They were the original form of online social media before anyone coined the term social media, and forums are still going strong. We know you’ve probably already read a lot about creating and managing forums; what you really want to know is how to make money from all your hard work. Here at MonetizePros, we’ve got you covered. (By the way, if you’re enjoying this article, you may want to subscribe to our free newsletter; we’ll send monetization tips straight to your inbox each day.)
Monetize Your Forum Directly
With so many active users and pages, you can make money directly off your forum.
Use ad networks. Sign up to ad networks, such as Google Adsense, and let them do the leg work and find advertisers. It will cost you some of your revenue, but it’s an easy way to get started.
Sell ad space directly to companies. Cut out the middleman, and agree on a CPM or CPC fee with advertisers directly. This requires more work, yet you get to hand-pick the ads, ensure they’re right your audience and keep all the money they generate. (Also see: Should You Sell Ads on Your Website Directly?)
Mention products you affiliate-sell. Once you build trust with your audience, you can drop an affiliate link during a forum discussion if you know of a product that would be perfect for the person asking a question. Clarify that you’re an affiliate and explain why you think the product would be a great fit.
Add a sub-forum that sells. Introduce a sub-forum that’s dedicated to nothing but advertisements. It could be a job board if your forum is for professionals in a given industry, or it can work as an e-store. Members who aren’t interested in advertisements will avoid this part of your forum, so this works best if you know your audience is on the lookout to make a purchase (or find a job).
Add a sub-forum for product reviews. Encourage members to post product reviews and post some yourself. Add affiliate links to these posts when applicable.
Turn links in user-generated content into affiliate links. Whether or not you create a sub-forum for this, members will post links on your forum. Switch those you can into affiliate links yourself or use software to automate the process.
Invite industry leaders to live posting events and affiliate-sell their products. It’s a win-win situation: Members get their questions answered, industry leaders get exposure to possible new customers — and you get a happier community, a possible new connection and affiliate commissions.
Sponsored sticky posts. Charge companies to stick a thread that advertises them at the top of your forum. It’ll be the first or second post on the page for a pre-determined period of time, no matter how many threads are started or updated.
Barter advertising. Offer companies free advertising in exchange for them promoting you, too. Don’t limit yourself to the Web. Depending on what ad space on your site is worth, ask for advertising space in brochures or a booth at a conference.
Leverage Forum-Generated Data
Whether you read forum threads, create surveys — or, better yet, both — your forum is a rich resource of data, which you can leverage in several ways.
- Learn what they want and create a mailing list opt-in they can’t resist. Forum members discuss what they like and don’t like about your industry, so it’ll be easy for you to figure out what they want so bad, they’d give their e-mail address for it. It’ll be much easier to sell through e-mail once they opt in to receive regular updates from you than it will through random ads on your forum.
- Learn what they want and create products and services to fill the gap they tell you exists. Or, better than the previous option, figure out what they want so bad, they’d be willing to pay for. Create what they want and sell it to them.
- Learn what they want and pitch a collaboration to leading brands or experts. You could develop products or services together, which could lead to earning money. It could also lead to promotional opportunities and establishing yourself as an industry leader, which could open up new monetization possibilities.
Promote Other Ventures Through Your Forum
At times, you want to create a forum to support other ventures. In fact, a forum can be just the right addition to take your business to the next level.
- Start a forum around your business. If you sell bicycles (online or offline), start a forum for bicycle enthusiasts. It will connect your brand name with your audience’s thoughts about bicycle and establish you as the go-to expert in the field. Plus, forums often come up in search engine searches because they’re updated often; so if you’re not getting enough search engine traffic, consider adding a forum to your company site.
- Run contests and games to create product awareness. Contests and games can generate more activity, which could be great for ad clicking and audience building. They could also help spread the word about your products, which would increase your client base and sales.
- Advertise your own company. Who says ads on your forum need to advertise other people’s businesses? Instead of relying on commissions, create ads that promote your own products and services and spread them around your forum.
- Offer exclusive offers or discounts to forum members. These offers could be available to anyone who happens to drop by the forum, to active members only, or to new signups (which would encourage registration).
- Use your forum to generate traffic to another site. You could do the selling there and leave the forum to member discussions. Unobtrusive ways to do this include creating a forum name that relates to your other site’s name, adding an RSS feed that links to your blog on the forum’s sidebar, and redirecting the forum to be a part of the main site’s URL (for example: forum.yoursite.com).
- Use your forum as a bonus offering when you sell other products or services. Offer to answer product buyers’ questions there. If joining your forum costs money, offer free access to anyone who buys a product from you. Once they have a positive experience in your forum, their loyalty to your business will grow. Set a time limit on the free access and, if they have a good experience, some customers will end up buying forum membership too.
- Enable easy opt-in to a mailing list during forum registration. Even if your forum is free, chances are it requires registration. Allow people to easily sign up to receive updates when they register. Then, use your e-mail list to sell directly to their inboxes.
Build Business Relationships that Help You Earn More
Forums put you in a unique position, where you are constantly interacting with people who have an interest in your industry. Leverage this position to create larger profits.
- Interview experts and broadcast it via a podcast or webinar platform. It will serve your community while giving you learning opportunities. If all goes well, you’ll be able to stay in touch with the expert and build a new business relationship.
- Hold an offline event or conference. Invite both community members and potential members to get to know each other and you offline, and network in person. This type of customer conference enables you to charge for event tickets, strengthen your community and brand awareness and/or sell your products live.
- Invite brands to your community’s offline conference. Sell brochure or booth spaces to companies and experts in your industry. You could also work with them on creating campaigns that combine the online and offline worlds.
Turn Your Forum into a Membership Site
FreelanceWritersDen.com is a membership site with an active forum.
Any forum is a form of membership site, yet you can take it one step further and generate revenue through subscriptions.
- Limit access to paying members only. If you have expertise in an industry, know industry leaders you could convince to regularly post on the forum or you’ve created extremely valuable content you could include there, consider closing your doors to non-paying forum members. You’ll start earning a reliable, recurring income.
- Go freemium. Include free sub-forums for people to try out your site and increase your traffic, and limit access to premium materials to paying members only. If you have a lot to offer, you can even have 3 layers: absolutely free with no premium access, partial access, and unlimited access.
- Make it cheap. Pricing decisions aren’t easy to make. Attract more members and lower your churn rate by making membership cheap to purchase. But blow buyers away, and make them feel like they’re cheating you out of a more deserving price by providing unbelievable value.
- Make it expensive. Decide on your business goals before deciding on a price. Consider building a brand of exclusivity and prestige (and back it up with unbelievable value). Fewer people will join, yet those that do might have money to spend on additional products. They could also have the money that entices brands with more expensive products and bigger advertising budgets.
- Limit number of participants. If you choose the latter approach, intentionally limit the number of participants, creating a waiting list that acts as an e-mail list and makes them want access even more — be it to your forum or to another product you offer meanwhile.
Brand Yourself as an Expert
When you lead a community, and one that creates so much industry data, you pave the way to branding yourself as an expert. As a result, you’re creating a key to unlocking endless possibilities.
- Soft-sell by leading the community. If you do nothing else to monetize your forum, ensure that people associate you with the forum. Keep your contribution consistent and valuable, and place a clear link to learn more on how you can help.
- Hold an offline conference solely for industry professionals in your niche. Showcase data you’ve generated from your forum about these professionals’ customers and prospects, presenting yourself as an expert and opening new possibilities for you in the industry.
- Run other companies’ forums. Use your experience of running a successful community on your own forum to pitch yourself as an expert and do it for pay for other businesses.
Stand Out in the Forum Crowd to Generate Greater Revenue
Yes, there are a lot of forums out there, yet not all of them do everything they can for their business or audience. Be the one that does, and you’ll see your income soar.
- Provide an enjoyable mobile experience. The number of people using smartphones and tablets to access websites is constantly growing, but most forums fail to cater to their needs and end up losing members. Stand out in the crowd by having a forum that delivers an easy, enjoyable mobile experience.
- Add social proof. If you and/or your forum have been featured on top sites or media outlets, or won awards, add these places’ banners to your home page. This is an easy way to stand out in the forum crowd and create trust, which leads to members sticking around, clicking on ads and making purchases.
- Start threads around keywords you want to rank for. As time passes and more quality discussions take place on your forum around these topics, Google will present your threads to its visitors. Success here can be translated both into greater monetization on your own forum and into consulting opportunities for other companies.
- Start threads about hot topics. Set Google Alerts and follow Google Trends and Twitter Trends. Start threads about hot topics that relate to your industry. This will establish you as an up-to-date expert and be another step toward standing out in the Google crowd.
- Let your forum act as a focus group for brands. Hold contests to select forum members that will get to test new products. The members will then create testimonials — forum posts, blog posts, videos — so that there’s plenty of “regular people praise” on launch day. Charge brands for this access and ensure that all testimonials come with a mention, link or watermark that references your forum. You’ll get great PR and be able to present your forum as one that’s associated with brands and gives out perks, which could help you grow the number of forum participants and product buyers.
- Enable sharing of posts with special offers or contests on social media. Let forum members easily share forum posts that include perks on social media platforms to allow more people to buy from you.
- Enable signing up with social media. Signing up with e-mail takes several actions, and you risk losing new members. Let people sign up quickly with their social media accounts, especially when you know most of them are coming to take advantage of a special sales offer.
Monetize Someone Else’s Forum
You don’t have to be a big brand to earn from someone else’s community. There are plenty of ways to monetize forums you don’t own.
- Choose your user name carefully. While forums don’t often allow blatant self-promotion, some will let you get away with a user name like “Iceland Tour Guide”. If that’s the case, know that it’ll be easier to notice (and penalize you) when you promote yourself, yet if you add value to the community, people will start seeing you as an expert and might inquire about your services via private messages.
- Offer a discount code in your signature. Most forums allow a signature, which shows up below each one of your posts. Add information there about who you are and what you’re selling, and include a discount code “for my friends from the forum”.
- Promote occasionally. Once you’ve built trust, you could casually mention something you’re selling, or send a member a private message with a link to learn more. This is trickier to do on someone else’s forum, but once you’re a valued member of the community, most people won’t mind, as long as you don’t do it too often.
- Volunteer to be a guest expert and sell your product. Offer the forum owner that you’ll answer members’ questions in a live posting event. At the end of the event, offer members a chance to buy a product or a service you sell, or refer them to your own forum. Clarify in advance that it’s OK to make these offers in exchange for your time and effort.
- Give away something for free to the forum’s community. Promote your business or forum by offering something for free on another forum in exchange for some promotion. Make it a contest that gets your name out there to as many people as possible.
Additional Guides and Resources
We know it’s easier to find information on blogs and social media than it is about forums, so we’ve done our research and dug up the best of the Web for you.
- 3 Easy and Effective Forum Monetization Tips. MonetizePros: Our own Michael Johnston breaks down 3 great, usually overlooked tips that can help you stop struggling to monetize your forum.
- How to Make Money with Membership Websites. Carol Zombo: This 58-page SlideShare presentation is for those who intend to charge a forum entry fee. Among others, get inspired by offline membership programs, gain ideas for types of content to include, and choose from membership models.
- Tap User Psychology to Build an Indestructible Community. ProBlogger: In a guest post, Richard Millington of FeverBee, and author of Buzzing Communities: How to Build Bigger, Better and More Active Online Communities, tells you how to create emotionally-connected, enduring communities that will follow you anywhere. His post might focus on blogs, but his points can be more easily applied in forums.
- ForumCon. An annual conference for forum professionals, where companies like Google, CNet and Adobe present. ForumCon also has useful blog and YouTube channel.
- How to Find a Profitable Membership Niche. Jeremy Gislason: This 26-page SlideShare presentation gives you a quick guide to setting yourself to success by choosing a profitable niche, finding products that are already selling well — and those that advertise them and might be willing to buy advertising space from you, too.
- How to Improve the Success of a Membership Program. Entrepreneur: Dave Lavinsky encourages membership program owners to measure the number of subscribers, cancellations and average subscription lengths, among other metrics. Whether you charge for membership or not, measuring how many members remain active on the site and for how long can help you create a better management strategy that will support greater monetization.
- How to Monetize Your Online Community. Ning: Ning, a company that helps other companies create their own online communities, hosts Patrick O’Keefe, author of “Managing Online Forums” and “Monetizing Online Forums”. In this 1 hour video presentation, Patrick talks about forum ads, affiliate links, in-text monetization, product-related discussions, audience segmentation, working with brands, membership programs, and more.
- Getting Value out of Forums. Firepole Marketing: Sean D’Souza founded 5000bc, a forum for small business owners to come together and thrive. In this podcast, he tells Danny Iny what it takes to keep a community going strong and profitable for more than a decade, even when he takes his annual three-month vacation.
Forums might seem like one of the most challenging online platforms to monetize, but their targeted, passionate audiences can open a wealth of opportunities for you. Mix different options together, consider your audience’s benefit first, and you’ll soon discover that the sky is the limit.