Information for Marketers

Online Communities (Mailing List Discussion Groups, Newsgroups, Forums): THE Most Effective Internet Publicity and Marketing Tool

By Shel Horowitz

Outside the World Wide Web, blatant commercialism is a serious no-no in the strange new culture of the Internet. Yet, millions of dollars changes hands over (or because of) the Internet every single month, and much of this goes not through the crassly commercial World Wide Web but through the one-to-one contact of e-mail. Internet discussion groups--online mailing lists, newsgroups and forums--form "virtual communities," where the watchwords are helping others, sharing information, and maintaining a climate that feels more like a college seminar than a shopping mall.

Mailing lists, also called discussion lists or listserves are e-mail based online discussion groups. (Avoid the term "listserv or listserve," though--it's a corruption of the trademarked name Listserv, which is a brand of software that runs Internet mailing lists). Internet newsgroups are similar: messages written by the subscribers, categorized by topic. But the format and tools they require are different. Where a mailing list comes into your e-mail box, a newsgroup lives out on the Internet, on a server someplace else. It never comes to your computer; you go and visit it with a newsgroup reader. A form works on line also, but over the Web.

If you want publicity on the Internet, all kinds of Internet discussion groups can get you lots of online publicity. It won't matter whether you prefer mailing lists (which you don't have to read on line), newsgroups or forums (where you have to be on line). Take the time to learn the culture of each group on line--don't just plunge in; you only get one chance for a first impression and if you blow it, your Internet publicity will be negative.

There will be three kinds of groups you may want to participate in: those that reach your customers; those where you can learn and develop professionally; and those wonderful ones where you can do both.

Your very best groups will be those where you can not only learn, but contribute, and where the participants will benefit from your products and services. Typically, it's a good idea to read without participating for a week or two, to get a flavor of the group. Once you've decided the group suits your purpose, the custom in many groups is to write a brief introduction. Then begin to respond to queries, where you have an answer that will move the questioner forward. After a few weeks of providing useful answers, you will begin to build credibility. Of course, every one of your postings will have a short 4 or 5-line business card at the end, mentioning what you provide and giving contact info.

Does this work? On my favorite list, I've not only gained enormous amounts of knowledge that makes me better, more efficient, and more profitable at what I do, but I've also secured thousands of dollars worth of customers for both my writing services and my books.

How do you find these groups? Visit a Web-based search engine: for mailing lists, and for newsgroups. Try a few at a time, as the volume on a busy list can be overwhelming. Move in and out of groups as makes sense for your particular product and service mix.

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