Scott Germaise: More so then still being relevant, they are arguably among the most relevant venues for Internet users. There is something about the user experience in the many-to-many discussion format which forums present that lends itself to deep and ongoing personal engagement.
Forums remain relevant because, most often, the purpose is a deeply shared interest with ongoing value. These can range from hobbies and sports to more serious information sharing about medical conditions, business issues, and so on. Forum excitement has fallen a bit out of the pundits' vision perhaps because they're not the brightest, shiniest new light on the Internet. (The forums I mean, not the pundits.) But in a quieter moment looking beyond the incessant stream of new product announcements; and looking past fad, and even trend, right down to core value, you'll find bulletin board style forums. There are several reasons a lot of businesses are scrambling to build their own communities right now. And at the center of most of these community efforts is some form of many-to-many communication mechanism. This is most often pure forum style software or something very similar.
PRWeek: What are some of the most popular forums right now? What are some of the ways that PR firms can use online forums in their outreach efforts?
SG: It may be best to ask most popular to whom as opposed to overall. As one example, a special enthusiast forum for Scuba Diving, (such as Scubaboard.com), has more active users then all similarly focused print magazines. So you really have to go topic by topic.
Gaming and automobile enthusiast areas are well represented in the forum space with relatively large user bases on a per forum level and a variety of forums available. However, there's a long tail in the medical area where boards may be smaller for things like orphaned diseases, yet obviously have a deeply engaged user base. And of course, technology is well represented across all sub-topics. As you might expect, there's different distributions across various high level categories.
In terms of how PR firms can use online forums in their outreach efforts, the short answer is, “carefully and honestly.” Any up-to-date practitioner should be reading about markets as conversations.
The most value these venues likely have is as brand or meme monitoring tools. To be sure, business can engage in these venues, but you can't simply get a login and spew a message. You either learn to engage in these venues and add value, (with disclosure of your perspective), or stay on the sidelines and watch. If you're talking like a market droid in these venues, you're not doing anyone any favors and more likely will do some damage.
PRWeek: Twing was launched in January. Since launching, what are some of the trends that you've noticed?
SG: Trends can be seen by anyone using the Twing.com product by going to the Buzz Graph feature and putting in some keywords. You can see the relative strength of various terms in the forum space by this means. As far as large trends go, so far there have been little surprises. Search term usage tracks the general market zeitgeist. The Olympics are hot right now, and there's more McCain/Obama and less Hillary. We also get a fairly large number of folks looking for game cheat codes. We'll certainly be looking into our data, (both usage and in our index), for additional insights.