09/26/2012 05:17 EDT | Updated 11/26/2012 05:12 EST

How Online Forums Can Monetize and Grow

Some of the biggest retailers are beginning to realize that there are engaged communities that reside predominantly in forums and boards that provide amazing insight into product/service development, company sentiment. But brands still don't understand dynamics of online communities.


I had the distinct honour of speaking ForumCon in San Francisco earlier this summer. This one-day event was dedicated to providing online forum owners with tips/tools and best practices for managing, growing and monetizing their forums.

An online forum, one of the earliest and purest forms of social networking, by definition:

"Is an online discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages... Early Internet forums could be described as a web version of an electronic mailing list or newsgroup (such as exist on Usenet); allowing people to post messages and comment on other messages. Later developments emulated the different newsgroups or individual lists, providing more than one forum, dedicated to a particular topic."

This event was an eye-opener for me. In many ways it was ironic to me -- the online forum, the purest form of social networking, the very definition of community had remained true to its intent, even today. It had not yet evolved to modern day where its sustainability required the very solutions that websites and brands have been introduced to: search engine optimization, online influence, social media integration and monetization.

The forum owners I spoke with were passionate about their jobs. I sensed some pretty strong frustration among them; one had told me he worked over 100 hours a week in multiple roles: the moderator, the business development guy, the marketer, the web owner. The consistent gaps were noted across each of these discussions:

  • The top priority is to protect the communities. This means minimizing disruption.
  • There was a need to understand how social media could drive awareness, hence more users.
  • The need to be able to make money from the forums while keeping the community (ies) intact

Most of the attendants comprised not only of forum owners, but also media and tech start-ups, who provided some pretty innovative and insightful suggestions in response to the challenges stated above.

Brands are becoming increasingly aware of online forums

This was one insight that many of the online forum owners were unaware of. I presented a case study that proved to them that some of the strongest and most compelling discussions were not on Facebook nor Twitter. In fact, some of the biggest retailers are beginning to realize that there are engaged communities that reside predominantly in forums and boards that provide amazing insight into product/service development, company sentiment.

These discussions are raw and unfiltered. Actively listening to what's happening within these discussions provides a wealth of information for companies. One of the forum owners argued that these discussions were so niche that brands probably would be unwilling to pay attention to a community thread of 200 people discussing a specific topic. I argued that marketers would be more willing to spend time in a targeted discussion with fewer people than be exposed to a market full of noise and discourse with no specific focus. I also indicated that people more passionate about certain discussions have a higher propensity to share it outside of their immediate network. This is the classic word-of-mouth effect that can potentially reach, what Malcolm Gladwell coined, "The Tipping Point."

I've seen and analyzed instances where purely passionate discussions have seen a few repost information to other forums, blogs, and Twitter amplifying the message even more and ultimately driving not only website visits but purchase.

Brands still don't know how to engage effectively in social media

The case mentioned above happens few and far between. A few of my peers have had some success when it comes to persuading brands to see the value of social media and engagement in its true form. There are some brands who still think they have control. Enter Cluetrain Manifesto. Despite its warning, many brands are still unaware, nor are they willing to admit that they need to change the way they deal with customers.

As Cluetrain professes:

Networked markets are beginning to self-organize faster than the companies that have traditionally served them. Thanks to the web, markets are becoming better informed, smarter, and more demanding of qualities missing from most business organizations.

But this is why brands are starting to pay attention. Here is an example of forum traffic and engagement from one of the forum owners I spoke with:

  • 152 active discussions
  • 6,522,000 discussions
  • 84,402,000 posts
  • At the time of this post, there were over 600 current discussions

As the owner stated earlier, the discussion topics are very niche but for a brand it's highly relevant. And brands are asking for ways to have access to these engaged discussions, at the very least to obtain the valuable insight. I have worked with brands to navigate through these "tight" communities, careful not to interrupt or upset its members. And I've realized that the complaining and anger towards companies have seen communities welcome brands openly, knowing that companies have finally heard them and are willing to listen to what they have to say.

Technologies are enabling the connection between brands and online communities

I was happy to hear several technologies talk about how they're helping bridge this gap: Tyler Tanaka of Post Release spoke of his content platform targeting brands. Here is a description of the product, "PostRelease automates the broadcasting of your content as a sponsored post or article in the content well of contextually relevant blogs, forums, and content sites. It's the ease and control of display advertising with the deeper engagement of content."

As Tyler points out, brands still don't understand dynamics of online communities. Post Release allows the brand to leverage the incredible power of storytelling that goes along with content; place it int the native location, blogroll and engage directly with the forum in ways that are positive. Tyler points out that brands (at least in the U.S.) want to spend the money. They want to scale their marketing campaigns while still maintaining relevance.

Current display media performance isn't where it needs to be, especially from a consumer engagement standpoint. Post Release uses natural language processing engine to match brand content with just the right audience. The semantic engine will index the content in the forum, to understand the relevant conversations happening so the brand can reach these discussions by posting engaging content, video, articles, images. The focus is on content, not advertising. Brands who want to engage can not do so without risking its reputation. This technology does not disrupt the community nor interfere with the existing monetization.

Enthusify "currently powers marketplaces for automotive, sporting, and hobbyist communities." Currently in beta, Enthusify differs from the Craigslist and eBay enthusiasts by providing secured marketplaces for niche communities. By developing a marketplace where communities can provide an exchange of goods and services, a larger "bazaar-type" environment is inherently generated from engaged members, immediately open to business in a protected market.

For Enthusify, the value for the seller: "Don't pay listing fees or wonder if a buyer's payment is in the mail. Don't waste time listing your items for sale in noisy marketplaces where the items won't be found. Use Enthusify to target your audience and get paid." The reason this works: Only forum members generally are the buyers and sellers. In addition, buyers can find listings in a forum and related forums that are members of the Enthusify network. Listings, as with most social media, will also show up in search engines. Additionally Enthusify advertises listings through display ads that appear on sites related to your listing. I found this appealing, yet at the same time not progressive enough. This still keeps the communities intact and closed-off from the rest of the world.

Where brands and communities eventually collide.... in a positive way

I see, in the not too distant future, a time when brands will begin to seek out forums, eager to get to know the very people who have a lot to say about them and their products. Forums will be baked into media plans for the purpose of engagement, product optimization, marketing opportunities and, for the most part, pure relationship building. It's clear that major media companies like CBS Interactive, Gum Gum, Vibrant Media, Say Media, Vigilink are wielding their respective influences to build truly contextual media that broadens the definition of advertising from brand to consumer-centric.

And when that time comes, the forum owner will begin to reap the benefits of his efforts. I've come to realize that social media, for all its purity, cannot subsist. Facebook realized it was an inevitability. How it gets there without disrupting or destroying the community will be an interesting I intend to follow.