If you've spent any time on internet forums, you've probably noticed that some posters get tons of responses to questions and queries, while other people are ignored completely. Luckily, the way people respond to you online is easy to change. This simple set of guidelines will help you garner more high-quality responses to your posts online and maybe even make some valuable networking connections.
What is an online forum?
An online forum is a digital location where users can post questions or comments about topics of their choosing. Others can then reply with their own input and insights, creating a dialogue or "thread" where posters can talk back and forth to each other. Most forums encourage users to create an account by registering with a username and password. As a business owner, you’d want to make your username your business’s name (or something related to it) so you can easily interact with your customers and clients.
Business benefits of online forums
Investing time and energy into posting to online forums might seem like the last thing you want to do. However, there are many upsides of doing so. Here are some benefits of using online forums.
- Customer retention and engagement: If you dedicate time and energy to sharing information about your brand and engaging with your audience on online forums, you’ll build more meaningful, trustworthy relationships with them.
- Cost-effective marketing: Joining and using online forums is often completely free yet a great marketing opportunity for businesses of all sizes. You’re essentially giving yourself free press by creating posts and commenting on others' posts while representing your business.
- Strong brand awareness: Your company’s brand is basically its personality. The more you can showcase it on online forums like Reddit and Quora, the more your audience will be able to recognize you and remember who you are and what you have to offer. On these forums, you can really channel your brand’s tone and voice.
- Content creation: Sharing on online forums is a type of content marketing. You’re crafting quality posts and responses that will be seen by your target audience, offering your unique insights and industry-related information that prospective customers are seeking. This will also allow you to establish yourself as an expert in your industry.
- Market research: Simply existing on online forums is like conducting your own market research. You can see where there are gaps in your industry, what prospective customers and clients want, and what your competitors are doing.
Popular online forums
If you’re looking to become more active on online forums to boost your business, here is a list of the various types of online forums businesses can use:
- Reddit: Reddit is one of the most popular online forums in existence, offering a space for social news aggregation, web content rating and discussion of topics across the board. There are threads for nearly anything you can think of, so it will be easy to find your business’s niche and start posting in it.
- Quora: Quora is more of a Q&A-style forum that allows users to ask questions of virtually any topic and share knowledge and insight to others on the site. As a business owner, you can share information related to your industry while representing your brand to build stronger connections with consumers.
- Yahoo! Answers: Similar to Quora in the sense that it has a Q&A setup, Yahoo! Answers is a great online forum for business owners looking to become experts in a specific niche or community to cultivate brand awareness and improve their reputation.
- Voat: Voat is similar to Reddit as it couples as a news aggregator and social networking site. Community members can post text and direct links, and other users can vote on the submissions. Fun fact: this site is often used by banned Reddit users, as its restrictions are much looser.
Tip for using online forums
Get to know the forum culture, then match it
The first thing you should know about online forums is that they're like social clubs, and just like real-life socializing, there are different standards of behavior depending on where you go and whom you're with.
If you're new to a forum, it's a good idea to read forum posts a while before you create threads. Take note of the content and subject matter as well as how people express themselves. How long are most of the forum posts that get lots of responses? Are people formal in their language or casual? Do they swear and speak flippantly, or is everyone polite and clean in their writing?
Search online before you ask the online forum
People don't like answering the same question multiple times. If you have a general question, search the forum for that question before you create a thread. Your question may have already been answered thoroughly in a previous conversation. Many questions on forums get ignored simply because they are repetitive. In online culture, you get what you put in; if you don't take the time to read through previous topics, posters won't take the time to answer your questions.
Searching before you post a question also applies to acronyms, internet slang and references to things. If you don't know what YMMV or IME mean that's fine, but if everyone asked a forum member whenever they came across an unfamiliar term, then every online forum would be filled with basic questions and answers and not lively discussions. If you don't know what something means, Google it! If you can't find the answer through an internet search engine, then it is OK to ask for clarification.
Answer questions and respond to threads
If you want people to respond to your threads, you need to become an active participant in forum discussions. Don't just post queries; give answers to questions, too, and do so as frequently as you have something valuable to add. You don't have to be an all-knowing expert to answer a question; you can always describe your experience with the topic at hand rather than giving hard-and-fast advice.
People like to know how other people handle things, they like anecdotes and encouragement as well as researched advice. The more you become known on a forum as someone who gives thoughtful feedback and advice and adds to discussions, the more you will get valuable responses to your questions.
Make your questions easy to read
If you're posting a question, make sure that what you are asking is clear and includes enough detail for people to help you. For example, if you want advice on buying a new point-of-sale system don't just ask, "What point of sale system should I buy for my business?" because that's too vague. Make sure you include what type of business you run, how much you want to spend, and what your needs are. If you've had bad experiences with a previous POS system, explain what you didn't like and what you want out of a new system. Giving other posters insight into your situation will help them give you good advice.
Respond to users who answer your questions, and give updates
On the topic of receiving advice and online etiquette, respond when people answer your questions. If someone gives you advice, respond to them, even if the advice won't entirely solve your problems. It is frustrating to take the time to respond to someone's question and type out advice only to hear no reply. A simple "thanks!" goes a long way.
If you can, it's also always welcome to post an update. If you take someone's advice from the forum, or if you come to a solution on your own, go back to your thread and post an update! It's fun for people to follow your story and feel like they had an impact on your life.
Start threads that create opportunities for sharing
In addition to starting threads to ask questions or get support, try your hand at beginning conversations that provide other users with an opportunity to share. Postings don't all have to be queries; they can also be fun places to get to know other users. If you're on a small business forum, for example, you could start a thread asking everyone how long they've been in business, what their business is and how many people they employ. Just make sure you start by sharing about yourself!
Post often, and do it during the most active hours
Most mainstream forums are active during regular business hours, because a lot of people enjoy a diversion from work. On active forums that are global, there will be consistent responses at all hours, but if you're on a forum that's primarily for North American users, stick to posting Monday through Friday around business hours.
If you want to get consistent engagement with your posts, and especially if you want to use the forum to network, you should also post frequently. In this way, forum posting is like social media posting: Consistent, high-value posts work.
Common mistakes new online forum users make
There are lots of small errors that new forum users make. Most of these won't cause major offense, and if you've done any of them, there's no need to stress about it, but they are easily avoidable faux pas that you may want to be aware of.
- Using the wrong categories: If you're frequently starting threads that aren't getting responses, check to see if the forum you're on has categories or tags. Lots of forums use categories to organize topics of conversation, but for whatever reason, many forums with categories don't require posters to choose one. It could be that your posts are going unnoticed because you aren't selecting a category or because you're choosing the wrong category.
- Derailing conversations: Online, the term "derailing" refers to changing the initial topic of a thread and taking it in a different direction, and it's considered a little rude. Try to stay on topic. Sometimes threads derail naturally because a response to the OP gets a lot of responses. If this begins to happen, you can always say, "I don't want to derail this post; I'll create a new thread" and then post a link to the new thread.
- Obvious self-promotion: Lots of people use forums to network and promote themselves, and in some forums, this is tolerated. However, users are savvy these days, and they can tell when someone is only posting in a forum to promote their business. If your first post, especially, is thinly veiled self-promotion, that may color the way people on the forum view you. It's OK to reference your business and talk about what you do, but make sure you're also posting genuine responses and starting threads that aren't solely to drive traffic to your business.
- Lurking forever: As any mod will tell you, lots of people lurk on forums for years without ever signing up or posting. All the online etiquette aside, there's truly nothing to fear, and the best way to get value out of a forum is by joining and posting. If you make a misstep or accidentally post duplicate questions or do anything else that isn't ideal, don't panic; just apologize and move on. People online are just people, and most of them will be kind and generous to new users, even if they occasionally stumble.
Sign up and start posting
Online forums offer invaluable connections to people who care about exactly what you care about. Many forums end up resulting in IRL connections, including professional connections, and there's no reason not to take advantage of them. Additionally, you can learn a lot from other users and possibly save yourself some money and time by getting their advice and reading about their experiences.
Additional reporting by Sammi Caramela.