How to use content to kickstart meaningful conversations with customers (Part one: on forums)

This is part one of a three-part series on how to start meaningful conversations with customers to improve your content, boost engagement, and build die-hard communities. Stay tuned for parts two and three!


Everyone’s talking up the power of conversational marketing in B2B.

The best way to develop organic, trusting relationships with an audience, they say, is to “start conversations” rather than push old-school sales tactics.

That’s great, and I agree. But what does it really mean to “start conversations”?

Part of it, when it comes to blog content, is writing conversationally, by asking questions and speaking directly to “one” reader as you would your mom. Still, that kind of “conversation” is one-sided. What’s really motivating your reader to chime in?

A real conversation involves speaking and listening, of course. It’s the listening part we often let slide in the process of publishing and promoting our work. But in SaaS, where your success lies largely in the strength of your community, two-way communication with customers is crucial.

So what’s holding us back? How best to approach and engage with customers?

One of the trickiest assumptions marketers make is that customers know by instinct what to do after reading our content. But the golden rule of calls-to-action still applies: we have to ask for what we want. Even in situations as intuitive as conversations. In a marketing context, we’re so used to being pelted with content from all sides by god-knows-who we’ll probably never meet that many of us don’t think to actually comment on it—unless we’re asked to.

That’s our job, marketing friends. Not to publish, promote, and hope to get a bite, but to ask for input, and to do so strategically.

In my next few posts, I’ll explain how via three key channels of communication: forums (public or owned), social, and good old one-to-one. Let’s start with forums and two approaches to try.

1. Outbound engagement

Perhaps you end each blog post by asking readers to leave their comments below. But how often do they?

Speaking from experience, relatively little compared to views and shares. You can be as well-known in your space as you like, get your masterpiece ranking in Google, ask explicitly for comments, and STILL. Crickets.

So what to do if the people don’t come to you? You go to the people, of course.

In other words, go to the online communities where your customers seek out things to comment on. We’ll deal with social media communities next, but first: forums.

Quora and Reddit are the biggest ones to concern yourself with (RIP Inbound.org). The idea, if you want to contribute to a conversation or get one going, is to either:

  1. post your question and see what comes back, or

  2. search the topic, find a relevant thread or group (where your target audience hangs out, mind you) and add your two cents.

Either or both are great ways to offer or ask for ideas tied to the content you published. Course, there’s always going to be that one rapscallion who uses forums as platforms to self-promote. But that’s not how we do things. We’re just looking for others’ feedback or opinions to build some momentum around our content.

I’ll give you an example of how. (The same rules apply to both Quora and Reddit.)

Say you’re a CMS provider that just published “The habits of highly successful content managers.” If you opted to post a question and see what comes back, you might ask something like:

customer-conversations-quora.png

☝️ Tip: Use relevant keywords, like I did with “content marketing manager,” to help people find your question. You can improve your chances by requesting answers.

Or, you could head to an existing thread like:

customer-conversations-quora-2.png

Here would be a suitable place to offer advice based on the information in your blog post. I repeat: not to promote it, but to a) offer or b) ask for information that adds value to the conversation.

Offering information is pretty straightforward: just summarize or pick out a few paragraphs from your blog post that help answer the question. Feel free to wrap up your answer by directing readers to the full post—it’s totally acceptable and encouraged on forums to add a link to your source.

The result: Users get to learn more, you get the chance to bring them into your owned world. Yay!

When asking for information, focus on asking for your readers’ expertise. Coming from a place of genuine interest in what others have to say, you won’t seem spammy. To do that, you could take:

  • the validation approach: Asking for feedback to validate your ideas.

Example: “I actually just published a blog post on the habits of successful content marketers and was hoping to get some feedback. The habits I wrote about include x, y, and z. Has anyone had any experience with these? What were your results?”

  • the gatherer approach: Gathering more info to enrich your post.

Example: “I actually just published a blog post on the habits of successful content marketers but came to this thread to gather more ideas. The habits I wrote about include x, y, and z. Can anyone add any others that have worked for you?”

  • the challenger approach: Starting a debate to round out your argument.

Example: “I actually just published a blog post on the habits of successful content marketers, but reading this, I’m not sure that habit x applies to all situations. What do you guys think—anyone disagree?” (👈 Not the best example, but you get the idea.)

Note that for each approach, I introduced my content, added context to give my answer some standalone value, and invited people to offer their opinion with no strings attached. Which most people, as I’m sure you know, are more than happy to do.

I’m sure there are more unspammy approaches to this. The point is to share relevant content with the view to join a conversation, and importantly, to be vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t have all the answers. Most people are also more than happy to respond to a brand’s human side.

The result: Best case scenario, you get more insight to add to your blog post. Worst case, the rapscallions of the world hijack your thread with something less than helpful.

There’s not much you can do about the latter on public forums but report the offender to moderators. But what about on your website?

Let’s revert back to when you do get comments on your blog posts.

2. Inbound engagement

Where do you go to find recipes online?

Personally, because I’m cheap, I find most of the meals I cook on allrecipes.com.

But as far as subscription services go, NYT Cooking, with its 120,000 paid subscribers, is probably the gold standard. Not just for its hundreds of recipes, either. The real value actually comes from each recipe’s comments—or as NYT Cooking calls them, “notes.”

“We made the conscious decision not to call them comments,” Times food editor Sam Sifton told The Ringer for its post, How NYT Cooking Became the Best Comment Section on the Internet.

“The call to action was to leave a note on the recipe that helps make it better,” Sam explained. “That’s very different from ‘Leave a comment on a recipe.’ The comment might be ‘I hate you.’ ‘You’re an asshole.’ ‘This is bad.’ And that’s helpful to no one. I see that on other recipes, and I’m glad that we don’t have those comments, because we don’t have comments. We have notes.”

☝️ A screenshot stolen from some guy because I’m too cheap to take my own. That would mean buying a subscription. And girl’s gotta eat.

What does all this stuff about recipes have to do with me, you ask? Well, turns out NYT Cooking’s strategy could apply to any blog on the web. If you’ve published something that could benefit from input from others—a tips or best-practices post, maybe, like our example above—why not frame your request for comments more along those lines? After all, the more specific your calls-to-action, the better they perform.

(By the way, we all agree it’s important to enable comments on your blog, right? Right. If you’re not sure, read this.)

To take a few lessons from NYT’s cookbook (soz couldn’t resist):

  1. Consider design. NYT doesn’t allow people to submit comments under their Gravatars or with bios. Given that you have to post anonymously, there’s no incentive for celebrity chefs to build their own brand—it’s just a message board of everyday folks helping other everyday folks. Can you build your comments section to function the same way?

  2. Don’t ask for “comments.” NYT calls them notes. What word best fits your content? Are you better off asking your customers to “add your ideas”? Or recommendations? Could you switch things up completely by asking deeper questions, like how readers plan to implement your advice or what the topic means to them?

  3. Moderate submissions. There’s debate over whether to let your community speak freely—proponents say moderation = control. I say moderate away. By making sure only valuable insights make the cut, you’re shaping your comments section into a real-world resource users know they can count on and trust.

    Notes are “meant to serve as a resource for the readers,” says Margaux Laskey, senior staff editor for NYT Cooking. “Which is why we’re so adamant about keeping them relevant, and why we don’t allow comments or notes from readers that appear as if they haven’t made the recipe.”

  4. Send out reminders. Use distribution as an opportunity to remind readers to comment.  When you send out your posts via email or social, explain why you (and other readers) would benefit from feedback: that it helps improve your content and community. Sweeten the deal by promising readers a reply from a real human.

Comments work well as a platform for readers to engage with other readers. But with careful maintenance, you can make your comments section stand out as a two-way street between you and your customers and add extra value beyond the post itself. Just be sure to reply. (:

So, over to you. Which approach makes sense for you to try first—outbound or inbound? How to frame your requests for comments in ways that actually resonate? If you’re not sure, slide into my comments to ask.

Coming up...

In my next post, we’ll tackle how to engage customers in conversation on social, including etiquette way too many marketers still ignore and examples from the ones who don’t. See you there!