Forums: The Forgotten Social Media

They aren’t sexy, they seem ancient in web years, and they don’t get talked about as much as they once were, yet forums are still one of the best sources of quality traffic. Done right they bring consistent traffic month after month, traffic that does stick around and subscribe to your blog and inquire about your services.

Note: I hope you’ll forgive a little self indulgence in this post. As I mentioned last week I recently helped start a new small business forum and it’s been occupying much of my time and my thoughts. Since it has I thought I’d share how and why forums have been a valuable source of business and traffic for me over the years.

Forum Traffic Is Sticky

A few months ago while discussing social media referral traffic I displayed an image showing a few sources of referral traffic to this site. The image deserves another look here.

Time on Site and Bounce Rate from Social Media Referrers

You’ll notice that Webmaster-Talk and Teaching Sells arguably provided better traffic than either StumbleUpon or Sphinn.

Visitors from each bounced less and stayed engaged with the site for a good deal of time. I surmised on the original post the reason for the engagement here was based on my engagement there. Both are also forums.

Teaching Sells isn’t technically a forum, but it does contain a forum, which is where the above traffic came from.

Social sites like Digg have the potential to drive greater numbers than any forum, but they don’t drive the same quality, because they don’t allow the same level of engagement on your part at the site. Old school internet as they may be forums still allow you to show who you are and what you can offer better than your typical social site.

Networks like Twitter and Plurk are great for getting out short messages, but there’s still a lot to be said for having more than 140 characters to make your point.

Forums Are A Source Of Customers

Most people look for forums on similar topics as their site. It’s natural since your topic is what you’re interested in and you’ll meet like minded people who share your interests.

The missing links
photo credit: me-2007

The people there will be peers and you’ll have have plenty to share and discuss. Your peers often provide a good source of links, a good source of blog subscribers, and a good source of people to partner with on future projects.

There’s another type of forum though, that can prove just as beneficial. It’s the forum where your customers spend their time. I’m a firm believer that marketing yourself is about determining who your customers are, finding where they spend their time, and building a brand in that space.

For me that’s meant participating in small business forums and that participation has led to more clients for my business than any other source.

Forums Are A Source For Market Research

The same communities that hold your customers are a great place to do market research. What better way to find out what your customers want than to ask them and listen daily to the questions they ask.

By listening to what your market is saying you gain the information you need to tailor your business to them. It’s easy to think we know what our customers want, but it’s no substitute for actually having them tell you what they want..

Another discussion
photo credit: Jacob Bøtter

Forums Are An Online Networking Group

If you own a small business I’m sure someone somewhere has suggested joining an offline networking group as a way to find new clients. You may have joined one and you may or may not have had success with it.

Forums, especially small business forums, can be the online equivalent of networking groups. It doesn’t take long to build a rapport with people working in other industries.

Through the relationships I’ve built I have a list of go to people when clients inquire about services I don’t offer. I know I’ve made it on the shorts lists of others as well, which has led to new business on both sides.

Again I hope you’ll forgive my romp through forum land and one last pitch for our new small business forum I recently helped get started. We already have an active community of great people with knowledge and experience across a variety of industries. We’d love to have you join us.

Do you still or have you ever participated on forums and have you found them to be a good source of business? In what ways have you found forum participation to be a valuable part of your business?

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26 comments

  1. While I agree that forums can be a great way to network with people (I found most of the people I know through forums primarily), you think Forums in general are losing their edge to new technologies? Maybe this is why numerous forums are losing their traffic numbers (like WT) or people just aren’t interested in posting that much anymore (like mine)? (yeah, still sad a bit in that dept.)

    Or are you just basically saying they’re a part of Social Media, but rarely described as such as in categorizing it under Social Media?

    • Good questions. I’m not sure I have answers, but I can offer some opinion.

      I do think people have moved to new media more. Forums aren’t the sexy choice, but like you I’ve made much stronger connections with people on forums than I have through other social sites.

      Some have likely left forums and aren’t coming back. I also think once people reach a certain level of expertise they find forums less useful in increasing knowledge.

      Most people probably wouldn’t see a forum as social media. I do because they are social. The medium is the forum software, but they still fit the criteria in my opinion.

      I think people are still figuring out social media. From an end user perspective people just use the sites they like. From a marketing perspective people are still trying to understand how to make social sites work.

      Social media has much more traffic so that’s where people look, but I think some fail to understand than more traffic isn’t necessarily better. It might be, but if you’re a small business offering services you can probably generate enough business being in front of one or two forum communities. I know it’s worked for me the last couple of years.

      • What exactly is it about Forums that isn’t “appealing” or “sexy” anymore? It’s at least still my favorite way (and roughly my only way, other than blogging and leaving comments, like we’re doing now) of actively communicating with people online.

        The “Much more traffic” methods reminds me of Stumbleupon traffic spikes. Once in a while I would write an article that gets “discovered” by a few stumblers, then for some reason it becomes popular and that post is getting over 1000 page impressions a day. And after a week or so of that, the traffic dies off and things return to normal. It’s like it didn’t even do anything other than clog server bandwidth.

        So yeah, most basic SM traffic isn’t as good as forum traffic.

        The way I’ve always viewed marketing through forums, SMM, etc. is that “You don’t market your Website, you market Yourself, and sell yourself to the best of your ability” (via your quality and quantity of posts and the way you conduct yourself throughout the community).

        • I think the lack of sex appeal is part the traffic numbers and part that they were simply there before the 2.0 version got applied to the web.

          I feel the same as you about marketing through forums. My view is to help others as best I can.

          One thing about forums in general is they aren’t usually the cutting edge of information. Maybe they once were, but now messages get out through sites like Twitter and Plurk much quicker.

          Forums seem more geared toward general information. At some point people have had their fill and are ready for something beyond.

          To each his own. I still think forums are a better way to get to know someone more in depth.

    • Thought I’d offer a separate comment with an idea for your forum. With the one we just started there are three of us running it. We’ve by far been the most active posters. In just over a week I myself have left over 500 posts.

      We’re starting most of the new threads and doing everything we can to nurture the community. We did get a break in that the active members from another forum were ready to leave that forum and join ours so we are starting with an active community, but we’re still doing most of the work to create interesting discussions and new pages for spider food.

      A month from now we may be close to 1,000 threads and 10,000 posts which will look more attractive to anyone who finds us and is thinking about joining.

      We’re trying not to leave any question unanswered and when someone posts we’ll try to respond right away to keep them engaged with the conversation and the site. Ideally that will keep people interacting more and bring them back more often.

      Is there a reason you don’t have a permanent link from your blog to the forum? I may have mentioned this before, but are there conspiracy blogs out there and if so are you doing the usual commenting with your name being a link back.

      If you can get that 50 to 100 active members who keep checking in most days the forum should start growing on it’s own, but until that happens do what you can to keep the place as active as possible.

      • Not sure if you checked out my latest blog post yet (I just wrote it today), but I thought I’d give your blogging idea a chance. I thought I’d give it a test run and introduce new people to one of my threads where we have some discussion going. It’s my first attempt at something like this. (I’m not attempting to use lightningshock as a permanent conspiracy blog, it’s just to test the waters, and if this post I just made is successful, I might start up a new one dedicated to those conspiracy ideas.)

        The post does have a link or two to the CF, too, so they’re there on my blog. I even linked to it before, back a few posts, don’t remember offhand which ones though. Maybe I’ll try adding a CF home link to my blogroll, and see if that helps at all.

        Like you said about on-site work too, you only have three members doing most of the talking; that’s how it is on my forum too (and I made them mods), it’s been that way for awhile now, and still not many more people are registering, and the few that did, haven’t been back in awhile.

        Again, thanks for the tips, I suppose I’m just working to explore all the different marketing methods that are available to me, and what they involve, exactly.

        • I haven’t done my usual weekend reading yet. I was at your blog Thursday I think. I’ll make sure to check the new post either later or tomorrow.

          Hopefully the idea works. It sounded good in my head and I think over time it could generate some new members.

          I’ve seen you link to the forum within posts, but I’m thinking about a permanent link on every page.

          One thing I want to do here once I figure out how is use vBulletin’s RSS to display recent threads or posts from the forum here in the sidebar. I’ll probably just display the RSS for the more website and seo related posts.

          My thinking is people here would see those conversations more often and some would be interested enough to check out the complete thread discussion and ideally want to say something and join

          You could do something like that too if you felt there was enough connection between your blog readers the the forum topic.

          • While putting a link on every page of my blog may help the forums out, I don’t think it’ll do much good for the blog, as they’re both not *really* related, and it may hurt lightningshock’s image in the long run, IMO. Basically, I don’t really want to mesh the tow together very much, as I do seperate things with each.

            I think a few posts that link to the forums are OK in the meantime though, as it’s a non-interventionist way of sharing visitors between my two sites, yet keeping the topics of each site safe from too much mixing.

            Also, concerning the vB RSS queries, they offer some instruction on that:
            http://www.vbulletin.com/forum/showthread.php?t=277280

        • I just read your post. I think it’s enough to get someone interested in talking about the flat earth theory over to your forum.

          It might also be enough to get some non conspirators over to the forum just to let you know they think you’re crazy.

          I can see where showing some of the thread discussion on your blog could help pull people in.

          Imagine showing a few posts at the start of one discussion and changing that thread weekly. People see a few others talking why the earth is flat and either join in or feel the need to tell everyone the earth is indeed round.

          I agree. I think all you can do is keep trying things to see what works. Measure what does and doesn’t work for future use.

          • I agree measuring what works against what doesn’t is probably best too, I just wasn’t sure about whether or not I’m doing evereything I can, option-wise. As in maybe there’s some other (ethical) free marketing methods I’m missing out on / never heard of before.

            Imagine showing a few posts at the start of one discussion and changing that thread weekly.

            This is just a minor thing here, but I’m not sure I understand. So where exactly do I show the few posts? And what exactly do I change? Something on my forum?

          • I was thinking you could show a few posts on your blog, but I guess you want to keep them separate.

            If you didn’t mind connecting them I was thinking you could display some posts in a sidebar.

  2. Ah yes… forums seem to be the ugly duckling of the social media world. But I’m completely with you on creating a presence where your audience/customers reside. I recently recommended forum participation as the first step in a social media strategy for a company with a large social media budget. It isn’t a sexy recommendation… but they already had a relevant forum community of 60,000+ customers. Which certainly looked like low hanging fruit to me.

    Hope the new forum is going well for you Steven.

    • It’s not where the action seems to be, but they still drive better traffic than most of the social media sites. The forums where I’m active have been sending quality traffic my way since a month or two after joining.

      60,000+ Wow. You’d think you could do a lot with a community that size.

      So far the forum is growing slowly. We’re still just getting indexed and not yet pulling any search traffic. We do have an active community so threads and posts are growing. We’re over 2,200 posts in less than 2 weeks.

  3. Agreed on this…one of my traffic drivers for sure!

    I participate on alot of forums, and they all bring me consistent traffic. Add a link to your email signature and just post as you usually do.

    Plug your articles when it is relevant and you’ll see big results. Don’t spam or flood the forum though

  4. Pretty much the way I participate too. I joined a number of forums over the years, but mostly remained active at two of them. Now one of those two is mine kind of.

    The traffic is good and about half my clients found me through the small business forum. Seemed like a no brainer to post there. And now I guess I’m part owner of that forum or the new version of it.

    My approach has always been to help people and answer questions the best I could. I really haven’t needed to do any more marketing than that.

  5. Steve, this is a terrific post and an important truth. Fascinating to see the differences in bounce rates with forum traffic vs general social sites.

    BTW, you have any idea where I might find ecommerce forums read by medium sized businesses (e.g. $2M+ annual sales)? Tried a few searches like ecommerce forum(s) and inurl:ecommerce.com but couldn’t find entire forums solely dedicated to that. And I’m not even sure that’s appropriate, honestly.

    Thoughts?

    • Thanks Gab. A couple of months ago I was looking at Analytics and noticed the huge difference in bounce rates. It made me think how the traffic that stuck around came from places where I really spend a lot of my time and presold the traffic.

      That’s a good question about ecommerce and mid-sized forums. I’ve always just typed whatever keyword and then added forum. I don’t know that I’ve ever come across medium sized business forums.

      One place to look for ecommerce forums is the support forums for the software. One of my clients uses osCommerce and I’m in their support forums, reading mostly. I can see where if you work on an application or just use it on a site you could become part of that community and pull some decent traffic your way.

      I’ll try to think of some ideas for finding those forums. I suppose it’s possible there aren’t many, which might mean it wouldn’t be a bad thing to start.

  6. A very relevant post in this new age of social media sites popping up and getting lots of buzz.

    Forums are a time tested and proven method for getting much high quality traffic and even big marketers still talk about them and use them because they work.

    • Thanks Alexander. I can’t see forums going away even if they aren’t as exciting as social media. I’ve had moments with forums where I was ready to walk away from them, but then a few new people join and I’m back to enjoying them.

      They do connect you with people in a way social networking sites don’t and I have built some really good friendships through forums over the years.

  7. Excellent article Steven! I completely agree that forums (“Web 1.0 social media”) has been largely forgotten by the online media. But they’re still the biggest online communities for many niches, and a powerful marketing channel for anyone who does business online.

    I recently wrote a getting started guide to forum marketing that’s makes for a great followup to this article. Once people are convinced they need to hit up forums, they can follow my 12 keys to successful forum marketing.

    http://onlinebusiness.about.com/od/gettingtrafficmarketing/tp/forum-marketing.htm

    Cheers!
    Greg

    • Thanks Greg. I think for the less savvy among us forums are a much easier concept to grasp as well. We might get social media 2.0 because we live in that world, but I’m not sure my grandmother would fully adopt the idea of voting up posts or networking through an app she downloads.

      Nice article. I agree with your points, though I think most people will be best handling the forum posting themselves or in-house if a larger company. I’m not sure how much I’d trust hiring someone to do forum posting.

  8. We have been using forums on behalf of our clients for 5 years now. We do brand marketing, product marketing and market research via forums, and great great ROI. Over the years we have developed tools and processes that allow us to generate buzz and gain strategic information for our clients. On of the most important aspects of this, is that the content we generate on the forums directly effects the SEM and SEO efforts of our clients in addition the marketing benefit.

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