Online forums are the “old timers” of social marketing. Not as flashy as Facebook or Twitter, online forums are places where people with a common interest gather to trade insights, discuss ideas and to meet new friends. There are online forums for professionals, for politics, for pet lovers, gamers, travel, and for parents, both at a national level and locally. There are not many interests where you cannot find a niche online community. Like any gathering of consumers, there is a real marketing opportunity, but one that can be successfully accessed only by applying very careful rules of etiquette.
The ambiance in most online forums is relaxed and casual. It is very important to understand at the outset that the members of an online community are there because they enjoy each other’s company. Communities never form around the idea of being monetized and overt marketing is typically strongly discouraged and in many instances actually forbidden. However, it is possible to leverage the aggregated interests of an online community to be a marketing effort worthy of your time and energy.
Choose the online community forums in which you participate carefully. The typical pattern is that no matter how large the membership, there are typically a few members that stand out in either the quantity of their posts or the quality. Spend some time quietly watching (“lurking” – not a very pretty word, is it?) to learn about the rhythm and the tenor of the forum. Make sure that your target demographic market is well represented. Importantly, choose groups in which you have a real interest, even a passion. Your posts will be more true, genuine and you will have more fun.
A special word about “travel” forums: these are some of the toughest and, in the opinion of many, least productive forums possible for travel agent participation. At least some portion of the membership typically has a strong “do it yourself” bias and some other portion is sure to be interested in nothing but the “the lowest price.” Throw on top of those two groups more than your average number of travel agents trolling for clients and you can see that other, non-travel related, forums might be a more productive “blue ocean” opportunity for you.
As you create your online profile, consider again the need to carefully craft your online persona. Many forums still operate largely on a basis of anonymity, but with the advent the newer social media, that is changing somewhat. If you are comfortable and it is the general practice of the forum, use a signature line that provides a link to your website, or couch the link in your profile. Provide a human username (e.g. “KatieS”) rather than a cryptic one that is impersonal. Be authentic, be yourself, but put your best foot forward. Just as in polite casual conversation with acquaintances you avoid discussions of politics and religion, don’t charge into the ring waving any flags. Avoid off-color humor and any comment you would not want to see in print. Again, you are on a business mission, and you have to use social media differently from the way a consumer might. You can still voice an opinion or take a stand, but do so from a rational perspective, well-reasoned and balanced. A thoughtful voice is almost always welcomed in forums, particularly when contrasted against the one or two members who often leave their manners at home when online.
Now, be a good citizen and participate in the forum. Assist others with their problems. Discuss the issues of the day and largely forget about marketing. To borrow a phrase, you are farming, not hunting. When a travel question arises, feel free to answer it from the perspective of expertise. This is an appropriate time to introduce your profession and to give an expert answer. But do so with no hint of solicitation. If you are directly asked about being a travel agent, give a straight direct answer, even a link to your site, but downplay any on-forum solicitation. There is almost never a problem with asking a member to ‘Private Message” or email you with additional questions.
In appropriate circumstances, there may be opportunities for direct marketing. For example, it makes perfect sense that many members of the astronomy forum in which you participate may want to fly to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun. Prior to posting any information, however, approach the forum moderators to inquire about your idea. If you have properly integrated yourself into the community and have been a willing and good participant, you may find yourself booking some group travel from the ranks of the forum membership.
Online forums are not about anything other than their niche interest, but that does not mean they don’t have marketing potential. Fully engage yourself in your passion, be authentic and genuine, be helpful at every opportunity you can and let people know what you do without any hint of solicitation. That is a formula for properly preparing the ground to see what grows.
Tomorrow – Creativity in Marketing