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Realistic free forum marketing
Realistically, most forum administrators have limited financial resources to invest when it comes to promoting a new forum. If this is true for you, you need to be ready to invest a lot of your time instead. Those with adequate funds can sometimes muscle their way to an active forum, but you don't have that luxury. Marketing a forum for free depends on the quality, and value of your work.
The majority of forums are created as a meeting place for those that share a similar interest(s). If your interest extends to those within the offline world then you already have a valuable piece of the marketing puzzle. Meet people within your field of interest and inform them about the community you are trying to create. Tell them about the benefits of joining your community and what makes your forum different. Get them to grab a friend and introduce themselves in your forum. Make every effort to make them feel at home and answer their questions.
Be a forum liaison
Every new member to a budding forum is crucial. If someone registers and asks a question, it is up to you to spend your time researching that answer. By doing so, you have the potential of gaining that user's loyalty and adding another contributing soul to your community. Not every member will have the expertise to help other members, or contribute useful information. You should, however, respect that if this user has taken the time to register and post their question, they have an interest in your field and may become a valuable contributor in due time. Avoid burning any bridges.
Make your efforts known
What makes a user choose your forum about Blue Widgets when there is a larger forum about Blue Widgets already out there? Personality. Your members like and respect you, or they wouldn't be contributing to your cause. If your forum is small and struggling for activity, you need to make every effort to show your members what you are doing to grow the forum. Are you volunteering at tradeshows and pitching your community when it comes up in discussion? Are you actively gaming and recruiting more team members? Show that you care and that you are making the effort; they might just give you a little extra time to get things going.
Start small, start niche
What's the best way to grab market share from a forum about Blue Widgets? Start a forum about Small Blue Widgets and offer specific information about Small Blue Widgets. A regular Blue Widgets forum is very generalize and can't possibly go into great detail about every niche derivative like "Small Blue Widgets". Get a foothold in a smaller niche and expand as numbers allow. What is the Small Blue Widget of your industry?
Rally the troops
An hour of marketing once a week from each of your ten members will equal the marketing you'd be able to accomplish if you marketed your forum full time (8 hours a day / 5 days a week) - and in many ways, they'll be more effective. Each of your members has a personal network of contacts over which they have a strong influence. Get your members involved and doing their part to help the community grow. Explain how attracting more members means more contributors, increased stability, and more revenue for fun things like freebies and contests.
Leverage personal relationships
You too have a personal network of contacts over which you have a strong influence. Leverage these contacts to help get the ball rolling. If you have a close friend that you know has nothing better to do on their weekends, call them up and ask them to give you a hand. If you and your spouse share this interest in common, get them to post their questions on the forum even if you already answered them. Then, answer them again for others to see and comment on. Do whatever you can to get your forum over that initial inactivity hump. Let people know they aren't committing to anything long-term, but that you'd really appreciate their efforts now. Who knows, maybe they'll get hooked.
Beneficial post exchanges
The key word in this section is beneficial. Spam exchanges are hardly uncommon. Deals are made every day for an admin to post half-hearted replies to month-old topics in exchange for the same in return. This will likely be a waste of time for both parties. Find an admin in the same boat as you and make them read this article (at least it will wash their mind of the belief that marketing a forum for free will be anything less than work). See if they might be willing to devote a couple hours a week to contributing meaningful posts to your forum if you do the same in return. This means actually becoming a part of the forum and posting in its best interest, not hit-and-run, spam-quality posting. For best results, conduct these post exchanges with similar but not competing forums so both parties can share an unbiased interest.
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