“OMG! I fancy the gardener!!!”

Picture this, you’re a relatively new mum. Things didn’t work out with the kids’ Dad, you’re feeling lonely and just a little bit insecure. You know all about Mumsnet of course (what new mums don’t) and you’ve been using it for advice for ages. One day you’re getting some work done in the garden and OMG the gardener is gorgeous!

But, what to do? This feeling is too strong to keep to yourself. So, out comes the mobile, up goes the post “I fancy the gardener!”. What follows is an outpouring of advice, support and a huge sense of excitement as we follow how your story develops (I’ll not spoil it for you). All of a sudden, you’re not alone. You’re surrounded by people like you, who care about what happens. Your story has touched them; they’ve become invested in the life of a stranger.

And that’s why forums work.

There’s a profound normality to the conversation on forums that’s wonderfully reaffirming. It’s like what the internet promised to be. Sure you have those who are out to abuse, but when the subject is everyday living, these are few and far between

Having read hundreds of thousands of forum posts, we thought we’d share what we’ve learnt about why they work and how they can help marketers and researchers get new insights into what makes us all tick. 

The power of anonymity

This is perhaps the most obvious reason for using online forms. Sometimes it’s just really useful to keep something back. Forums let you share and discuss what you need to, without the fear of it impacting on your ‘real’ life. Anonymity is a barrier, something that protects you from potential psychological discomfort. You might not feel comfortable asking ‘silly’ or embarrassing questions to those around you, but it’s fine for DogToothAtic76 to talk about it in a forum.

And of course, this anonymity doesn’t stop you forming bonds online. It’s completely possible to get to know a pseudonym. Particularly when that pseudonym has built a reputation for good posts, credible answers and a good personality.

We’re all special snowflakes

A special snowflake is someone with supposedly unique characteristics that entitle them to privileged treatment. It’s usually a term of abuse, but we’re all special snowflakes sometimes.

How does this drive forum use? Let’s face it, there’s no shortage of information on the internet. But, time and time again, we see people asking for help about the same topics. It’s because we all believe that our situation is somehow different. More complex, harder to deal with, unique. It’s this sense that we’re different that drives people to ask questions on forums. Information isn’t enough, we need a tailored answer for our particular situation.

Like most things, it’s a journey

Successful forums work because they provide knowledge and relationships. People come looking for knowledge and often find people just like them.

A typical forum user journey starts with a question. You need to find something out, and Google connects you to what it thinks is the best answer. If it works, you’ll see someone else talking about exactly the thing that you’re facing. You’re not alone anymore! If it’s a hobby or on-going interest you’re likely to return to the forum to see what’s new. You’ve become a lurker.

This tends to continue until one day you’re inspired to respond to someone else’s post or to make one of your own. Now a new set of reward mechanisms come into play. You’re no longer vicariously enjoying the lives of others. You’ve become one of the actors on the stage. You’re engaging directly with strangers like you. And as your confidence grows you start to develop deeper relationships with other forum users, discussing the original topic and talking about your lives.

Search engines love a good forum, but it’s a battle of the fittest

Search engines are always on the lookout for the best, most relevant content. It’s how they keep you using them.

Forums tick a lot of boxes for search engines. They’ve got the potential for lots of relevant, frequently updated content. But there doesn’t tend to be lots of big forums about the same subject. It’s a battle of the fittest. Forum owners who create the right space for great conversations are likely to be reward by more traffic, which in turn creates more content. You can see this virtuous circle happening all the time, and the forum graveyards left behind.

What does this all mean for marketers, researchers and planners?

We all need help sometimes. Life never stops throwing new problems, opportunities and interests at us, that others can help us with. Forums work because they connect like-minded people in a meaningful exchange of knowledge and conversation. They serve the need for information and a deeper psychological need to connect and socialise.

Brands and agencies can observe this conversation to gain a new perspective on how consumers experience life and how this can relate back to the markets and categories they operate in.

We think there are four main takeaways:

  1. If you’re developing your own content, be aware of what and who’s already in there. The relationship between search engines and forums create high barriers which are expensive to overcome.
  2. It’s not enough to inform people and hope for the best. Your content has to adapt to their specific needs and situation. Forums can help inspire and fine-tune your content strategy.
  3. Forum conversations tend to be rawer than other sources of consumer research, revealing a different side to what we feel and consider important. This gives you access to a new type of consumer insight.
  4. Forums show how life changes over time which helps us understand what factors influence our behaviour.

About us

We’re an insights agency that uses social data to help brands + their agencies find new opportunities for growth.

If that sounds good, drop us a line and we’ll get straight back to you. If you want to hear more stories from social, then sign up to our blog (As Heard on Social) below.

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