Now that you know where to source the best free online forums, the next question is what do you do with them?

Define Your Goal

There is so much that can be achieved with forum marketing that it would be really easy to get lost right at the start. To avoid going in circles, start off by establishing a clear idea of what you want to achieve. Do you want to be seen as an expert in different forums? Do you want your forum members to share ways they’re using your product/service? If you establish a benchmark, your campaign will be that much more effective. Remember it’s always possible to have more than one goal, but you have to calculate for how much time and effort is spent pursuing each one…and track ROI to determine whether one strategy supersedes another.

Do Your Research

Just like how no one is ever seen talking to the most boring and irrelevant person at a party, no one is going to come to your forum if it’s boring and irrelevant to them. Before you launch your forum, do a bit of research to see what the hot topics and trends are. Maybe you can attend a couple of conferences, do some market research or see what the latest news items are in your specific industry. Be relevant and people will keep flocking to you.

Generate Content

If you don’t have time to do any research, you can still create meaningful posts by using questions and experiences that customers may have had. Go through your emails and see if there were any issues that were brought up that you can use as a forum post. Maybe you have an industry observation or a question that would also make a relevant post. Remember that forums have a wide field of purposes, from answering questions to gaining insight on how you can use forum traction for market research and see what customers/users are really interested in.

Gain Credibility

Forum practices are very similar to social media practices in that consistency is key to creating an authentic and sincere voice. In other words, if you want anyone to care about what you have to say, you need to become a consistent presence within your chosen forum. Forum marketing is definitely an investment of time and interest. It has to remain a solid campaign effort for a minimum of six months before you can expect to see calculable results.

Outsourcing Forum Duties

A steady campaign over six months might be too much effort for small business owners to engage in themselves – and they’d be right to think that. Just like any social media campaign, the effort requires strategy and patience that leads many to outsource the duties. When outsourcing, make sure that you hand over the reigns to a company that knows what they’re doing. Stay away from larger firms that offer these services since they’ll likely be more expensive and may also hand these duties over to inexperienced staff that could end up turning your forum marketing into spamming. If you have to outsource, your best bet is contracting another small business owner that offers this service professionally.

Create Special Privileges

Everyone loves a great deal. Better than just a great deal is an opportunity for an “in”, a special privilege of a great deal afforded to just a selected few. This allure of savings and exclusivity is what drives interest in forum deals. Offer forum members special savings and discounts that would not be afforded otherwise. This plan of action (best if used within your own forum) gives members a feeling of value, rewards them for forum use and encourages more people to sign up.

Make It Fun

On the same note as making people feel special, if it’s a forum you’re hosting for your own small business, then consider making it a fun end-user experience. Create contests, games and set challenges for forum members. Be sure to give out recognition and some sort of prize, even if it’s a free product/service or a percentage off their next purchase. This is also a great place to solicit reviews; be sure to reward reviewers with prizes as well.

Overlooked Forums

There are several outlets out there that are modeled after forums and can be a great tool for harnessing new clients, increasing visibility and developing your business – and Ning would be one of them. Developed as a hybrid between social media and forums, well-developed Ning communities in your industry are a gold mine if they’re consistently frequented and interacted on by business owners.