What Is Online Marketing? – Part 5 of 6: Joining The Discussion By Richard Hoy

Last week, we covered getting links to your site. This week, we’re going to talk about taking a different tact in your online marketing strategy – participating in online discussions.

One of the Internet’s greatest strengths is that it allows groups of people to collaborate. One way people collaborate is by holding discussions on various topics in discussion groups.

The Types

There are two major types of online discussion groups.

The first type is an email-based discussion list. In the Internet parlance of the past, this type of group was also known as listserv, after the type of software that makes it work. Essentially, a member of the group sends his or her correspondence to a central group email address, where software redistributes the message to everyone else in the group. When other members reply, those messages also get sent to the same central email address for the group – starting the process of message redistribution all over again. Topica is an example of a system of email-based discussion lists.

The second type of online discussion groups are web-based groups. In this system, members of the group respond to messages listed on a web site. WritersWeekly Forums is an example of a web-based discussion system.

The Lingo

In both systems, a discussion on a particular topic is known as a “thread”. And the individual messages making up the thread are known as “posts”.

To use these terms in the proper context, you’d say something like: “I made a post about my experiences with fluffy in the thread about getting your cats neutered on the ‘Cats And The Owners Who Love Them’ list.”

To write a post that talks about something outside of the subject of the thread is known as “going off-topic”. It is the job of the “moderator” – a member of the group that reviews all posts – to make sure everyone stays “on-topic” and the discussions run smoothly.

The Group Dynamics

From 1996 to 1999, I was moderator of the Online Ads discussion list, which in its heyday was the largest group of Internet advertising professionals – roughly 9000 members. In that capacity, I had a chance to observe a lot of the dynamics involved when that many people use the Internet to discuss stuff. Here are my observations.

Many join, but few participate – out of the 9000 or so members of Online Ads, maybe one percent (90) actually contributed to the discussion on a regular basis. In other words, most people in a group just read what others write (or “lurk”, as it is known in online lingo). This core, one percent group of contributors are who you will engage in any discussion, so you should size them up a bit by reading past postings (most groups have archives of past threads).

Discussion Group Etiquette

Do not post messages at random to any groups, ever. If you want to distribute a chapter from your book, or announce the availability of your new site or resource, contact the moderator privately and get his or her permission first. Remember, the moderator’s job is to screen everything for the other list members. If he or she says your message is okay, it is likely everyone else on the list will be receptive as well.

When answering a question on a group, it is okay to reference your own web site or other online resources you control as long as you disclose any personal interest in the web site or resource. So, for example, I wouldn’t go into a freelancer group and praise WritersWeekly.com as great resources for freelance writers without disclosing that I’m part owner and married to the editor. In other words, don’t hide your alliances in an effort to appear impartial with your answers. Your deception will eventually be uncovered and then your future credibility will get lost.

It is always okay to put a link to what you are promoting in your signature – that’s the bit of text you put at the end of your posts identifying who you are. However, don’t go hog-wild stuffing every piece of promotional information you can into your signature. Having your signature be several times larger than your actual post looks tacky and obvious. Remember, less is more.

It is alright to disagree with a fellow group member’s point of view, but never let your statements turn into personal attacks – that is a fast way to get you disliked by the group, and even banned by the moderator.

When replying to a person’s message, only quote the relevant parts of that message in your reply. Do not send the whole message back to the list. As the thread progresses, the posts get too hard to follow unless you edit out the extraneous information.

Using Discussion Groups To Market

Now that we have an idea of how discussion groups work, here are step-by-step instructions on how to use them appropriately for marketing.

Step 1 – Define a specific subject

Ask yourself: What are you going to talk about? What’s the nature of the information you are trying to distribute? Who is the audience? What is your pitch?

Say the subject you want to tackle is counseling. You’d want to try and find people and places online who are discussing that subject. Then, decide what information you want to contribute.

Create a list of keywords you can enter into a search engine. Use the same techniques for defining these words that I described in Part 2 of this series – the one on developing web site content.

Step 2 – Finding Online Discussions

Search these places using the keywords you developed in step 1.

email-based discussions:


newsgroup-based discussions:

These are public discussions that occur in an area of the Internet known as the Usenet Newsgroups. These are primarily web-based today.


web-based discussions:

These are discussion groups formed by private parties and usually hosted on their private web sites.



blog-based discussions:

These are discussions that take place on the comment sections of blogs.


Step 3 – Build A List Of Prospects

Using the tools in Step 2, build a list of prospective groups to
approach. Decide based on these criteria:

  • Does the group talk about the kind of information you want to contribute?
  • How active is the group? When was the last message posted?
  • How big is the group? How many members does it have?
  • Is it moderated or unmoderated? Moderated is always better because a moderator keeps the group’s discussions on-topic.

Step 5 – Join, Listen, and then Participate

Join the groups and just watch for a while. Get a feel for the dynamics of the group. When a question comes along that you can answer, jump in. Give good, substantive answers. Be a good source of information.

When you are ready to do more than just answer questions, seek out specific contact people (usually the moderators) and send them each an individually tailored email asking for what you want. Here is a real-world example to help you better understand what I’m talking about.

It would be totally inappropriate for you to walk into a banquet hall during a formal dinner and start pitching your book, table by table, to the attendees.

But if you went to the organizer prior to the start of the dinner and asked if it would be okay to give a presentation about your book, and the organizer said yes, then it would be completely appropriate for you to be in that banquet hall when the dinner started, pitching your book to the attendees. You want this kind of situation with any promotional efforts aimed at discussion groups.

Next week I’m going to try and tackle the rather broad subject of
online advertising. See you then!

Articles In The Series:

Involved in Internet marketing since 1995 (when it officially became a profession), Richard Hoy advises on, and helps execute, Internet marketing efforts for solopreneurs and clients of digital marketing agencies. His current focus is search engine optimization for books on Amazon and for local businesses on Google.