Message boards offer quick way to gauge perceptions

It's practically impossible to overlook the impact blogs have made on PR. But even as tech advances, many potential influencers continue to rely on online message boards for dynamic peer-to-peer support, discussion, and debate.

It's practically impossible to overlook the impact blogs have made on PR. But even as tech advances, many potential influencers continue to rely on online message boards for dynamic peer-to-peer support, discussion, and debate.

One of the Web's most active message-board communities revolves around healthcare; groups comprising patients, medical providers, and even investors gather interactively to discuss a range of topics. For a PR pro, that means almost immediate feedback.

"There's a community for virtually every healthcare topic," says Ame Wadler, chair of Burson-Marsteller's global healthcare practice. "We read message boards to understand what's important and what [members] think." She cites diabetes patients in particular as a community that could benefit from message-board use.

"We always monitor the message boards specific to each client," adds David Schull, SVP of Euro RSCG Life PR/Noonan Russo. They are a valuable way to gauge audiences' perceptions and to see firsthand how clients' messages are being interpreted, he adds.

If a firm interacts with forum members, it must do so with "a broad sense of transparency," so as not to intrude on the sanctity of the community, warns Wadler.

That might mean inviting community members - via a network organizer or a specific "alpha dog" poster - to join a conversation hosted by a third-party advocacy group or health-focused organization. Or a firm might work directly with a third party to help it create its own, client-sponsored forum.

"Those building a Web property need to look at surrounding online communication" opportunities, says Scott Schneider, EVP and director of Ruder Finn Interactive, which helps client Johnson & Johnson with its Strength for Caring message board.

Message boards by nature involve "giving up some autonomy and control," he notes. But because they are decentralized group discussions, they are less hierarchical than blogs. And while one may more likely find "lightning rod" opinions on a blog, Schneider says, "more dialogue takes place on message boards."

Key points:

Unlike centralized, comment-monitored blogs, message boards are peer-to-peer discussion groups

Message boards offer candid access to the concerns of both industry pros and impacted people

Online-forum discussions help firms accurately measure target audiences' perception of a client

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