Online forums: a way to interact with prospective customers?

Participating in forums is an interesting activity for many businesses. To take the world of travel as an example, there are so many travel forums out there now that the online chatter is almost deafening.

The good thing about these user-content sites is that they give perspectives from real people who’ve really been there. Readers are also hungry for information. They will search until they find exactly what they’re looking for, and they will read lots of content.

The majority of the chatter on travel forums is from travellers themselves exchanging information, but there are a few travel businesses who manage to make a useful contribution and attract customers in the process.

HOWEVER – it’s really important to understand that forums are meant to be a platform for the exchange of information, and not a marketing tool. If you do add content to a forum, be sure that you are adding value and not just trying to sell your services or products. Entries that are clearly sales messages will be moderated out, and you may even be banned from a forum if the moderator believes you are using it for commercial purposes only.

Think about the readers’ reasons for browsing the forum and you’ll realise there’s no point in posting sales messages – in fact this could even work against you. Forum participants are looking for helpful content, not ads. So if they sense an ulterior motive in an entry, they’ll skim past it.

The benefit to this style of communication with your audience is that you are presenting yourself as a genuine and helpful source of information – just as you do in your blog – which means readers who are interested are likely to check your profile and find out more about you. It’s also a useful way to find out more about your target customers – what questions are they asking, what are their concerns, problems, worries, etc. You can learn as much as you contribute.

Here’s an example of a forum entry from a business that’s written in a clear and informative style, with a straightforward comment at the end designed to raise interest in the business.

Notice that the final comment isn’t pushy, it doesn’t come across as a sales pitch – it’s just informing readers that this experience is available. Some forums won’t allow this kind of comment. But you can still post good content without adding a call to action. Just be helpful, informative and clear and interested readers may well end up at your website. Include lots more helpful information on your site, and they’ll stick around for a bit longer.

A good way to find forums that are relevant to your business is to set up Google Alerts on specific keywords. You’ll find that many of the links that appear in your inbox are forum entries, and this will lead you to the best forums in your area. Make sure you rummage around the site to get an idea of the readership and the quality of the content. This will help you decide whether you can genuinely add value and attract the readers who are likely to be interested in what you do.