“So what did you think of the Season Finale of Heroes?””Dude no spoilers I haven’t seen it yet.”

“Oh, alright, highlight the following to see what I thought: *start highlight* The fight scene between Hiro and Sylar, which was supposed to be the highlight of the entire series, was over in less than two seconds.  He stabs him, the end.  What a let down! *end highlight*”

“Hi forum people!  Buy cheap Lost DVDs at spammerplanet.com for only $49.95 per season!  Free shipping!”


“Spam!  Reported!”

“Where are the “#”#%ing mods?  I tell you, this forum has been going downhill since Tommy stopped running it.”

Recently, in the Business of Software forum, somebody made the observation that I have never posted to Usenet about Bingo Card Creator, and they reasoned from this that posting to Usenet about consumer software is unpopular.  (For those who may not know me: Bingo Card Creator is software which produces bingo cards for teachers.  I wrote and sell it as a small business.)  I’m both flattered and frightened that I’m supposedly representative of good marketing practices.  However, I think the conclusion should be a little broader than they one they drew: it is ineffective to directly market to a community which you are not a part of, be that a forum community, a mailing list, or a Usenet group, regardless of what you are selling.

What Community-Oriented Marketing Is

The key thing about Usenet or a PHPBB forum or your local school’s teacher mailing list is not the technology that is used to drive them.  The key thing is that they have a community, quite possibly a very tight knit one which has built up over years.  That community has its little social rituals, in-jokes, standards of acceptable behavior, shared history, friendships, rivalries, dramas, a whole tapestry of meaning for its members that you, the outsider, know nothing about.

If you attempt to sell something directly to the members of a community you are not a part of, you risk a great chance of falling afoul of community norms and an almost certain chance of wasting your time.  Many communities are quite opposed to the commercialization of what they perceive, correctly, as their shared social space.  Some have debates rage for years about whether its appropriate or not to put AdSense ads on a forum sidebar (sidenote to board admins: please don’t.  Regardless of whether its appropriate or not nobody will click them.  They’re coming for the community, not to be marketed to.  The only way to use AdSense on a forum is to put interstitial ads between posts and harvest misclicks.)  Some of them are filled with Slashdot-esque folks who are fundamentally opposed to people other than themselves making money for any reason.  Some are filled with folks who either do not have money or should not be spending it if they do have it.  If you’re not a member, you will not know the lay of the land, and you might step directly into one of the minefields.

Legitimate Ways To Market To A Community You Are Not A Member Of

Of course, there are a variety of approved ways to drop an advertisement in a community.  You could, for example, buy an AdSense ad there — see above, though, its tremendously unlikely to be effective.  Some communities have established Advertising boards — this should be a pretty big hint to you that they really would not appreciate an ad in their main forum.  Of course, traffic to their advertising board is a bare fraction of what it is to the main forum (if everyone wanted to see ads they’d be accepting of ads there!).  I spent about 2 hours when I started up Bingo Card Creator running around the Internet, finding ESL forums, looking to see if they had an advertising board, and dropping in a tasteful and honest ad for Bingo Card Creator if they did.

The Relative (In-)effectiveness Of Direct Marketing To A Community You Are Not a Member Of

The best performing ad out of those sends me a total of perhaps 10 visits a month, resulting in 2 trial downloads.  Think of that: one hour per trial download per month (TDPM — many marketing expenses are evergreen on the Internet, so its handy to watch how a one-time investment continues sending you traffic as opposed to watching the one-time spike of traffic immediately after posting).  By comparison, there are many, many better ways to deploy one hour of my scarce time.  One way would be to work at McDonalds, because a trial download is only worth about fifty cents to me.  But thats no fun.

Writing my Squidoo page took me 2 hours.  That was worth 5 TDPM.  Already thats doubly effective.

Writing a list of Dolch sight words for my website was “slightly” more effective.  It generates about 200 TDPM, partially from organic search and partially from folks who pass the link to their friends.  That page took, yep, about an hour to write and we’ll call it another hour work of linking from my blog over the last year.

Writing a single blog post about Free Bingo Cards took me about 15 minutes.  That generates about 150 TDPM.  (Note: I had quite a bit of help on that post thanks to an impromptu brigade of friends who decided to link to it.)

Oh, and in my portfolio of marketing efforts, there is one community link that sends me 20 TDPM.  It cost me 0 minutes to write, because I didn’t write it.  If I had written it, it wouldn’t have sent me a single hit.  The reason the link is so effective is because someone who was trusted in their community put their reputation on the line and said “Hey, check out this site, it will help you educate your children”.  It wasn’t an anonymous fly-by-night posting from some Internet entrepeneur (sadly, half of the world now thinks that is a euphemism for “spammer”), it was a recommendation given to the community by their childrens’ teacher. 

Trust Is Key

That is what community-oriented marketing comes down to: trust.  If you don’t have it, then building it up will take quite a bit of time, and you have much better options for marketing in terms of time spent per marginal exposure gained.  (See the above list for some ideas.)  If you are trusted somewhere, you might be able to effectively market there, based solely on your existing trust.

I personally haven’t used that method.  I am trusted, for example, in a community of ESL teachers close to where I live.  I know I could send out a email to the list and get 50 downloads of Bingo Card Creator in a day.  However, I’m trusted precisely because I have not been a self-promoter for the last three years, and I see no reason to throw that trust away now for a piddling amount of money.  On the other hand, I was a volunteer translator for a major Japanese ESL textbook, and they were kind enough to throw me a link from my biography (on the acknowledgements page) to Bingo Card Creator, which can’t possibly hurt.  That is marketing, but it is marketing which enhances my trust in the community rather than detracting from it. 

I strongly suggest that you do the same — don’t aggressively push your product at anybody who knows you and could possibly use it.  That makes you into the Internet equivalent of the Mary Kay lady, somebody who aggressively tries to promote her business to all of her soon-to-be-former friends to the exclusion of anything approaching a real, honest relationship with them.  Instead, continue going about interacting with your communities just like you do right now, and the marketing will more or less fall into your lap.

Finally, continue providing an excellent product and service to customers.  Customers are the first, last, and best marketing team you will ever have.  They are already trusted in more communities than you can even conceive of, and when they plug your product for you their words will be trusted and their consciences will be unburdened, because they are doing it to help their friends rather than to help themselves.  Its a win-win situation for everyone involved.

And, yes, I was severely disappointed with the last episode of Heroes.  Grr.  They’d better improve for next season.