Content Marketing

The Community Correspondent: a Guide to Creating Link Worthy Content Through Forum Participation

My primary marketing project right now is an affiliate site with a known brand that targets a passionate hobbyist and professional community. Many amongst this community are active in the roughly 10 online forums of sizes ranging from 700 to ~17,000 members.

Over the past two months through my strategic participation in two of these forums I’ve generated brand awareness, created content that’s won valuable links from important sites and blogs in the space, increased targeted organic search traffic to our site and developed an unexpected fondness for the community as a whole.

In researching to round out my thinking on this piece I found Jake McKee’s blog, CommunityGuy. He worked with online communities that formed around his employer, Lego. My approach to community is directly in line with his, but my primary intention was to create a sustainable and community-centric content stream to help thicken a formerly thin affiliate site.

In Lessons in Branded Content Creation Through Community Participation I wrote about what I learned from recent forum criticisms. This article covers with far more depth the approach to community interaction that I’ve taken for this project, with an emphasis on sustainability through aligning the content creation process with my community’s values.

Here’s what’s covered:
1) Forum Content Distributor vs. Forum Correspondent
2) Guidelines for Gaining a Workable Level of Acceptance
3) Your Value Proposition to Forum Participants
4) Getting the Conversation Rolling
5) The Unexpected Benefits
6) The Continued Dangers
7) Six Closing Remarks

1) Forum Content Distributor vs. Forum Correspondent
My participation is far more involved than simply distributing content through forums, that is, publishing blog post links directly in forums where I know my target market congregates (though I have done this).

Instead I try to be more of a forum correspondent and make connections between our site visitors and forums as well as BETWEEN the forums themselves, which are often siloed.

When a thread I start gets popular in one of the forums I know I’m on to something that I can turn into a popular article, and something I can request links to from bloggers and other websites.

All of this content goes into our biweekly email newsletter too.

In many ways this is something of an extension of the kind of editorial work I did at WebProNews, where I sought always to generate content through audience interaction and connecting questions with experts.

2) Guidelines for Gaining a Workable Level of Acceptance
The hardest part for me is remaining hyper conscious of the fact that I’m a marketer and will always be perceived with a level of mistrust. I’ve gotten seriously flamed on at least three occasions so I want to start with some basic guidelines for people who are interested in generating content and community in this way.

a) Contact forum owners first.
I emailed forum owners and in one case called a forum mod to ask for permission to post in their forum. Winning approval from mods and owners doesn’t mean you’ll be welcomed with open arms by the community though. Cover your bases anyways.

If they don’t respond then take a shot at starting a thread – some forums are very Second Life in their attitudes regarding marketers and leave it up to the marketer’s ability to gain community acceptance.

b) Be prepared for the first round of bristling anti-marketer reaction.
If anyone makes valid criticisms of you, what you’ve said in the forum thus far, how transparent you are about your intentions, the font on your website or how you have a stupid name then address them point by point.

Be laboriously and thoroughly transparent about everything you intend to do, especially if it involves republishing their thoughts on your own website. You may find that humor works well for you. I’m not typically funny when my continued participation in a key forum feels like it’s on the line so I lean towards transparency. It’s worked for me so far.

As has my willingness to make nearly immediate site changes based on valid criticisms.

In The Customer Interaction Manifesto Jake McKee writes that you must “learn to take a good beating.”

This goes at least double in forums, where folks aren’t necessarily your customers at all. Sometimes you’ll find that your greatest detractors will end up giving you the best suggestions though and can even end up as allies.

3) Your Value Proposition to Forum Participants
Why should they let you keep asking questions and publishing their wisdom on your site? Your permission and acceptance will ultimately be based on your willingness to promote and champion the community’s best interests. Period.

As a “forum correspondent” I looked at it as my job to understand, as quickly as possible, the values of the community and build content based on these values that still align with our marketing goals.

Your value proposition is that you’re helping care for and promote the ideas and feelings that are most important to their community.

In one case I found a forum member who’d written a how-to journal he offered to his community for free. I helped promote this by writing about it in our blog, email newsletter AND in other forums.

And finally there’s the simple fact that you’re driving traffic to their sites and letting people know through your channels that their forum is a great place. Individual members may not be particularly moved by this, but it’s worth mentioning.

4) Getting the Conversation Rolling
Once you’ve made a few friends by demonstrating how openly, honestly and levelly you can handle verbal assaults, it’s time to start asking questions.

I got rolling with questions from our site visitors… because I had no idea what the answers were. In fact, I started threads by posting the question plus the answer I had drafted based on Google research. Then I learned how off base I was after asking for critiques in forums.

This went quite well, and some ensuing threads became quite popular. That’s when I started asking my own article-oriented questions. Some that I found that worked were:

1) What’s the Best Deal on X that you’ve ever gotten?
2) In your opinion what’s the Most Dangerous X known to man?
3) Which practitioner of your art was the most influential on you?

All of these questions translated quite well into content that converted into links (after emailing link requests to bloggers) and has become trusted by search engines as well, considering the 25-35% increase in organic traffic we’ve seen over the past month.

Again I want to emphasize the importance of being transparent about publishing what’s said in a forum on your site. Though it may be well within fair use, copyright laws don’t mean jack snap to someone who feels like you’re profiting on his words against his will.

This is something I had to learn the hard way. Be upfront and overt that you’d like to republish ideas and quotes that come up in a thread you start.

5) The Unexpected Benefits:
a) An understanding key lingo and jargon – a window into community values.

b) I’ve found allies. These are folks who started out as strong, vocal critics. These are folks who defend me against others in the forum now. These are people whose suggestions I take above all others for future content ideas and they’ve been invaluable to me as participants in how I’ve shaped our content footprint.

c) A fondness for the community. This is one of the biggest benefits – it forces me to ask if what I’m about to write or post as a forum thread will really benefit my community.

d) A strong editorial sense of content that will be popular. I’m not a practitioner of the passion, but I’m starting to develop that crucial editorial sense of whether a subject will be a hit. This means that I’m more likely to write content that will generate links organically.

6) The Challenges
a) It’s always precarious, and a false move WILL bring you harsh condemnation. You’re a marketer – you have ulterior motives and some people will always criticize you. Accept this going in.

b) You may stand accused of taking advantage of unwitting forum participants to get valuable and unique content. This will actually be true unless you stay focused on championing your community’s values, its individual members and promoting the sites where they congregate.

c) It takes a long time and a lot of hard work, especially if you’re starting from zero with industry or community knowledge. Even with community help and direct participation I still spend HOURS putting large pieces together and making them “sing” per Andy Hagans.

7) Six Closing Remarks
1) If you happen to have communities built around your brand I assert that much of what I’ve written will be useful to you, especially in regards to generating content through interaction and the general delicacy with which you must approach the initial conversations. Your marketing communications should be chock full of proof of your community interactions.

2) I mentioned nothing about mapping out your community’s habitats. I used Google and followed lots and lots of links on sites. I think Andy Beal’s Online Reputation Monitoring Beginners Guide is a great place to start ferreting out your community’s favorite hang outs if you don’t know already. If you’re starting from scratch you will just have to start pulling threads and see where they lead you.

3) To build our current blog contact list I looked in Bloglines at a popular blog’s subscribers. Then I looked at what else THEY subscribed to.

4) You don’t have to necessarily ask questions in forums either… you can simply provide forum coverage the way that SERoundtable does and generate a great sustainable content stream. In my current project I’ll be leaning this way more soon so I can lighten up my presence a little.

5) I left off a section for conversions. I currently aim for subscribers to our email newsletter and traffic from profit-generating search terms.

6) Are you looking for ways to generate steady, community-based content and become a more meaningful presence in your online communities? Send me an email for a free initial consultation:

Categorised as: market conversations, my project portfolio, social media marketing

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