10 Marketing Lessons I Learned From 10,000+ Message Forum Posts

Software companies, such as Ableton use forums as part of their community building strategy.

Prior to Web 2.0…

Before blogs, before social media, before Facebook and MySpace — message boards and forums reigned supreme.  For the uninitiated, they are fragmented, niche communities of like minded people who came together around a common interest.

It’s no surprise that sites like Ning have sprung up in popularity and blogging has taken off in the last few years.  There are countless people creating content, trading expertise and working together to learn and socialize around things they are passionate about.

Message boards (or message forums, which ever you prefer) were the start of the modern social web.  In fact, they still thrive today and are some of the best resources of information on niche topics around.

Message boards:  raw, real and personal

The members of message board communities do not hold back.  They’re brutally honest, critical and when you enter one, you’re at the whim of the community.  They harbor community in a different way than blogs, and are similar to Digg and Reddit in how conversations and discussions flow (if you’re familiar with them but not forums).  Reddit’s “self-reddit” section is pretty much a huge forum.

Yeah, I’m a web 1.0 geek too…

I’ve been an active member of several message forums across niches on the web for the last 10 or so years, and in that time have contributed well over 10,000 topics and replies.  They’re great places to test ideas, see what starts discussions/gets replies and what falls flat.

During my youth, when I wasn’t busy building computers, making music, or reading, I spent hours on game forums (used to be a big Quake player), music forums and tech forms under a variety of pseudonyms.  Little did I know I was training myself during those years to spread ideas on the web.

Personal development blogger Steve Pavlina uses a message forum connected to his ultra-popular blog to manage discussions for his site. 

Message boards and forums are the antecedent to the social web

I happen to think the people who were active in the Web 1.0 space (again, sorry for a cliched term) are the true pioneers of the social web, not people who only recently dove into blogs or social media sites.

The old services on the web  served as an important archetype for how we are all interacting now.  For example, Twitter #channels are highly reminiscent of IRC (remember that?) and feel just about as informal.

Certainly many of the best startups in Silicon Valley are being managed by people who watched the progression from the great (and failed) walled gardens of AOL and Prodigy, into the new (mostly) walled gardens of Facebook and MySpace.

This leads us to where we are today, with message boards and forums co-existing with Web 2.0 sites.  Their niche communities are still thriving, (many with original members from the 90’s still in tact, or at least relocated to new sites) just as blogs are thriving now too.

I’m not going to talk about ways to market to message boards.  You could but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really know what you are doing.  What I would like to talk about though are some lessons I learned from years of living digital identities in niche communities that help me in marketing and building buzz on the web today.

10 Web Marketing Lessons I Learned From 10,000+ Message Forum Posts

1)  If you think you will have to push or promote something insanely hard, it’s probably not a good idea/product/campaign.

Stop and reconsider what you’re doing.  Message boards and forums are purely driven by what people want, and if you’re idea isn’t great, it isn’t going to stick.  You can “bump” the thread all you like, but you’ll merely be mocked by the rest of the users – or worse, banned.  This remains true to a good degree in the social web.

2) There will always be naysayers, even for cool ideas

This is just pretty much how the web works.  You’ll have to get comfortable with this if you plan on spreading ideas online.

3)  Anticipated ideas stick and can become popular

Ever heard of “caturdays” on 4chan?  Some trace the original of the popular lolcat internet meme to this ritualistic day on the message board.  On Saturdays, or, “caturdays,” users would post pictures of cats with hilarious captions.  Obviously the cat meme is big, and Caturdays proved that building upon anticipated ideas and creating a series is a great way to create demand and interest.

Apple Insider fosters a huge community of Apple fans on their site.  According to Alexa, 80% of traffic to their .com is forum traffic.

4)  Having a group of allies is vital

Just like on message boards, (having people on your side that would bump your threads was important) allies are vital in social media to share your content and link to your site to boost your visibility.

5)  Enemies are also vital

Enemies on message boards kept things interesting and would cause heated debates.  In many cases, they were the whole attraction of certain forums.  They do play a role on the web, there is no denying it, and can help spread buzz for an idea in a big way.  By enemy, I don’t necessarily mean a specific person, it could be something as simple as a common, disliked idea.  Don’t have an enemy?  Find a way to make one.

6)  Spend time crafting your headlines

How you title a post is a huge factor for whether or not your thread will be popular on a forum.  Some very smart people spend as much time on their headlines as the content itself (check out some secrets of headline writing).

7)  People don’t like being advertised toThey like to tell each other great things they discovered.

It would always be interesting when an advertiser or marketing person for a product would stumble upon a message forum.  It would also usually end up being an ignored thread, or flamed.  But, when a forum member would write on a new product, it would actually be looked at carefully and discussed.  The lesson here is obvious.

8)  Use your audience to build the community – in a way that benefits everyone

Growing a message board benefitted all the members (and the site admins) because the community would become richer and the discussions more interesting.  But, when a board would grow too large it sometimes would lose that intimate feeling it once had and feel less special to some of the more seasoned users.  You have to continue to grow your brand/blog/website in a way that benefits both new and returning people.

9)  Blogs are essentially messageboards with an editor controlling the topic

That’s why it’s great to spend time on message boards and experiment with ideas.  You’ll learn a different, yet complimentary set of skills you can successfully apply to your social campaigns.

10)  Use humor as a connector

Message boards would always be set on fire by a hilarious new meme, or an ongoing joke the forum would gather around.  Using humor for marketing is a great tactic if applied properly.

If you want to be successful at using the web to market anything, you need to understand all types of sites.  Forums are a great area to experiment, and exist for topics in every niche.  Find one you’re passionate about, join the community and learn the ropes if you’re unfamiliar – you can really only learn the space by participating.

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