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How to Get the Best Responses in Online Forums

Mona Bushnell
Mona Bushnell

New to online forum culture and etiquette? This guide will have you posting like a pro in no time.

  • Be polite and follow the forum etiquette rules.
  • Answer lots of posts and start fun conversations.
  • Avoid the common pitfalls of new forum users.

If you've spent any time on internet forums, you've probably noticed that some posters get tons of responses to questions and queries, while other people are ignored completely. Luckily, the way people respond to you online is easy to change. This simple set of guidelines will help you garner more high-quality responses to your posts online and maybe even make some valuable networking connections.

Get to know the forum culture, then match it

The first thing you should know about online forums is that they're like social clubs, and just like real-life socializing, there are different standards of behavior depending on where you go and whom you're with.

If you're new to a forum, it's a good idea to read forum posts a while before you create threads. Take note of the content and subject matter as well as how people express themselves. How long are most of the forum posts that get lots of responses? Are people formal in their language or casual? Do they swear and speak flippantly, or is everyone polite and clean in their writing?

Some forums are Wild West-style – pretty much anything goes –  so you can use whatever language or tone you like to express yourself without alienating other members. However, most mainstream forums are more civilized, and have rules, terms of use and generally accepted standards for behavior. If people are largely polite and deferential you should be, too. Some forums have unique rules; this is certainly common in various subs on Reddit, so if there is a stickied thread outlining forum rules, make sure you read it. If there are no posted rules or guidelines, use your good judgment and treat the forum like a public meetup; if you wouldn't say it in person, don't say it online.

Search online before you ask the online forum

People don't like answering the same question multiple times. If you have a general question, search the forum for that question before you create a thread. Your question may have already been answered thoroughly in a previous conversation. Many questions on forums get ignored simply because they are repetitive. In online culture, you get what you put in; if you don't take the time to read through previous topics, posters won't take the time to answer your questions.

Searching before you post a question also applies to acronyms, internet slang and references to things. If you don't know what YMMV or IME mean that's fine, but if everyone asked a forum member whenever they came across an unfamiliar term, then every online forum would be filled with basic questions and answers and not lively discussions. If you don't know what something means, Google it! If you can't find the answer through an internet search engine, then it is OK to ask for clarification.

Answer questions and respond to threads

If you want people to respond to your threads, you need to become an active participant in forum discussions. Don't just post queries; give answers to questions, too, and do so as frequently as you have something valuable to add. You don't have to be an all-knowing expert to answer a question; you can always describe your experience with the topic at hand rather than giving hard-and-fast advice.

People like to know how other people handle things, they like anecdotes and encouragement as well as researched advice. The more you become known on a forum as someone who gives thoughtful feedback and advice and adds to discussions, the more you will get valuable responses to your questions.

Make your questions easy to read

If you're posting a question, make sure that what you are asking is clear and includes enough detail for people to help you. For example, if you want advice from the business.com community on buying a new point-of-sale system don't just ask, "What point of sale system should I buy for my business?" because that's too vague. Make sure you include what type of business you run, how much you want to spend, and what your needs are. If you've had bad experiences with a previous POS system, explain what you didn't like and what you want out of a new system. Giving other posters insight into your situation will help them give you good advice.

Respond to users who answer your questions, and give updates

On the topic of receiving advice and online etiquette, respond when people answer your questions. If someone gives you advice, respond to them, even if the advice won't entirely solve your problems. It is frustrating to take the time to respond to someone's question and type out advice only to hear no reply. A simple "thanks!" goes a long way.

If you can, it's also always welcome to post an update. If you take someone's advice from the forum, or if you come to a solution on your own, go back to your thread and post an update! It's fun for people to follow your story and feel like they had an impact on your life.

Start threads that create opportunities for sharing

In addition to starting threads to ask questions or get support, try your hand at beginning conversations that provide other users with an opportunity to share. Postings don't all have to be queries; they can also be fun places to get to know other users. If you're on a small business forum, for example, you could start a thread asking everyone how long they've been in business, what their business is and how many people they employ. Just make sure you start by sharing about yourself!

Post often, and do it during the most active hours

Most mainstream forums are active during regular business hours, because a lot of people enjoy a diversion from work. On active forums that are global, there will be consistent responses at all hours, but if you're on a forum that's primarily for North American users, stick to posting Monday through Friday around business hours.

If you want to get consistent engagement with your posts, and especially if you want to use the forum to network, you should also post frequently. In this way, forum posting is like social media posting: Consistent, high-value posts work.

Common mistakes new online forum users make

There are lots of small errors that new forum users make. Most of these won't cause major offense, and if you've done any of them, there's no need to stress about it, but they are easily avoidable faux pas that you may want to be aware of.

  • Using the wrong categories: If you're frequently starting threads that aren't getting responses, check to see if the forum you're on has categories or tags. Lots of forums use categories to organize topics of conversation, but for whatever reason, many forums with categories don't require posters to choose one. It could be that your posts are going unnoticed because you aren't selecting a category or because you're choosing the wrong category.
  • Derailing conversations: Online, the term "derailing" refers to changing the initial topic of a thread and taking it in a different direction, and it's considered a little rude. Try to stay on topic. Sometimes threads derail naturally because a response to the OP gets a lot of responses. If this begins to happen, you can always say, "I don't want to derail this post; I'll create a new thread" and then post a link to the new thread.
  • Obvious self-promotion: Lots of people use forums to network and promote themselves, and in some forums, this is tolerated. However, users are savvy these days, and they can tell when someone is only posting in a forum to promote their business. If your first post, especially, is thinly veiled self-promotion, that may color the way people on the forum view you. It's OK to reference your business and talk about what you do, but make sure you're also posting genuine responses and starting threads that aren't solely to drive traffic to your business.
  • Lurking forever: As any mod will tell you, lots of people lurk on forums for years without ever signing up or posting. All the online etiquette aside, there's truly nothing to fear, and the best way to get value out of a forum is by joining and posting. If you make a misstep or accidentally post duplicate questions or do anything else that isn't ideal, don't panic; just apologize and move on. People online are just people, and most of them will be kind and generous to new users, even if they occasionally stumble.

Sign up and start posting

Online forums offer invaluable connections to people who care about exactly what you care about. Many forums end up resulting in IRL connections, including professional connections, and there's no reason not to take advantage of them. Additionally, you can learn a lot from other users and possibly save yourself some money and time by getting their advice and reading about their experiences.

The business.com community is comprised of innovative entrepreneurs and small business owners from around the country, and as with most forums, it's 100% free to join and start posting. Join the tribe of innovative business owners at business.com now and start posting!

Mona Bushnell
Mona Bushnell,
business.com Writer
Mona Bushnell is a Philadelphia-based staff writer for business.com and Business News Daily. She has a B.A. in writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College and has previously worked as an IT technician, a copywriter, a software administrator, a scheduling manager, and an editorial writer. Mona began freelance writing full time in 2014 and joined the Business News Daily/business.com team in 2017. She covers business and technology.