Friday, July 17, 2009

Adding a Forum is Simple

By David B. Reynolds

One downside to using social media as a marketing tool is time. It takes times, a lot of it initially, to make tools such as blogs and Twitter pay off. But given the current economic climate, time is a resource many companies are reluctant to use for this purpose.

Someone has to adjust their schedule to fit in all the researching, blogging and tweeting it takes to do a good job. These people already have plenty to do with their full-time official jobs, so adding extra duties onto an already over-full plate is unattractive. Alternately, a company must hire a person specifically to perform those duties. These people must blog and tweet while getting to know how the company operates, who the top players are and what the new person's top priorities should be.
There is an alternative that while still requiring some time to perform well, will not require as much of that precious resource. It takes far less time than going full-bore into blogging and using Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites to actively promote communication with current and potential clients and customers.
The alternative is a forum. Forums take very little time to set up and initially, less than an hour a day to maintain.
Forums are essentially a question and answer portion of a website that also can be used to post new information. Most importantly, forums begin to generate two-way communications between the corporate world—you—and the people you should care most about—your customers. When used effectively, forums generate results that can be tracked. When forums show enough positive results, they can be expanded into a complete social media marketing campaign.
Using a forum is a four-step process: set it up, publish information people will want to read, respond to comments and suggestions while also regularly adding fresh content, then promote the forum.

Step 1: Setting Your Forum Up
Assuming your firm has a website—if not, what are you waiting for?—all you need to do is add a page to your “Contact Us” or “About Us” link. Have your information technology person set the page up. They will need to include a method of letting people post comments either directly to the forum or via email. If you are using the email method, I’d suggest setting up a special account that can be accessed by several people. You also need a list of approved people who can post messages from your firm to the forum.
Corporate posting access should be wide enough so that people in every department or division can get breaking news and information up, but not so broad that your consistent message is lost. I’d suggest running the forum posts through either the marketing, sales or tech support departments depending on your specific needs.

Step 2: The Content
Your initial content should include a way to publicly display customer’s questions and your answers to them. If a potential client wants to know if a given widget will work with their system, you need to answer them honestly. Do not use a curt, “Yes it will” or “No it won’t.” Explain why it will or will not work.
Remember, the idea is to keep your existing clients or customers happy and recruit more. No firm can expect to stay in business long if all it does it is anger and upset the people it should be serving.
You can also use the forum as way to unofficially introduce new products, especially when they are not quite ready for public distribution. In the software world, this is called the beta testing stage.
These posts depend on where the product is in its development stage.
For something that’s still being kicked around, you can say something like: “We are thinking about adding a product that does this to our line. What do you think?” Comments on your forum will give you an idea if people think it might work, or could be a colossal waste of time and money.

If your product is just about ready for release, but you have time and room for a few more enhancements, you could run a post like this: "Have you thought about upgrading Whiz-Bang version 7? Now you can try it ... free for 30 days." You can program the product to stop working after 30 days, require a survey be taken to unlock certain features or put in some other restrictions requiring feedback before the product works completely.

Step 3: Your Responses
Forums, like other forms of social media marketing, are about generating two-way conversations with your client base. You need to respond within one business day of every posting. If the matter is simple, generate a quick response and post it on the forum. If complexity means the response will take more time, post a public note saying you are looking into it, then get back to the writer privately once you have an answer.
The key is not to just dump something on the forum then ignore the comments people make. If you ignore their comments, the people writing them will ignore you.

Step 4: Promotion
Once your basic forum is operational, and you have material up that people can comment on, it’s time to promote it. You do not need to tout it like a new product, but you must let customers and potential customers know you have a way they can communicate with you.
A simple way to do this is by adding a line to your print and on-line ads and email blasts that reads something like this: “Do you have a comment, idea or suggestion? Send it to us at our new forum: (this is not a true link so don’t follow it).”

The Bottom Line
Some … many … O-kay, a lot of upper-tier managers are used to doing business a certain way. Their methods worked in the past and they still work now. These folks are not willing to accept changes in the way many people do business today, courtesy of new technology. If you want these managers—“dinosaurs” is one term I’ve heard—to adopt the new technology, you need to show them how it can help with sales. Forums are a good place to start.

Forum feedback can help make a good product better, help find the source of a vexing problem or prevent you from spending money making a product no one wants. Forums can also generate ideas for new products and new markets for existing items.

This is an original work by David B. Reynolds, a Certified Technical Writer and former newspaper managing editor. (C) 2009 by the author. No compensation beyond a courtesy copy is required for any freely-distributed print or on-line publication. Compensation is required for use in any paid-circulation publication. The copyright notice and my email address must appear in any publication.

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