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Get the most out of using a forum.

The thoughts of Richard Osborne on many subjects over the years.

Get the most out of using a forum.

Many business owners and managers are used to networking; we do it all the time under many different guises. Whether you play golf, go to lunch events, am a member of your local Chamber of Commerce, or simply going down the pub. Networking is all around us in everything we do and take for granted.

A friend of yours from your local pub is a plumber, and someone else you know asks you if you know a plumber, you naturally recommend your friend from the pub because he’s a mate and you know him. This is the most basic principle of professional networking which organisations around the world rely on, referrals and recommendations.

What millions of people around the world haven’t got to grips with yet is online networking. The use of social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube in business are frowned upon by many, but utilised to great success by many. The use of networking websites such as UK Business Forums and Ecademy are seen as time wasting and even skiving by many business owners. They are making such a huge mistake, and should be ranking their time on websites such as these up just as high as attending professional networking breakfasts and time on the golf course. In fact, they should be ranking them higher because the exposure they bring in worldwide.

If you in doubt as to what value online networking can bring to your business please read my previous article on the subject from my blog at http://www.ozzy.co.uk/blog/2008/01/16/networking-as-cost-effective-marketing/. In an attempt to help those who have yet to utilise the exposure and value online networking can bring their business here is a follow up article on how to get the most out of using Internet forums, and how to present yourself to the world through them.

The first decision you need to make is choosing which forums to use. There are hundreds out there and no-one will have the time to use all of them, in the same way that it is not physically possible to attend every networking breakfast, lunch and dinner in your local area. My advice is to select one major, large forum to take part in and then a small handful of industry specific forums. Using a search engine such as Google and typing in “business forum” will bring you a nice selection to choose from.

Once you have found you list of forums to choose from read through some of the activity on there and get a feel for the ethos and atmosphere of the forum. Does this look like the sort of community you would feel comfortable in? If so, register an account and let’s get started.

When registering an account you will be given the option to create a Username. This is the name which you will become known by on the forums, how every one will recommend you to others and the “nickname” you will become known by for ever more. For that reason you need to think carefully, do you want to use your real name or your company name? Or does your actual nickname sound professional enough to stick with? Give this some serious thought because in some circumstances it cannot be changed, and you could be stuck with whatever you choose here. Common favourites are the member’s company name, or an abbreviated name. Very rarely will someone choose something which could reflect them in a bad light, for very good reason!

Some forums require you to confirm your email address after you register, and your account will not be activated until you do this so look out for activation emails in your spam folder in your email and do what it says. This is usually just clicking a link, or visiting a web page on the forums and entering an Activation Code. Don’t start posting or email the forum moderators sayings “Why aren’t my posts showing up?” if you haven’t activated your account. It can become very annoying for the moderators when this continuously happens.

So I’ve activated my account, do I start posting now? Nope, not quite yet! You need to check the rules of the forum and make sure you don’t break any. The last thing you want to do is start off on the wrong foot and be seen by the forum moderators as a spammer.

So what is a spammer? What constitutes a spammer varies from forum to forum, and you need to be sure you’re on the right side with each forum you take part in. For example, on some forums you will be allowed to openly promote your business as and whenever you wish and this is perfectly accepted, however on other forums this is not allowed and your account could be banned without warning. You need to either read the rules of the forum which should be displayed in either the FAQ page or a dedicated rules page, or in the case of some forums they evolve and you need to gauge what is and is not accepted by looking at how the conversations flow on the forum by reading it.

If in doubt, do not blaze in with lots of messages about how wonderful you and your business is, instead go for the softly softly approach. Even worse than the all guns blazing approach, for heavens sake do not try and pretend to be someone else recommending your service. It is very easy for the forum moderators to spot this sort of activity and then publicly make a mockery of you and your business – to the whole world.

You want to get the most out of this forum, you want to be able to promote your business and become well known in this new community, so it is worth taking the time to do your research and find out about the people you are about to start socialising with and the rules of engagement for each forum. Just because this is the Internet it doesn’t make it any different than real life. If you were about to attend a new networking event your area you would do exactly the same, so do it here online.

So now do I make my first post? Patience my friend, we’re almost there! Some forums allow you to setup a Profile for yourself. This is a little page on the forums that tells everyone else a little bit about yourself, your business, links to your website, and much more. When you make your first post this is the first thing that everyone will look at, so you want it to be as complete as possible and tell these people about you. Each forum is laid out differently, but look for a menu options such as Edit Profile or UserCP (short for User Control Panel). Go through all the options in these areas and complete them as best as possible. Her you can usually put all sorts of sales information about your company, the services you offer and links to your website.

Some forums also allow the use of signatures in your messages, and each forum has different rules about what is and is not allowed in the signature. As you would have checked out the rules of the forum you would by now know what is and is not allowed in the signatures.

What is a signature? This is a small message or strapline which is appended to the end of each message you post on the forums. Depending on the rules of the forum, this could be a link to website, your company slogan, or a special offer you are running at the time.

Some forums offer extra levels of membership, usually charged at a small fee, which allow you to have extra functionality for your account. This can be an increased profile, use of extra images for your profile or Avatar shown alongside your posts, and also increased or extra features for your signature. It is definitely worth giving consideration to what extra exposure you would get on the forum from having a heightened profile. An example would be the UK Business Forums which currently attract some 5,000 unique visitors a day. Is it worth paying a small fee to have your contributions and profile on these sorts of forums increased in exposure or not? Only you can make that decision.

Ok ok, I’ve got done all that. Now can I make my first post? YES!

One of the most important things you must keep in mind when you use the Internet to network is that how you present yourself is how your business will be perceived. If you are short and obnoxious then your business will be perceived the same. However, if you are polite, courteous and helpful then that is exactly how your business will be presented.

It amazing me sometimes when I participate on Internet forums and people seem to forget that they are talking to other human beings. I once changed my mind about doing business with a company based on the way they conducted themselves online, and I know that hundreds of other people have done the same. Speak to others how you would like to be spoken to yourself, be courteous, and friendly, and make use of smilies and emotions if you are ever in doubt about how your written message could be received. It is common knowledge that written messages (whether in emails, letters or forums) can be misinterpreted, so take this into account when you write your message.

What is a smiley? A smiley is an image which is commonly used in Instant Messaging, Emails and other Internet based communications. They are called Smilies because of the smiley faces they represent, and they are used to represent the tone in which the message is meant. Usually you will see a selection of smilies to insert into your message alongside the text box you type your message into. A smiley face to show you are happy, a sticky out tongue to show you are being cheeky, and so on.

Most forums have an Introductions or Welcome area. This is where it is generally regarded as good manners to make your first post and introduce yourself. Consider this area your elevator pitch, your 60 seconds as you will. Make a short post telling people a little bit about yourself, why you joined the forums, what you want to get out of them, and what it is your business does. You would then usually get a few welcome on board responses from some of the existing members, and also perhaps a little bit of interest in your business and what you do. Most people would have also taken a look at your profile, which is why it was important to get that setup before you started posting. Your profile would have told these people who have an interest in what you do more about your business.

You’ve said your hello, now how do I really start getting maximum exposure out of these forums? By helping out and becoming part of the community.

Do you ever wonder why some people are networking meetings seem to know everyone, why these people seem to be welcomed by everyone else. Wouldn’t you like to be as well known as these people? So everyone knows exactly what it is you do and what your name is?

These people are well known because they are always around, welcoming newcomers to the networking events they attend, getting to know the organisers, introducing themselves to others, and making connections between people they know. This is exactly the same on forums.

Look out for questions you can answer, or people looking for services where you know someone who can help them. Welcome other new members so they remember you as one of the friendly “faces” who made them feel welcome. Most importantly though, become known for a specialism on the forums, and ideally that should be your area of expertise in your business. So if you work in Sales and Marketing, help other members out with answers to their sales and marketing questions. You may feel you are giving information away for free which you may normally charge for, but that is the beauty of forums. They are a medium of sharing information which ultimately lead to warm leads and sales, because if that member you helped out with that question needs any more help the chances are they will remember that person who gave them that really helpful answer on those forums.

Don’t be a flash in a pan. If you pop along and spend a few days on the forums and then leave because you didn’t get any sales then I imagine you are also one of those people who tried networking but stopped because it didn’t work for you, yes? Networking is all about relationships, and that doesn’t matter whether it is online or face-to-face, it’s exactly the same for both. You need to build relationships on these forums first, become known by many of the other regulars and before too long they’ll start recommending you to other members who they know you can help. The larger the forum the longer this can take, but the bigger the potential rewards. So it just depends on how patient you are.

Respect the moderator’s decision. The moderators of a forum are put in place to ensure the smooth operation of the forum, and to intervene when in their opinion something on the forum is not going in the best interests of the forum, or in the interests of the forum owners. Moderators are usually unpaid volunteers from the forum community, who do a task where every decision they make can be questioned by the community and shouldn’t be. Remember that you are in someone else’s venue so play by their rules, “When in Rome…” as they say. You may at some point have your own messages moderated or even removed; I have on a few occasions. Appreciate that this will happen occasionally, don’t dwell on it. Just move on and respect that you may have posted something which did not fit with that particular forums guidelines or rules. Would you walk into a pub for the first time and then start moaning at the bar staff that you don’t like the way they run their pub? Well you might, but you might not be welcome there again in the future.

Finally, manage your time well. Some people say that online networking is addictive, and it is. If you are not careful you could find yourself spending far more time on Internet forums than you should, so set a time limit and stick to it, just like you would manage the amount of time you would spend down the pub, at networking breakfasts, and so forth. Treat it as a business commitment just like any other which needs to managed as close as your diary.

Enjoy your new forum networking experience and I hope to you see around online, Ozzy