Online Forums Can Lead To Prospects

The big fear when reaching out to teens is the same fear many of us faced back when we were among them: we don't want to look out-of-date.

Facebook and Twitter are hot, so marketers want to be there. But while the jury is still out on how to measure success between tweets and status updates, another social format -- online forums -- can be an effective way to reach teens at a time when opinions are being formed and purchase decisions are being made.

Forums are online gathering places for people who share a similar interest, communicating with each other by posting messages. There are millions of highly targeted online forums. People are there precisely to discuss products or services, even specific brands. They pose questions to the community, ask for guidance or simply look to connect with people who share their passions. The audience is primed and ready for -- even actively seeking -- product-specific messages.

Enhancing forum discussions by adding informative posts can be an effective way to reach teens.



Forum users are influential

In general, people who contribute to online forums are overwhelmingly more engaged in "influential" activities -- both online and offline -- than people who don't use forums, according to a study we conducted with market research company Synovate.

Those who contribute to online forums are 10 times more likely than non-contributors to also publish a blog, and are nine times more likely to take an active role in organizing an offline event or meet-up for a group that originally met online. Forum-users are 3.5 times more likely to proactively recommend a particular purchase to someone else, 3.5 times more likely to share links about new products, four times more likely to post online ratings and reviews, and almost twice as likely to share advice -- offline and in person -- based on information they've read online.

We all know how much teens are influenced by their peers. If you can find places online that are likely to be populated by people already inclined to take these kinds of "influential" actions, then that's where you want to be.

Forums are gathering places for people who share a common interest

Sure, there are a lot of teens on Facebook. But connecting with teens in a meaningful way on Facebook is like trying to connect with them while they're hanging with their friends at Starbucks. They're there to socialize and have fun, and it can be difficult to create a connection that doesn't seem like an intrusion.

Teens go to forums to talk about their interests and hobbies with other enthusiasts. If you have an authentic reason to be there, too, you have a much better chance of getting their attention. You can do that best by offering something of value to the forum members -- information or special promotions, for example -- that is relevant to the topics of discussion.

Forums increase in ability to drive response over time

Forum posts are indexed by search engines and carry significant weight in search results. Posts also are archived and remain for the life of the forum, continuing to live a long time online even when the conversation isn't active.

Whereas display and search ads turn "off" as soon as the media buy ends, forums help companies build a repository of online content that is available to be found by teens searching relevant topics for weeks, months, even years to come. In fact, sponsored forum posts, clearly marked as advertisements, increase in ability to drive response over time -- by more than 100% one year after a paid campaign has ended, according to our analysis.

Of course, as with everything else, the way you approach a forum needs to be strategic and thoughtful. The first place to start is to find any forums where people are discussing your products or services and those of your competitors, or activities that involve your products.

They key here is to know who likes your products and why. That may help you expand the list of potential relevant forums. For example, if you have a teen girl's clothing line, your first thought might be fashion-related forums. But if you know it's particularly popular with cheerleaders, find cheer forums, as well.

Here are some guidelines and suggestions for participating in forums:

  • Be prepared. Most forums will not let companies simply begin posting messages, no matter how open and helpful you are. Research each forum's rules, and follow them to the letter. You may have to become an official sponsor before being allowed to participate on any level.
  • Be authentic. Once you have permission to post, be a source of useful information or offer teens something of value. That might include tips about how to get the most out of a product, exclusive discount offers or even an early notification of a special deal.
  • Be transparent. Don't pretend to be "just a visitor." Consumers don't mind encountering company representatives online unless you don't disclose yourself as one. Teens are especially sensitive to anything that feels phony.
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