them, as do spammers. Ensure you have proper disclaimers prior to launch and that each category has a "forum rules" post "stickied" or posted as an announcement.  A stickied message is one that remains at the top of the topic list. However, most nutters and spammers won't give a hoot about your guidelines, so you'll need to keep a close eye on things.

Keep it light

Forums software packages tend to be very flexible these days in terms of customization, or "skinning". Bells and buzzers also abound and can be switched on or off. It's best to have the forum run as leanly and quickly as possible in the early days and then introduce features as they are requested. Also, try to keep the file size down on image based items such as buttons and other borders - these can really slow a forum down and chew up a great deal of bandwidth.

Most packages also allow for your users to upload files or to incorporate their own personal graphics (called avatars). It's best to minimize the file size you'll allow members to use.

Test and tweak

Before you launch, ensure that *everything* is working as it should and that your forum looks professional. So many times I've seen eager site owners launch a forum with broken graphic links and other glitches. With so much competition out there for forum members, people will move on quickly if your registration or posting system isn't functioning correctly - and more often than not, they won't tell you.

Pre-launch announce

Before you are about to link from your site to the forum, inform your current subscribers first and allow them to post. That way when you do link the forum in with your main site, there may already be some posts in it that aren't just yours.

Forum launch tips

Promote, promote, promote

Wherever you can, however you can (without spamming of course), get the message out that your forum is live. Aside from your current subscriber list, ensure you submit your forum to the search engines. You'll also find that most forum software companies will have a section where users of their software can promote their own creations. Ensure that your forum is mentioned on every page of your site - and not just an indiscriminate text link - use banners and buttons. You need to make as big an impact as possible.

I've also seen a few companies use affiliate programs for their forums - paying X amount for each referred signup. This is a great way to promote if you have the money to burn, but fraudulent signups will be quite common. 

Post, post, post

*Never* let your forums go stale - 2 days without a post in any category will make it look like a ghost town. Post a snippet of news or an external resource if you have to, but get something in there. Encourage your moderators to keep the content flowing - point them to resources to assist them in this task.

Monitor often, respond quickly

As mentioned, the sickos of the world love forums and they are also a prime target for spammers - especially once activity builds. You're going to need to set some time aside several times each day to check on activity and delete unsavory posts if need be and to answer any posts made. Some forum packages include moderation queue features; where you can elect not to have posts go live until they are approved. This can slow down a community, so its best only to apply this feature to new members until they have X posts under their belt - and only do this if you really have to.

Answer a question, then ask one

When somebody posts a question, or makes a comment, it's great if you can respond, but then the thread can die off quickly - answer the person, but end with a question to encourage them to return; something related to the topic they've posted - it should be a relatively simple question.

Developing your forum

Run polls

Most forum software has functions for polls and surveys. While your "lurkers" may not post, they are more likely to participate in polls where all they need to do is make a selection. You can use polls to your advantage to determine what kinds of changes should be made to your forums as they develop.

Don't allow flaming

"Flaming" is where one forum member insults others. While passionate discussion is fine, when it becomes insulting and infringes on the rights of others, flame wars can destroy a forum for everyone. Be very clear in your forum rules what constitutes acceptable behavior. Never, ever engage in flaming yourself, no matter what the situation - it will reflect poorly on your business. Be professional at all times and if someone is really being difficult - don't be afraid to use the delete button :). If they register under a different name and continue the behavior, try banning their IP address as most forum software supports this feature. Failing that, a complaint to their ISP may help.

Watch out for trolls

"Trolls" are those members whose primary purpose is to try and lure other members to their own forums. Given the increased competition between online communities, this is becoming increasingly common. A gentle tap on the shoulder for these members is recommended, failing that, the delete button. If the person persists by registering under different names, you may be able to deter them by banning their IP. 

Balance of power

Remember that at all times you are in control - if you don't like something that's happening on your forums, stop it. Keep a high profile on the forums so members know you care about what's going on and your word is law. At the same time, also bear in mind that your members are the lifeblood of the forum - by being too restrictive, you may drive people away. 

Content = newsletters = return visits

Most forum software has functions that allow you to email the entire member base. Once your forum is starts seeing some action, contact your members regularly with snippets from interesting posts - it will help encourage return visits. You can also use content from the forums in newsletters for other lists that you have. When mailing out to your member lists, don't forget to include promotion for your own core services and products - at the beginning, middle and end of the newsletter.

Recognize your members

Build a good relationship with your members by recognizing their efforts. This could be in the form of a personal note thanking them for providing content, prizes offered to members once they post X number of messages, "member of the week" features or even forming special groups of members who act as forum development advisors. By making some members part of an elite group, it not only rewards them with increased status in the community, but also gives other members something to aspire to.

And then.. monetize your forums

While having a happy, thriving forum will leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling, remember you are in business and the associated costs of the forum need to be met. If you have your own products, ensure they are exposed to your members every time they visit through the use of bandwidth friendly banners and text links strategically placed throughout. If you don't have products and services, consider participating in other companies affiliate programs as a way of generating revenue.

In conclusion, considering that free search engine traffic is becoming increasing difficult to obtain, site owners can really benefit from implementing a forum as a sales/traffic generating tool - but be prepared to put in the hard yards before you see results. 

Other learning resources

Affiliate marketing survival strategies

Working with merchants

Successful Affiliate Marketing 

Search engine marketing tutorials & resources

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
Web Marketing, Internet Development & Ecommerce Resources
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