Last week, I outlined a strategy for benefiting from participation in online forums and discussion lists. But there are a few treacherous pitfalls on this path to free publicity! Today I’m here to help you steer clear of them on your way to building a positive reputation through sharing your perspectives and opinions.
Go light on the pitch. Understand that blatant selling and bragging about your company or product will not win you favor, if it’s tolerated at all. Most lists and forums are policed in some way as no-pitch zones. Acceptable ways to promote yourself indirectly are through subtle asides in the content of the message (“When I advise clients on finding strategic partners, I tell them…”) and in the signature, where you usually get three to six lines to tell other participants what you do and how to get in touch. For instance, here’s an effective sign-off from a regular participant in the ClickZ Forum:
Derek Scruggs, 303-381-7127
Learn “The 10 Rules of Permission-based E-mail Marketing”
Send a blank email to email@example.com
Know what you’re talking about. Say “Australia” when in fact it’s New Zealand, and someone will correct you. Cite outmoded regulations, and you’ll likewise sabotage your reputation with the group. On the other hand, when you consistently provide confirmable facts, perspective grounded in expertise, and helpful advice to other participants, you win inquiries about your services, hits at your web site, and referrals.
Use a constructive tone. Because most people prefer to do business with likable, pleasant folks, refrain from putdowns, insults, sarcasm, and other forms of gratuitous nastiness. If someone writes something that makes you mad, send your reply to yourself and reread it in the morning before sending it on.
Be cautious with controversial topics. Think twice before taking an extreme position on a controversy. Imagine a potential client who is referred to you doing an Internet search on your name before giving you a call. If she comes upon your view that, say, laws against sexual harassment should be abolished, will that benefit you?
Write in a conversational, informal tone. Occasionally someone submits what reads like a magazine or newsletter article to the ClickZ Forum, which I moderate. This isn’t appropriate. Nor is something that has the prepackaged flavor of a press release. Write the way you would talk to a lunch table full of colleagues newly met at a business conference. No need to make it a stylistic masterpiece, but clean it up enough to be presentable, with capital letters at the beginning of sentences, standard paragraphing, and so on.
Is this kind of effort worth your time? Bob Cortez, a marketing consultant based in Homer, Alaska, says he gets 75 percent of his business through his participation in email and web-based discussion groups, including his own moderated list. “My posts to the ClickZ Forum have produced two requests for proposals, one contract, and several book orders that I know of,” he says. “Not bad considering that it is free promotion and the only mention of my business has been in my signature.”
When asked why he thinks forum participation attracts business, Cortez says, “It gives people a way to connect on a personal level. When you participate and contribute consistently over time, people can get a sense of your personality, sense of humor, and depth of knowledge. These things are difficult to communicate through advertising but are naturally exposed through conversations. People want to do business with people they know and trust. Forum participation allows people to get to ‘know’ you, which leads to trust.”
Barb Leff, who specializes in creating web sites for solo attorneys and small firms, has found it profitable to participate in several discussion lists, including solosez, which is run by the American Bar Association for sole practitioners, and the LawMarketing Discussion List. The latter she joined thinking that it was mainly for marketers of much larger firms than she serves and that she might learn about techniques she could adapt for her market. Participating without any ulterior motive, she picked up several clients when subscribers referred her to their colleagues, relatives, and other contacts.
“It’s less time-consuming than going to networking meetings — and less stressful,” Leff says. “I would suggest that someone new to this read the posts for several days to get a sense of the list and of the do’s and don’ts of that particular group. Some are friendlier than others, and not every list is a good fit for someone. That’s fine. And have realistic expectations.
“It’s the old story where marketing is concerned… you just never know what is going to lead to what.”
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