Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sticky, Syrupy Threads

Discussion forums continue to be the most useful social media space to gain consumer insight from, for now at least.

Within these forums you can follow consumer's problems, desires, experiences etc and see how discussions evolve around out clients products, services and brand values. One species of thread which has always very been prominent on forums is the mega-thread. Why are they so "sticky"?

These threads are way longer than average in number of posts. Some run to many thousand entries. It seems they break down into both serious, often heated discussion, diverse postings around a topic - like a new mobile telephone - , or pure trivia like jokes or chain stories.

One reason that they are sticky (ie attract users and keep them coming back) is that they often have prominent placings when forum threads are ranked in order of date on topic listings page, or on the more recent "hot topics" side bars on home pages and top level forum category indexes. It would be interesting to see statistically when such threads attract a critical mass, and how they develop from there. This could be a useful metric and watch alarm-trigger. Rate of growth, number of lead influencers, ranking: some algorythm could be made to work and fish them up to a dashboard panel of "Hot stuff"

Consumers coming to a forum see these mega-threads as the " tall oaks" amongst the grasslands of granular postings. By their stature, they demand respect and people will often come on board a product topic and post their " 2 cents" before they would consider creating a new thread, even if their "2 cents" is a little off topic or outside the current line of arguement. In this way they appeal to the conformist consumer.

These threads then, are not purely a result of some natural magnetic force , or social diffusion through the ethers of the internet. Most are nurtured, and some are not only fertilised with fresh content, but have their space cut clear for weeds, these being small competing threads. Users who can be identified as opinion -leaders, early adopters, expert-insiders or collectively lead influencers, will steer a thread they like and by carefully timed posting and replies to users comments, they will keep the thread up there in the top 5.

Lead influencers vary in how often they initiate threads, but they turn up like clockwork on the hot news threads or major theme threads relating to the forum's raison d'etre. They are in fact instrumental in coaxing the threads to gain critical mass.

Nurture also happens unfortunately perhaps, from forum owners and appointed "moderators". Some forum owners will post on new, related threads, stating rather rudely that the users should refer to the long running topic and "this is closed". They even delete competing threads apparently. Scornful lead influencers will also pounce on unsuspecting thread-starting-newbies, and stamp their forum authority by refering the user to an old worn arguement they should join the gang on the proper big thread, or just have used the "search" function to find the info' on old threads.

Some lead influencers like to demonstrate their boundless knowledge and articulate debating skills, while others can appear very helpful and down-to-earth, sometimes though outright patronising to those with lower post number seeking advice. In fact some lead influencers post almost exclusively in big threads and never start their own.

Usually as rule-of-thumb, one can consider those users with over 1000 posts as a start point to identify lead influencers within a topic of interest.

After this start point, you can delve further into their posts and behaviour, to assert if they are leading discussion and influening others to change opinion, be informed or of course buy something.

Mega-threads have another type of gravity: Often they attract a disproportionate number of "reads" to their actual post number, relative to smaller threads in the same forums. In effect they become the headline pages, or new-channels within the forums. People go there first, they grab attention for read-only "lurkers".

This read-count makes them even more important for companies to gain insight and summary of which direction the group of big threads on say, a product launch or a service problem are going.

One explanation for their disproportionate is their prominence on the forum as mentioned. But also these are the threads which the Google/Yahoo type spiders actually come upon and index. The threads live longer and are earlier on the index-crawl. They have bigger clusters of keywords and have by pure virtue of size, more links out and eventually IN to. Hence they are search engine friendly and score high on relevance and hits. In conjucntion with good web site SEO, the forums get quite high index listings on the SE's depending on the search terms. Also consumers set a bigger price on their own generated opinion! They would rather read 100 different user opinions than one PR story regurgitated, neigh, re-tweeted 100 times.

SE listings then helps the threads gain extra critical mass and keeps them "bumping" back with new posts even some time after they seem to have bruned out.

As we know though, yahoo and google only index an estimated 15% of the web, so it is pretty much hit or miss for actually finding these threads. Choose a good SM monitor company with either full indexing on main sector forums and general consumer forums, or those who can sample effectively from these for the big issues.

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