Internet forums. They’re everywhere – Etsy, Blogger, Craigslist – everywhere. They also go by a few different names: teams, community, discussion, buzz. And they cover every topic including how to sell stuff, formatting a website, and product reviews. The knowledge shared in these forums can be invaluable, but you have to put in before you can get out. Even then, the price might be too high for the product.
Number one, undeniably, is the people. Universities wish they could hire the amount of genius rolling around a majority of internet forums. Everything from personal experiences to classical philosophy is thrown about in discussions of how to run a small business or even about the best motherboard for a graphic designer building a new computer.
Community = support. Looking for other local creative entrepreneurs? There is a forum for that. Need a mentor who launched her own clothing line? She’s added her two cents in this forum or that one. Need to discuss the ups and downs of having your family dog as a helper in your studio? Just guess where you’ll find people who totally relate.
I like that this forum is not used for complaining, negativity, or blatant promotion. The other members are very honest and open to sharing what works and what doesn’t, critique, positive feedback, and the peace of mind that you’re not alone. It’s a great avenue to tackle the more pressing subjects when you’re ready to move from hobby to career. ~ Tina Jett
Use it as much or as little as you like. There are no minimum requirements and, usually, no one kicks you off for talking too much.
Many internet forums allow you to subscribe via e-mail or RSS feed so you can keep up with new comments on topics that interest you most.
“Despite our understanding of just HOW valuable a forum can be, if not used properly (or at all) it’s just a drain. On everyone. And it can result in unpleasant experiences.” ~Tara Gentile
Hard to search. Every website is different so you never know if search results are based on tags, titles, or keywords. Often, you have to run a search several times using every term related to your chosen topic Pain. In. the. Butt.
Sometimes you get what you ask for. If you ask for opinions on your own product or website, be prepared to get opinions. Of every kind.
Sometimes you don’t. Even forums with only a few dozen people can contain a lot of activity. Most recent activity gets bumped to the top of the list (the first page, if you will). So sometimes your question gets lost. Sometimes people don’t have anything to add. I’m sure it isn’t personal, but it sure can feel that way. Here’s a comment from one of my former teammates on Etsy:
“Whenever I have tried to “participate” in discussions for this team, I have rarely gotten responses from anyone. I’ll agree that I have not been active on this team since no one seemed to care if I was there or not. (Why participate when it felt like I was only talking to myself?)”
Cliquish. Oh, here we go again – back to high school. Some forum participants are very popular and other members really respond to them. Again, it isn’t personal, but the popular members are going to have a flood of comments on their conversation topics while you may only see a trickle on yours. Again, it isn’t personal.
Other people participate less (way less) than you. Remember when I said you can participate as much or as little as you like? Well, so can everyone else. But that means your favorite forum might start to feel like a soapbox for only one or two people. Or you may feel like you are putting in way more than you’re getting out. Try to address the issue and you could find yourself accused of tyranny. It is a fine line.
Bottom line: Forums are a tool and you have to know how to use them.
Before you sign up, do a Google search on “how to use forums,” then look around the forum in which you are interested to find links to any etiquette or rules. It will take time to learn where you fit in, which forums and what topics will give you the most of what you need, and where you can contribute.
But (and trust me on this) you have to stay respectful and wear a thick skin. Sometimes it is easy to forget there is a real person posting comments. That person’s comments and your own will not convey the same in black and white text as they would in spoken conversation.
Alternatives to internet forums:
Forums are a great way to tap into worldwide knowledge, but they aren’t the only way. If you find the back and forth of internet conversations is just not for you, here are a few alternatives:
Blogs. Get the info, leave a comment. Or don’t. You can also e-mail the blogger with any questions you might have. Because, you know, bloggers are actual people and are typically happy to tell you what they know. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have a blog.
Blogrolls and source links. If you are looking for more, start clicking links. As a common courtesy, bloggers typically link back to the sources for their quotes, numbers, and photos. They also tend to get information from blogs they openly follow. Feel free to explore where your favorite blogger does.
Searches. Do a Google search. Do a Yahoo search. Do an Amazon search. I guarantee somewhere on the results page you’ll see stars. Attached to those stars will be reviews, so check them out. If a particular reviewer does a good job see what else he’s reviewed.
Go to the public library. Really. There are these buildings that contain the dead tree versions of books, magazines, and newspapers. You can also find CDs and DVDs. And it is all free!
Mingle. Check out Craigslist, news classifieds, and bulletin boards for information about special interest groups that meet regularly. The people who make the effort to actually leave their homes to exchange information are very likely to actually participate. It is also a lot harder to misinterpret someone when she is standing right next to you with a glass of iced tea.