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Marketing lessons from 500,000+ forum posts
In the 90s and early 2000s, I was not just a forum geek, I also ran my own communities. Much has changed since, but also remained the same...
Before blogs, before social media, before Facebook and MySpace — message boards and forums reigned supreme. For the uninitiated, they are distributed, niche communities of like-minded people who came together around a common interest. There are countless people sharing ideas, trading expertise and working together to learn and socialize around things they are passionate about here.
If you weren’t there or are too young, message boards (or message forums, which ever you prefer) were the start of the modern social web. In fact, many still thrive today and are some of the best resources of information on niche topics around. Even things like Reddit (basically the most popular forum around) are being used to train AI. Forums have had an outsized influence on the web and the world that likely goes unnoticed by most. The most online of online, the nerdiest of nerds dwell here. We love them.
Message boards: raw, real, personal
The members of forum communities are famously known for not holding back, to the extent many would definitely be “canceled” if they acted this way in a place like Twitter (which is very tame in comparison to some OG internet forums). Users here are brutally honest, probably overcritical and when you enter one, and you need to accept you are at the whim of the community. Like entering a bar with a ton of character. They harbor community in a different way than blogs, and similar to Reddit in how conversations and discussions flow (if you’re familiar with them but not forums). Everyone is simultaneously poster, editor, contributor and most people are to some extent involved in moderation. As close to web democracy as we’ll get.
Yeah, I’m a web 1 geek too…
I’ve been an active member of several forums across niches on the web for the last 25 or so years, and in that time have contributed well over 500,000 topics and replies, conservatively. 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 modern social web.
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, the web really doesn’t have versions) are the true pioneers of the social web, not people who only recently dove into social.
The old services on the web served as an important archetype for how we are all interacting now. For example, Twitter #hashtags conversations are simply an adaptation of IRC (remember that?) and feel just about as informal. They are both dead now, but the point remains that these things tend to copy each other.
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, Pinterest, Twitter etc.
This leads us to where we are today, with message boards and forums co-existing with modern social channels. 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.
Some online marketing lessons I learned from 500,000+ forum posts…
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 current social web.
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.
Anticipated ideas stick and can become popular
Ever heard of “caturdays?” 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.
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. I think this is widely known, but probably unappreciated to consciously build a group of collaborators however possible. For brands this might take the form of a strategic partnership.
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.
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. An art form you should refine over time.
People don’t like being overtly advertised to online. They 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.
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/community in a way that benefits and is interesting to both new and returning people. Difficult in practice, important to get right.
Blogs are essentially message boards 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.
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, apps and communities. Forums are a great area to experiment, and exist for topics in every niche. Find a few you’re passionate about, join the communities and learn the ropes if you’re unfamiliar – you can really only learn the space by participating. Probably one of the best, untapped “wild” areas of the internet you can visit, lurk, post and learn from for free, right now.