As a writer, half of my job is straight research, and every so often I get stuck in the research rut known as Google. It doesn't matter if I'm researching sales techniques or consumer psychology or environmentally-conscious mobile apps: my first instinct will always be to Google it, then peruse the highest ranked articles.
For kicks, here's a random sampling of things I’ve googled in the past few months:
- email tracking software
- horse-hair vs wool mattress filling
- crowdfunding tools
- companies with tuition assistance programs
- LLC vs. sole proprietor
- Disqus pros and cons
- sauerkraut recipes
- how to get rid of lingering sauerkraut smell
- value-added service
- minimalist web design
- Febreze in bulk.
I can find valuable information on most of the topics I research, barring a few (seriously, this sauerkraut smell is getting ridiculous). The internet being the ever-expanding universe of information that it is, I can often locate articles, interviews or videos concerning the topic. Fortunately, sources are aplenty.
But while I don't have an issue mining secondary sources for background information, I don’t enjoy parroting these sources throughout the entire article. I'd much rather introduce the reader to something new on whatever topic I'm discussing (a new perspective, a new piece of data, etc.). Well, new to the internet, at least.
To find the
new, I may seek out a subject matter expert and request an interview. I may speak to friends, family or scour my network for someone in the know.
Or I may seek wisdom of the crowd, and turn my attention to the mighty forum.
Forums as a Source of Information, Guidance and Inspiration
Also known as message boards, an internet forum (yes, I'm actually going to explain what an internet forum is) is an online discussion platform where users can communicate with each other via posted text messages. The forum was one of the very first internet contraptions, and some of the earliest internet forums include the Delphi Forums and The Well.
Forum topics can range from video games and proper wood carving techniques to conspiracy theories and base jumping, and because of this diversity, I can almost always find a forum dedicated to the topic I’m researching.
Some of my favorite forums and forum platforms to use for research purposes are Quora, Warrior Forum, Inbound, HTML Forums, Creative Cow, the ever-expanding inventory of Reddit subreddits, and of course, the SitePoint forums.
Users of these forums are surprisingly willing to help me with my research, as long as I take the right approach.
Tips for Posting Questions
I begin almost all my forum research by posting a question. I make sure to post the question in the relevant forum (for instance, don’t post a question about web development in a graphic design forum), and I try to make the question as specific as possible.
Specificity is really the key. Users aren’t going to write your article for you. If I’m working on a piece about the economics of coffee, asking a coffee forum to “Tell me about the economics of coffee” won’t garner many responses. In fact, it might result in hostility. And can you blame them?
Asking such a vague question tells people that you know nothing of the subject, you're too lazy to research the subject enough to formulate a realistically answerable question, and ultimately, that you don’t respect the users’ time.
Instead of asking open-ended questions, I always try to ask something specific, such as:
How has the expansion of Brazilian coffee plantations in the mid ’90s affected the country’s economy?
Are you a coffee shop owner who roasts their own beans? If so, has roasting your own beans made economic sense?
What are some of the lesser known benefits of Farm to Cup?
When I narrow the focus of my inquiry, I tend to receive a greater number of quality responses. Users have plied me with new information, hard-to-find statistics and unique perspectives, all of which help me develop fuller, more compelling articles. Many users have also shared personal stories concerning the topic at hand. Sometimes I take cues from their experience and let it inform the article. Other times I reach out to the user via private message and ask to chat further. I’ve been able to score some very insightful interviews this way.
For example, I recently wrote an article for a sales blog about selling under pressure. I wanted to offer readers some concrete advice that could be easily integrated into their sales process, but I'm not a salesman by any means, so I turned to a popular sales message board. There I found a commenter who was lauded by the community for his valuable insight and practical advice. I asked the commenter if I could chat with him about my article, and he agreed. His unique input gave the article an extra dose of credibility.
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Forums are also helpful for idea generation. Perhaps you've been asked to present your editor with a list of pitches, and you're wracking your brain to no avail. To spark an idea, seek out a relevant forum and browse the posts. What are people talking about? What are people concerned about? Are there new developments in the industry? What do people think of them? An hour on a forum can open your eyes to what's new, what's trending, what's ending, and what's controversial.
What's more, if you end up writing an article that was inspired by something you read on a forum, you know there's an active group of users who are willing to discuss the subject further.
So the next time you're researching an article or brainstorming pitches, find your way to a forum and stir up a conversation. With the right approach, a forum can introduce you to knowledge you wouldn't have found anywhere else.