By Joanna Fletcher
As business owners, we are constantly searching for groups of people who have something in common—a set of needs or characteristics—so that we can market our business to them effectively. An Internet forum can form just such a pool of potential customers, but it takes finesse to join an online community and market to them without alienating them.
In an online community, people are gathered from all over the world because of some common interest. The interest can really be anything, from the novels of Agatha Christie, to kids with ragweed pollen allergy, to the world’s greatest bacon. You can find groups in all kinds of formats; Yahoo groups, for example, allows you to search their group lists once you have set up a free account.
For promoting a business, look for a group that is explicitly for people who need your products and services; these are people who will want to buy what you have to sell. Look for groups with hundreds or thousands of members and join up.
Choose a group that has a lot of posting activity over the last few months, to make sure that your effort is not wasted. However, if you start off by sending in a posting that is just a commercial for your business, you will be ignored at best, and blocked from the community at worst.
Start by reading a few threads (groups of posts on a theme) to get the feel of the group, then start a new thread just to introduce yourself. Write about your passion and experience, and ask a question that the forum can help you answer. People love to help new members and will reach out and answer you. Then contribute where you can by sharing your thoughts and knowledge. Becoming a valued member of the community takes time.
When you have made friends in the community you will probably be exchanging a few off-list emails with them. At this point, introduce your business to these few friends, perhaps by adding your Web site address to your email signature block.
Group members who like you will go to your Web site; as they already trust you, they will probably buy. If you do not get any comments or interest from these people, who are your target market, you need to revise your Web site.
Ask your new friends for feedback on your site, and they will feel even more connected to your business. People like to share a good thing with their friends and family, so once you have their support, you should see a big increase in traffic and conversions.
Using a forum to promote your business to a group of your best customers is effective because customers have multiple contacts with you, without sales pressure, which helps you build a relationship. Service the key players in a forum and watch your sales take off.
Joanna Fletcher is a netizen who has lived, worked, and played in virtual space for most of her life. Her entrepreneurial flair is topped only by her tolerance for failure.