Online forums can be a wonderful way for you to connect with clients and customers, even if you can’t promote yourself directly there. You’d be surprised how often other community members will reach out to someone who’s been helpful. If you go in with the expectation of getting business right away you’ll be disappointed, but if you show up and participate over the long term, there’s the real potential to build relationships, establish expertise, and yes, make money.
Connecting with actual people in this way can be so powerful that I’d say doing this is way more important than setting up a website. If you need to make money soon, you should be getting out and talking to as many people in your target market as you can, and forums are one place where you can find people who have problems you can help with. Talking to people you can help was how you built a business before the web existed, and living in the internet age doesn’t change its effectiveness. It’s just that now we have extra tools to amplify our efforts. We run into trouble when rather than using these tools to connect with others, we get caught up in tinkering with them or hiding behind them.
Personally, I like to keep an eye on business-related communities on Reddit, Google’s AdWords forum, and a few favorite Facebook groups. I don’t systematically check each place each day, but I do find that participating even occasionally can lead to new opportunities and new clients. Sometimes I even see people asking where they can find people with my skills, which is my cue to step up and introduce myself.
Here’s some advice:
- When choosing where to spend your time, one thing you should consider is how much the person had to pay to be a part of the community. The private Facebook group that you get access to when you join a $2000 course is going to have a higher ratio of quality people willing to pay others to help them. Those who aren’t serious or who want everything for free are weeded out. I’m not saying free forums aren’t valuable or that you shouldn’t network with people who can’t pay you right now (I’m a member of several paid communities and I still spend time in groups that are open to everyone if the quality of the discussion is high). But when there’s a cost to enter you do notice a difference.
- Leave your ego at the door. Always ask yourself, “Is what I’m contributing here about helping the person I’m responding to, or is it about me showing off?” If it’s the latter, rethink your approach.
- Go for quality over quantity in your responses. Write one well-considered response rather than a bunch of quick comments.
- Ideally, you want to make enough of a connection with people you can help that you can get them on the phone or Skype for a real-time chat. But don’t be too pushy about this: people can be pretty shy about getting on the phone and some have legitimate concerns about safety. Approach gradually by first seeing if they’re willing to interact with you outside the forum and send you a private message or email. When you suggest a call, make sure it’s just that: a suggestion for them to leave or take you up on if they think it will be helpful for them. Don’t hold it against them if they seem reluctant.
Looking for some inspiration?
Perhaps the best example I know of how forums can help you find high-quality clients and grow your business is former programmer Patrick McKenzie’s participation on Hacker News. You don’t have to read far in this article to get to a story about how he met up with a forum buddy for coffee. The buddy got $15,000 worth of value out of their 3-hour conversation. As he’ll explain, Patrick didn’t make anything, but he did learn a valuable lesson that transformed him from a programmer to a consultant who charges five figures per week. This was only one interaction out of many that went beyond the forum to the benefit of both parties.
Forum posting can be valuable for product-based businesses as well. Here’s the posting history of a former client of mine who participates on Reddit to build his dash cam business. Reddit is also where he approached me about doing work for him, incidentally.
Today’s Action Step: Find a forum where your customers look for help with their problems, and step in to give someone useful advice.