Many companies underestimate the power of online forums as a branding, marketing and communications tool. Here’s how Australia’s best forums do it – and five of the best examples. By BRAD HOWARTH
By Brad Howarth
Online forums are one of the oldest forms of communications on the web, but many companies underestimate their power as a branding, marketing and communications tool.
Kathie Thomas set up her first online forum in 1997, to support the website she had created a year earlier for her home-based secretarial service.
The site had been attracting large volumes of email from other women keen to learn about her business model, and Thomas needed a better way of communicating with them.
Now her online forum, at the Virtual Assistant Network website, has more than 900 members who leave between 100 and 300 messages a day on issues ranging from starting a virtual assistant business to coping with working from home.
“The chat forums are a very popular way of keeping in touch with each other, simply because we do work from home and don’t have that face-to-face contact with our peers,” Thomas says. “It’s a great way of communicating.”
Online forums are one of the oldest communication forms on the web. They enable members to engage in group conversations in real time by posting messages to an updating web page or to an automated email alert system.
The popularity of forums is exploding. According to a new report by research group Forrester, 75% of Australian adults use social networks, including forums, and one-third are classified as citics, a group that contributes to online forums, posts ratings or reviews, comments on blogs, or contribute to wikis.
Many forums today started as social activities based around a specific topic, such as internet access (Whirlpool), dance music (inthemix.com.au) or sport (BigFooty).
The real-life connection
Con Frantzeskos, senior account manager at the public relations firm Edelman, says the best online forums are those that meet a particular need.
“Like all online communities, there has to be a real life driver to the online behaviour, whereby people really feel like there is something that inspires them on a daily basis, so that they then turn to an online forum for information or their need for community and peer relationships,” Frantzeskos says.
For Simon Wright, founder of Whirlpool, tapping into people’s interest in their telecommunications provider has built a forum with more than 250,000 registered members and 100,000 visitors each day.
“People never tire from discussing their telecommunications services,” he says.
The capacity of forums to gather large numbers of people into public conversations has not been lost on mainstream business. Frantzeskos regularly works with customers to help them understand and participate in these conversations, but says it is important that a company shows the appropriate level of respect for members by revealing its identity and engaging over the long-term.
“Be part of the conversation, add value, and don’t be afraid to participate,” he says.
The open nature of forums however is not always easy for companies to adapt to, as an open conversation is as likely to bash their brand as praise it. Frantzeskos says this is something they just need to deal with.
“Whether it’s on your forum or someone else’s forum, people are having these conversations anyway,” he says.
Most online forums have defined rules-of-conduct for participants and engage dedicated moderators on either a paid or voluntary basis to watch over the conversations. But despite the capacity for defamation of companies or individuals, forum operators report that legal threats over posts are rare.
The dance music forum at inthemix.com.au (ITM), which is operated by The Sound Alliance, uses a team of voluntary moderators to watch over posts. Managing director Neil Ackland says these moderators generally start as active participants, and enjoy being more involved.
He says it is important that the moderators allow conversations to flow freely, even when comments are critical of the music festivals and advertisers on which The Sound Alliance relies on for its income.
“We will pass on positive and negative feedback to brands and events managers,” Ackland says. “A lot of brands understand that you can’t censor or control what people are saying about their product. All feedback is useful, whether it is positive or negative.”
Ackland believes it takes about two years for a forum community to establish itself. ITM saw the number of unique visitors to its forums surge to 180,000 in October, and leave more than 100,000 posts, well up on the 75,000 that were left in May. He says the topics they are discussing are beginning to vary greatly.
“We noticed that there were a lot of threads of people talking about their favourite restaurants, so we opened a “dining out” forum, and that’s been massive,” Ackland says. “And then we had a lot of political discussions, so we opened a current affairs and politics forum.”
While The Sound Alliance is able to generate strong advertising revenue from the traffic its forums generate, with annual growth around 20%, it is also using its know-how to create and operate forums for other organisations.
Business-born forums, such as ANZ bank’s SB Hub for small business customers, the Huggies forum for parents, or the forums run by Vogue Australia magazine, are less common than community-born sites. But the senior analyst at Forrester Research, Steven Noble, says corporates can be just as successful, as has been shown by American companies such as Chase bank and Dell.
“There is nothing about being a company that stops you succeeding,” Noble says.
Commercial organisations have shown that they can successfully manage community forums, including Fairfax Digital, which purchased the six-year-old Essential Baby forum in January 2007. That site claims to be Australia’s largest online community for women, with 139,000 members leaving 10,000 posts a day.
“The secret to keeping this community alive was to avoid corporatising it, and letting them run on their own,” says general manager Melina Cruickshank.
Like The Sound Alliance, Essential Baby uses a team of voluntary moderators to monitor posts, but does not shield the advertisers who appear on the site.
“We have advertising around our forums, but we really have avoided touching or amending any of our forums,” Cruickshank says. “Because once you start to play with that you really start touching the thing that allows the community grow, which is the freedom and voice that the women have.
“What we say to advertisers is that by placing their advertising on these forums they’ve got a highly-engaged audience. Our average session time is over 13 minutes. You don’t get that kind of targeted audience on many websites.”
While advertising is the most common way of generating income from a forum, it is not the only one. In February this year the online media company and forum operator SitePoint spun off a new company, 99designs.com, as an independent online design marketplace. According to SitePoint’s co-founder and director Mark Harbottle, 99designs.com now has annualised revenue approaching $2 million. More spin-offs will follow.
“What we did at sitepoint.com was monitor the hot spots of activity in our forums, then we worked with our users to turn those activities into business opportunities, not only for us but more importantly for them,” Harbottle says. “For example, we noticed that the designers in our forums were competing to create custom logos and websites for clients. From that simple concept 99designs.com was born.”
Keeping the dream alive
The relative ease with which an individual or corporation can create an online forum presents a low barrier to entry, but the difficult task is keeping a forum alive. According to Frantzeskos, it is worth asking whether the topic is hot, whether people really need you, and how much they will care.
For Kathie Thomas, her reason was clear from the beginning.
“Mine has been to help build the industry, and also to get some exposure” she says. “It was important for me as a leader to stay out there in front of people, and the forums are a great way to do that. Whereas for my clients it is a business builder and helping them produce more income.”
Five of Australia’s best online forums:
AussieBloggers: A site for Australian bloggers to share tips and information.
BigFooty: The world’s largest forum site for AFL fans, with more than 60,000 members, and also covering other sports.
Essential Baby: Parenting community forum purchased by Fairfax in 2007, which has now grown into Australia’s largest online community for women, with 139,000 members leaving 10,000 posts a day.
InTheMix: Dance music appreciation forum that grew into a company, The Sound Alliance, with division covering rock music and gay culture, along with ticketing and consulting services.
Whirlpool: Possibly Australia’s most influential forum with more than 250,000 members and 100,000 unique visitors every day, focused on issues around internet service providers and broadband communications, and expanding into other areas.