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Best Practices for Using Message Boards and Chatrooms For Your Marketing

sample of static community
(Wordcount: 1,111; Pages: 3) Much lip service is paid to the effectiveness of utilizing the internet for marketing and without exception, the focus is always the same tools: email, ads, search, and now blogs and online video. But little literature, if any, actually presents the other interactive services that consumers also use, particularly message boards and chat rooms. And why not? Because to date, there have been no widely recognized strategies or metrics that anyone can use to benchmark and guide any efforts. al berrios & company has been utilizing and studying the effective use of message boards and chat rooms for over 5 years and the following is a best practices guide on utilizing the oldest features of the internet.

Static Communities. To begin with, understand that blogs are just a new form of message boards. Message boards, let's call them "static communities", have existed as user/news groups, forums and guest books. Unlike blogs, which take on the personality of the creator, message boards and forums are indeed communities, taking on the characteristics of the group, which is usually older in age (around 30s and over). Despite moderation, like-minded community members still control the content.

Targeting. The very nature of message boards means that targeting a specific consumer segment is as simple as identifying a specific user interest, from Harley Davidsons to classic television programming. And once you've found your target, interacting with them is as simple as continuing the dialogue, without interrupting the member who has the floor and the topic being discussed.

Initiating. There is always a concern about marketer infiltration, unethical communication, and user criticism, and this frankly, is the real root of hesitation among researchers and marketers in using these tools. But suffice it to say, these concerns are misplaced. Consider that when you're at a bar with friends or among family members, anyone is welcome into the circle, as long as everyone knows who they really are and they always respect the topic of the conversation. A weirdo is one who just pops in, tries to subvert any topic to his own, and leaves without soliciting any response. That person will always be remembered for the wrong reasons.

Assuming you understand these basic rules of social interaction, why is it so unbelievable to expect the same rules to apply online? After selecting your target audience, initiating a dialogue with them must include these same social rules, including being sincere about your objective in contributing to the community. In addition, it is strongly suggested you create copywriting specific to your goals, to maximize the effectiveness of every interaction. It won't be "infiltration", but rather a networking experience, with the goal of either generating awareness or soliciting feedback. (Yes, there are goals to networking [1]). Our own metrics prove that well under 1% of consumers find this sort of marketing annoying.

Results. These are the rules and when followed they work. In a brief prepared by Aankit Patel at our firm, we utilized message boards to analyze the demographics of Harley Davidson enthusiasts online. Our findings (2) match those known by Harley Davidson (3), and took less than two hours to find.

Real-time Communities. Chatrooms work on similar principles, except the interaction is faster. Chatrooms are "real-time communities" that are primarily conducive to a younger consumer (anyone under 30). Although the rules of etiquette are slightly different (a conversation about body parts and what you'd like to do with them are just as normal as a discussion about world news), the result is the same.

Results. In one of the very first comprehensive studies executed by this firm utilizing chat rooms for a large beverage company, (4), we were able to interview over 1400 individuals in 7 days to retrieve information on everything from flavor preferences to pricing discrepancies across Southeast zip codes.

In a separate engagement for a large restaurant chain, our firm developed an interactive marketing campaign utilizing chat rooms to create data that we could use to understand the effectiveness of public relations aimed at teens (5). The highly successful result was new insights on a public relations framework specific to this client and target group.

Value Proposition. Utilizing message boards and chat rooms is a very manpower-intensive tactic. It requires large numbers of well-coordinated teams in order to achieve numerically superior results to an ad on a major portal's homepage. However, the not-so-obvious benefit is a direct relationship with a consumer. In other words, rather than paying for access to a media company's relationships, your marketing program can become a self-sufficient media company, developing direct relationships with consumers anywhere they may be and directly with your brand (as opposed to via an intermediary media brand) for the less than the cost of purchasing a few ads.

If the name of the marketing game is relationships, what value are a few unrepeated clickthroughs? The relationship you can engage in with a community and its members is infinitely more valuable in the long-term, outliving the life of any budget, since your dialogue will remain top of mind long after you've stopped having it. (When was the last time you waxed nostalgically about an online ad from months ago that prompted you to action today?)

And when you're actively developing these relationships via chatrooms and message boards, you're sending your message out to your consumers, as opposed to waiting for them to come to you, and better still, the process continuously solicits feedback instantaneously, as you need it, rather than executing costly research programs that take months and only answer questions pertaining to short-term strategy.

Execution. This report should serve as an informational overview of the best practices on how to actually exploit natural communities online. It is not recommended that marketing executives initiate their own message board and chat room program without the guidance of an outside agency. As an internal capability, it is costly and prone to resource starvation. Further, unusually close alignment with human resources, IT, and marketing is required in order to execute an effectively effort.

Although this tactic can work for virtually any brand in any industry, it should not be relied upon to do the heavy lifting of your marketing program until such time when your capability is scaled to several dozen teams working in highly orchestrated executions. A basic campaign of approximately 3-5 team members can range between $5,000-$15,000 (the cost of paying your team, providing them with technology, office rent, insurance, and administration) and can yield approximately 100-500 interviews or 1,000 to 10,000 visitors per month depending on the target audience and your objectives. Fortunately, it is possible to reduce these costs as your team grows and your coordination becomes more efficient.


(1) al berrios & co. Strategy Reports on Professional Business Networking

(2) Patel, Aankit, "Static Online Communities and How to Leverage for Cost Effective Data Acquisition", Consumer Strategies Report, Sept. 2004

(3) http://www.harley-davidson.com; al berrios & co. analysis.

(4) al berrios & co. Research on Consumer Product Goods companies

(5) Berrios, Al, "Everyone's a Punk Rocker - Examining the Effects of a Sustained Promotions vs. Short, Focused Promotions", Consumer Strategies Report, Oct. 2004

Al Berrios is Managing Director of al berrios & co., an innovative strategy consulting firm advising leaders on the impact of human behavior on their strategies and on how to change their organizations to address the behavior. Write to Consumer Strategies Report at editor @ alberrios.com.


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