The best way to use a forum or a discussion board to promote your business is to become an active, reliable and an outstanding member of that community. Not through mindless spamming, but by becoming a well-respected member of that community who contributes well-thought out responses. People will then naturally check you out, and yes, visit your website.
This is the principle that governs my participation in Yahoo Answers, a free question-and-answer forum that is getting quite a following. The system is that you get points for answering questions, with the maximum 10 points if your answer is adjudged as the Best Answer.
I joined in February 2006 and have answered a total of 5,467 questions. I am the top answerer in the Business and Finance category with the most number of best answers in this category. As a result, we get a lot of traffic from Yahoo Answers including those who check my profile and see the link back to PowerHomeBiz.
The system of Yahoo Answers is far from perfect — e.g. voting for yourself can give you a lot of best answers because not too many users vote. But I’d rather vote for my answer than let someone who answered “don’t know” win as best answer (and totally dufus answers sometimes win — another flaw in the system).
To get as many best answers, here are my strategies:
1. Research as much as possible about the question. If the person is asking for information on business plans, for example, give the person 5 links instead of just 1. In my case, I always put links plus book sources
2. Always put sources for your answer, and make it as credible as possible
3. Instead of saying “go to this link” summarize what is on that link.
4. People like long expounded answers (though I have lost several points to askers who prefer one sentence responses). Long answers show you know the topic very well
5. Develop your “money points” – questions where you’ve written extremely well responses and search for those questions regularly and answer them. In my case, I always answer questions on availability of grants for business and my batting average for this type of question is 90% best answers.
6. Answer the question with the intent of providing the best answer. I don’t answer that many questions, but when I do, I really take time to answer them well.
7. Prepare shortcuts – time is of essence sometimes when you want to be the first person to answer the question. Almost all my answers are in a Word document (now 75 pages long) – and I answer almost the same questions all the time – so when I see the question, I just copy the answer from my Word file and paste it in the box. Question about starting a business, preparing a business plan, looking for grants (I have several version of my responses), starting an online business, finding hottest products to sell on ebay — I just scroll through my Word doc to find the response I have already made. Saves me time, and I get to respond quickly even if the response is several paragraphs long
It is far more satisfying to know that you are a useful member of an online community — the rewards in terms of traffic we get is more than enough to make the whole activity worth it.