Do you have a love-hate relationship with online community forums? Many shop owners in the performance aftermarket industry do. On one hand, you recognize that forums are a gold mine, full of potential customers in one place logging in daily. If you offer parts for the 4G63 turbo Mitsubishi platforms you’re no stranger to DSMtuners.com or EvolutionM.net. If your business targets Corvette owners you’ve undoubtedly spent time on CorvetteForum.com. On the other hand, trying to market your products can be tricky and aggravating at times.

With more shops investing in social media to promote their business, focusing on forums can sometimes take a back seat in the company’s marketing activities. Though social media is a hugely effective marketing and branding tool, don’t forget the power of participating in forums. I’ve watched businesses go from small garage-based operations to large scale market leaders, and forums were an integral part of their growth. It doesn’t require a huge time investment to see results either. To keep it simple, choose the best forum in your most profitable market(s), where you have the best opportunity to make an impact, and participate there. Don’t spread yourself too thin.

Now let’s take a look at how to do it right. The first thought is always to post about your products or services – wrong! Advertising your products in threads won’t do much for you in the long term. In fact, the more you participate without discussing your products the more trust you build in the forum. Here are some tips on how to use forums to build authority and to market your performance shop, without sounding like a sales person.

Become a Part of the Community

Generic forum view

Example forum view, from PhpBB. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before you start posting you have to realize that forums are for sharing information and ideas around a common interest. Good forum etiquette says you should contribute and help others just as often, if not more often, than you receive help or benefit from the forum. This builds trust and authority. If you’re there solely to make money from the community people will see right through you and your efforts will be far less effective. Everyone understands businesses have to make money, but if you’re there you should be there to contribute as a community member, not as a sales person.

Take some time to learn the forum’s guidelines and acceptable user behavior. Do a bit of reading and see how others participate. Every forum has different rules and it’s critical you stick to the posted policies. Build relationships with the moderators and be sure to report rule violations when you see them.

So then, how can businesses get involved and be helpful while generating leads and important relationships that will help the business grow?

Fill in Your Profile and Your Signature, and Upload an Avatar

This is how the community will identify you. Be sure to check the forum’s guidelines for acceptable usage first. If allowed, post a link to your company website in your signature, a tagline or achievement, and the company name. If photos in the signature are permitted, post a photo of your shop vehicle if it’s relevant to that community. Most forums have a “homepage” or “website” field in the profile section – post your company’s website there. Post your company logo for your Avatar if it doesn’t violate the guidelines. Otherwise, post a photo of yourself or the company’s promo vehicle, again, assuming it’s relevant to that forum’s audience.

When creating/updating your forum profile you should follow your company’s overall branding strategy, staying true to the same visual elements as with the company’s other social media channels. Consistency is important.

Answer Tech Questions

This is the most obvious way to get involved. People – your customers – use forums to ask technical questions, especially in the automotive forums. Anytime you can help with questions about fitment, installation, expected power gains, troubleshooting issues, or any other tech discussion involving products you carry, chime in. The longer you hang around forums the more repetitive questions you’ll come across – it’s the nature of forums. All questions are opportunities to win new customers, even repetitive ones. Do some keyword searches for the products you carry or your company name in the forum to find threads where you can provide value.

Do NOT do any self promotion when answering questions. This is tough for some business owners, I know. You want to mention your products/services any chance you get. Trust me, the more you show your expertise, the more you’re already selling yourself and people will look at your signature and research who you are. You’re building authority. You’re building trust. You’re creating a following and embedding your brand into the community. What you CAN do, which tends to be extremely effective when the discussion involves your products, is to post helpful information and then at the end of your post let the user know they can send you a private message or give you a call for clarification on what you posted.

Post a Build Thread – and Keep it Updated

This is the most acceptable form of self promotion a business can use in forums. If your shop has a promotional vehicle it makes a lot of sense to create a build thread to document the plans, goals, installation of parts, and accomplishments once the build is complete. Car geeks love following interesting builds. The more installation photos and videos you post, the better. This gives you a great platform to show off your parts and the fact that you know what you’re doing. It also inspires people and motivates them to start their build or resume a build they’ve been lagging on.

After the build is done be sure to continue to post updates on what you’re doing with the car. If you’re racing it, post updates about it in the forum. Most shops know tend to post updates on their promotional vehicle on Facebook and on other social channels, but it’s important to also do this in forums too.

Participate in Others’ Build Threads

Many shops won’t have a promotional vehicle. No big deal. Get involved in build threads posted by others in the community. Offer advice on their build. Ask questions about their goals. Compliment them on their progress. If they’re using your parts or mention your company name anywhere in the build, thank them. Not only does this help build a rapport with the authors of the build threads but you also gain fans that are following those build threads. People pay attention to details like this and appreciate shops who are involved and take interest in what the average members are doing.

Leverage the Influencers in the Community

Take build thread participation a step further and sponsor an influential member in the forum and participate in their build thread. The key is to choose top members who are active, know what they’re talking about, and regularly post updates about their car and their racing activity.

Just be sure to have a very detailed arrangement in place with that individual, stating exactly how many updates will be posted in their build thread in the forum, what will be posted in each update (photo quantity, videos, etc) and for how long a period. Also be sure to specify where else the updates should be posted or promoted – their blog, their Facebook page, Twitter, Youtube, etc and the frequency in which they’ll be posted.

Talk About Events You Attend

Most performance shops attend some type of events throughout the year – races, trade shows, local car shows, dyno events, charity events, etc. Some shops even host their own events. Post about these events in the forums and invite members to attend, just as you would on Facebook and Twitter. Post photos and videos from the event and thank everyone who came out. Consider planning a giveaway and mention it in your thread. Each event you’re planning to attend should have its own thread.

Post Tech Articles

I typically advise clients to post tech articles in their blog on their company website. But every so often it makes sense to post a few in online forums as well. The more you post useful articles in the communities you focus on, the more authority you build. It can be simple “How-To” articles on fluids or some other product you offer, or it can be more in depth, like a product installation. Just be sure it’s useful and something that is worth sharing in that market.

By posting it in the forum you will benefit from the forum’s natural SEO ranking in Google, which tends to do very well and never goes away (so long as the forum exists), and you’ll find that others in the community will link to the article in other threads in the forum too. The more technical articles you post, the more points you score with the members and even with the moderators, and that has huge benefits in the long run as well.

Keep Email Alerts Turned On

Once you have members paying attention to your posts you will almost certainly start receiving replies to your threads, and you’ll even start receiving private messages. It’s best to have your forum options set to send you an email alert each time someone sends you a PM or replies to a thread you started (or one you’re subscribed to). These alerts help you stay on top of communications effectively so that you can post timely responses. If members see you participating in threads they will expect to get a response from you. If you don’t have time to respond immediately, just a simple reply telling them to “call the shop” will suffice. Don’t ignore these opportunities to interact with your target audience.

Be Efficient, Be Consistent, and Always Be Professional

Few shops have time to waste these days. With social media requiring more time and energy, forum participation tends to slip down on the priority list. The trick is to be efficient with your time and create a schedule. Fifteen minutes per day, two or three days per week should be enough to maintain a solid level of participation in a couple of forums. Setting up Google Alerts or paying for using some paid monitoring tools will make finding relevant threads even easier to find. Some participation in forums is always better than none.

If you have someone on staff managing your forum participation, be sure it’s someone you can absolutely trust to be the face of your company. Your business will depend on their judgment, their professionalism, and their effort. With this in mind, some business owners take it upon themselves to handle the company’s forum participation, which isn’t always the best use of their time.

Need Help?

For those shop owners who need help establishing or optimizing their forum profiles and participation, feel free to send us a note. We can help you put a plan together or even manage the process for you to free your time up for other shop activities.