Each year, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research conducts a study about social-media use among Inc. 500 companies, the 500 fastest-growing private businesses in the U.S. In the survey, respondents are asked to name the social-media tools they use to interact with their customers.
The results are not very surprising, as they are somewhat consistent with the overall use of social media: Facebook was the tool cited most often, followed by LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. Near the bottom of the list, cited by only 15 percent of the companies surveyed, is one of the oldest social-media tools: the discussion board.
Things get more interesting, however, when the study turns to what’s working for these same companies. When asked where they “have been successful,” the story changes quite a bit. The tool with the highest reported success rate isn’t Facebook — in fact, Facebook wasn’t even in the top five. It wasn’t Twitter, LinkedIn or YouTube, either. The best-performing social-media tool, according to the study respondents, was the lowly discussion board, with 96 percent of companies that use discussion boards calling them a success.
It’s important to note that the Inc. 500 companies aren’t representative of every type of business. What works for them, in short, won’t necessarily work for you. In addition, the variance in reported level of success is pretty slim. However, one thing is undeniable: While discussion boards don’t get nearly as much attention as the big social media names, they have tremendous potential.
What, you may be wondering, is a discussion board? Also known as an Internet forum or message board, a discussion board gives an audience the opportunity to ask questions and get answers — and often allows people to avoid asking their question altogether since they may find their answers in a previous post. Most discussion boards feature topic categories that direct users to the appropriate place to post questions and find answers. From a business standpoint, discussion boards are all about providing your audience with an easy, convenient way to get the information they’re looking for relative to your product or service.
Here are a few examples of well-designed discussion boards:
- The Texas Instruments E2E (engineer-to-engineer) community (e2e.ti.com) is designed to help engineers share ideas and solve problems with one another. Of course, it also is a tremendous opportunity for TI to share its expertise and build relationships with its customers.
- Weight Watchers’ message boards (visit community.weightwatchers.com and click on “Message Boards”) allow its members to connect around a variety of topics related to weight loss, including fitness, food and goals. In addition, they provide a tremendous branding opportunity for Weight Watchers and another way to add value to memberships.
- The Ivy Tech Community College message board (visit IvyTech.edu and click on “Message Board”). Discussion boards are not just for mega-brands. Successful executions can be found right here in Indiana–including on the Ivy Tech website. With topics ranging from financial aid to degree programs, current and prospective students have the opportunity to get information or ask questions any time of the day. The net result is more satisfied students and fewer phone calls and e-mails to Ivy Tech since students can get answers on the discussion board. (Ivy Tech is an Asher Agency client.)
Is a discussion board right for your business? Knowing the answer starts with an understanding of what your audience wants from you. Do they have questions about using your product or do you provide ongoing customer support? If so, you may have a great opportunity to supplement your help line with a discussion board. It won’t likely replace any of your existing customer contact channels, but it may prove more efficient–for both you and your audience.
So when you’re considering the ways in which you might deploy social media, don’t limit your thinking to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Some of the best options may be the ones that don’t immediately come to mind. Discussion boards might not be what everyone’s talking about, but they just might stimulate the conversations you’re most interested in–the ones between your business and your customers.