Joining online communities and posting in forums is a great way for you to start networking and talking about your business without the pressure of in-person networking. Forums give you the chance to prove yourself as a knowledgeable person in your field, and as a respected member of the community.
Additionally, the high traffic nature of forums make them natural candidates for frequent Googlebot visits, which boosts the PageRank of your site (if you link to it) as well as provides some indirect marketing for you.
Find Forums to Join
The first step to using forums to generate traffic is to find potential forums to join. There are two types of forums to consider when creating your marketing plan:
- Forums related to the topic of your business
Is your business selling beeswax-based beauty products? Then find forums relating to beauty, beekeeping, or natural products.
- Communities unrelated to the specifics of your business
What hobbies and interests do you have outside the actual running of your business? You might want to join a mom's business forum like the Work at Home Moms, an entrepreneur forum like the StartupNation Community, or a hobby-based forum like the Civil War Reenactors Forum.
Using your business and your hobbies, make a list of potential forums by Googling your topic and adding the word "forum". For example, you could Google "beekeeping forum" if you are the person above who sells beeswax products.
Use Criteria for Efficient Time Management
If you jumped right in after the previous section and looked for available forums, you probably noticed that there are millions out there. How can you decide which ones would be the best use of your time? You can start by judging the list you created above against these criteria:
- Site traffic and frequency of posting
Give a greater priority to sites that have a higher traffic load. More traffic and frequent updates means that more people will see your message, and search engine crawlers probably visit the site more often that they would visit a smaller site.
- Page Rank
Check a site's page rank with this page rank tool, and order your list according to each site's page rank. Make sure that you have at least a few sites on your list that are PR5 or higher; a couple of PR6 to PR9 sites are worth 20 PR1 sites.
- Use of signatures
Do not waste your time on sites that either don't have signature capabilities, or that prohibit the use of company information and URLs in your signature.
While there are many positive reasons to promote your new business and network through forums, there may also be a downside. Remember, everything you post online ends up on Google and could be read by potential new clients. Keep that in mind when you're posting in forums, and remember to stick to proper forum etiquette. This includes:
- Contribute to the community as a whole
Don't just participate in threads you start—get involved in any thread you feel you can make a contribution to. Keep in mind that you are here to give and participate, not make sales.
- Read first, and then jump in
Get a feel for the site by reading through some past threads. Once you have tested the waters, join in by introducing yourself and saying hi!
- Follow the rules of the forum
- Don't spam the forum
Do: Use your signature. Don't: Blatantly spam the forum with wording and links designed to sell people something. Typical offenders start topics just for the sole purpose of linking to their latest product, reply to every thread in their area of interest with "Call me so we can talk more!" so that they can prospect directly through the forum, or reply to every thread with a marketing angle.
- Make sure your signature goes with the flow of the site
Look around to see if most people have signatures that are plain text, rich text with live links, or banner advertising, and match your signature to the rest of them.
- Stay positive
Don't get involved in flame wars online. Do reread every comment you make before posting, asking yourself, "Would I say this to someone in person?" to judge whether or not you should click commit on your response. Remember to maintain the same pleasant attitude you would take with your customers. Above all, conduct yourself in a professional manner.
Establish Your Presence
Just like any interaction, you have the ability to set the tone from your very first post. Start out positive and make it your goal to always stay that way. If you've chosen your forums correctly, you'll also have the ability to make a signature—a tagline that is attached to every post you make. Here are some guidelines to follow for making your own signature:
- Keep it short and focused
Instead of "We sell designer handbags at a discounted price. We maintain warehouses in 5 locations, which allows us to ship to any destination quickly.", try "DesignerHandbags.com - Great prices, fast shipping!" (Read this copywriting article and check out CopyBlogger for some additional help in creating a tagline.)
- Use a link
Some boards allow you to use standard HTML in your signature, which means you can link to your site like this:
<a href="http://yourdomain.com/yourpage.html">your link title</a>
Others restrict you to BB Code, which means your link would look like this:
[url=http://yourdomain.com/yourpage.html]your link title[/url]
Test your signature by viewing one of your posts to make sure it works and displays properly.
- Change your signature regularly
Use your signature to announce specials or new products. You can also use it to reflect current marketing campaigns. For example, if you were a culinary supply warehouse and your goal was to push grill supplies at the start of summer, your signature might go from "CulinaryDepot.com - Your first stop for all your kitchen supplies!" to "Ready for summer? Get your grill supplies and outdoor picnic items from CulinaryDepot.com".
Maintain Your Presence
Posting regularly is important to maintaining your status in the community. When your business, marketing plan, offerings, etc. change direction, don't forget to change your profile in the community to reflect your new status!