For some companies, marketing through social networks isn’t enough, they want to create their own social spaces to attract visitors.
Here are ten tips for building social networks and forums...
Occasionally, firms, especially larger brands, choose to build forums into their websites as part of their marketing strategy.
The idea is that the social network or forum will attract new and repeat visitors, build brand loyalty and recognition, boost your organic SEO and increase trust in your website.
Without a doubt, a successful forum can do that, but it can also be a huge amount of work and a gamble, since most forum attempts fail.
Recently, a few of my clients asked about forums and so I’ve been considering best practice. Here are my ten golden rules.
1. Set out some ground rules
Whatever industry your forum is geared towards, you’ll need to lay out some rules. Some are to protect yourself - for example, people must not write anything that could be considered slanderous.
Others are to protect the forum space itself, rules that even you as webmaster will follow. No spamming, no pestering, no trolling, that kind of thing.
2. Break it up
Any visitor to your forum should know exactly where to post their comments or query. If your sub categories are jumbled and confused then visitors won’t know where to browse for answers or leave their own questions.
What those sub categories are depends on your preferences – you may choose to set out an area for debate, one for people seeking help, one for sharing industry news.
Alternatively, you might prefer to lay it out by topic – for example an online marketing forum could have organic SEO, pay-per-click, email marketing and so on.
Just make sure it’s clear.
3. Don’t censor
Sometimes, your visitors may write things you don’t agree with. Of course, if they’ve broken your rules then you can delete their post. However, if they haven’t then you mustn’t arbitrarily delete their comments.
If you start doing that, you’ll soon find people lose trust and abandon the forum. Even on your corporate site you must remember that a forum isn’t your space, it’s theirs’.
4. Don’t sell
Don’t try and use a social space to pitch – it will alienate users and harm brand trust.
The benefits of a forum are more subtle, it isn’t just a space for you to shout about your products. If you’d consider it spam if someone else did it then don’t do it yourself.
5. Don’t lie
We’ve all seen it – a convenient forum post asking a question about a product that allows the forum owner to go in and pitch. Nine times out of ten it’s obvious that the company has set up that question to allow it to rave about a product or service.
This is even worse than spam, it makes it look like the spammer thinks the forum users are stupid.
6. Moderate appropriately
Your forum will need to be moderated. Leave it to its own devices and it will descend into a storm of spam, bitching and off-topic nonsense.
But also consider how heavily you plan to moderate your forum. You don’t want to leap down the throat of everyone who skates close to the edge of the rules, you’ll frighten people off.
Work out how involved you want to be – and stick to it. Let other forum members tell posters when they overstep the mark and give them a way to flag issues with you.
7. Be even-handed
When you’re moderating your forum, don’t blow hot and cold. If you ban someone for spamming on Monday but ignore someone doing to same on Friday, people will become suspicious about why. Do you have a commercial interest?
Nothing will clear your forum faster than unfair moderation.
8. Protect your data
If your forum collects email addresses, make sure they’re safe and don’t communicate with them without permission. No one will return to a forum if they don’t trust you with their data.
9. Promote it
Forums are hard work and they take a lot of promotion to get going, so make sure you’re shouting about yours. Tweet particularly interesting posts, blog about it, mention it in your email marketing, that kind of thing.
Until your forum becomes self-sufficient, it needs feeding with constant promotion or you’ll find it withers and dies.
10. Know why you’re doing it
Before you plough hours of work into your new company forum, work out why you’re doing it and make sure your bosses know.
A forum is an odd asset. Because you can’t use it to directly sell through, it can be hard to justify maintaining it. Make sure your company understands the benefits of a forum to the wider online marketing picture.
The last thing you want is your boss to suddenly demand the forum is used for advertising or that the email addresses of members are used for marketing.
Justify the forum early on, when everyone’s excited about it – not later on when budget cuts are looming and you have to prove a financial return on the investment.