On the Cheap: Message Board Ads

I’m back in the office after spending the Easter break with my family in Canada. They always have a lot of projects in progress I need to catch up on. One is my brother’s business.

A few years ago my brother, a business-savvy marketer, partnered with a machining techniques teacher and an IT technician with a background in physics to form TWM Performance, a manufacturer of high-performance automotive aftermarket parts. Though they’ve since made the shift to distributing most of their products through wholesalers, in the beginning the company was strictly online.

Not surprisingly, one of the first things they did was launch a Web site to market and sell their products directly to consumers worldwide. As with many Internet startups, promoting the site was a top priority. And as with virtually all startups, funds for online advertising were very limited.

To assess their target market and determine how best to reach it through online advertising (without investing a bundle), the three partners spent hours surfing the Web daily. They spent much of their time on message boards and in online forums. There, automotive enthusiasts discuss their passion and compare notes on parts they’d appraised. The sites helped the group identify the demand for their products. They investigated advertising to these fervent users.

Virtually every message board and online forum, of which there are thousands covering every topic imaginable, support online advertising. These aren’t the types of properties you’ll see pitched in the boardroom by your favorite sales rep. There are few rich media or trendy Web commercial opportunities. The options these properties provide are a throwback to the Internet’s early days, when banners and text ads were as creative as the medium got. In this arena though, they work.

Though some forums sell advertising on a CPM basis, most simplify things by charging monthly flat fees based on the popularity of the individual message board. A nominal monthly payment can get you a rotating banner or status as a featured sponsor. It also can afford permission to solicit forum participants by posting promotional messages that offer product discounts or announce upcoming sales.

Most important, the fee sanctions advertiser participation in community discussions on behalf of their companies to build personal, positive relationships with potential clients. As with strategic product placements and prominent event sponsorships, the branding effects can be profound.

When TWM Performance’s business was exclusively online, the uncomplicated and inexpensive promotions it did via message boards and online forums generated nearly 100 percent of sales. The team researched this segment extensively before buying, measuring and monitoring the activity level each board displayed over time. Those with high user volume and active posts consistently ranking in the thousands were considered a good investment. Of the 20 or so message boards the company ultimately chose to advertise on, only one failed to produce sales.

Years later, though they’ve since advertised both offline and elsewhere on the Web, the company still dishes out its monthly dues to the message boards that serve them so well. Its presence and participation in these tight online communities has an unexpected side effect: development of a highly loyal customer base.

Independent offers to promote the product line in North America and to distribute it overseas pour in consistently. TWM Performance’s effort to introduce its brand to consumers on a personal level helped it create and maintain a database of dedicated consumers. It’s achieved what many national retailers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies strive for, employing marketing and CRM budgets in the millions. My brother’s company did it by spending no more than a little time and a few hundred dollars per month.

Ads on message boards alone won’t help you spend a sizeable ad budget. They won’t provide access to the millions of consumers you’re mandated to reach. So if you’re a media buyer with this sort of power, think of these sites as a supplement to existing online marketing efforts, the grass-roots element of your campaign.

If you’re a buyer with a startup, think of them as a ticket to success.

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