Over the years, I’ve developed a great respect for Jason Falls, Founder of Social Media Explorer and Vice President of Digital Strategy for CafePress. One of the things that I respect about Jason is his honesty and his pursuit of truth. He doesn’t simply follow trends or rely on what is known or easy. Instead, he has a reasoned perspective that allows him to see the diversity of social media.

To me, the people who really understand social media understand how big it is. Jason doesn’t just talk about Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Pinterest. Or Google+. He doesn’t just talk about the buzz brands in social. He talks about it all. What he really follows is results. He wrote a book about email marketing and has written about forums time and time again. In April, he threw out a startling figure: 90% of trackable discussions around the banking industry happen in forums.

What impresses me about this is that Jason isn’t just any social media marketer or digital marketer. I consider him to be among the most visible, most widely respected in the industry. In an industry where a lot of consultants, a lot of agency people and brand people simply choose to ignore anything not named Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest (and maybe Google+ and YouTube). It’s not cool to write about forums. But, that doesn’t matter, because Jason is chasing the results, not the trends.

That’s why I respect him. To learn more about his thought process, I asked him a few questions.

If I search Social Media Explorer for “forums,” I can see that you’ve mentioned them a lot and written specifically about them many times. You have written about them elsewhere, like for Entrepreneur. You included them as a data point for The Social Habit and they factored majorly into the research you did about the banking industry. In an age where it is much cooler to talk about Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, why do you regularly talk about forums?

When you answer the question, “Where are people talking about my brand?” the answer is almost always predominantly in forums. For our research on the banking industry, we found that 90% of online conversations around banks and bank products happen on forums. I don’t have to explain to many people that 90% is a big damn number.

Simply put, if you buy the premise that social media marketing is about participating in conversations with customers, fans and prospects with the hopes of building trust and relationships to one day lead to purchase – in other words, the lifetime value of a customer, which is at the core of what all these social media types have been telling us for years – then you have to start with forum conversations. If you leave them out, you’re simply saying, “Yeah, we just wanna sell stuff.”

I also find it peculiar that marketers play the numbers. Click through rates on PPC (pay-per-click) and online media are abyssmal (less than half a percent in most instances) yet marketers will throw hundreds of thousands of dollars to get that less than half a percent to equal 10,000 or 20,000 people. But when it comes to conversations, they see 90% of them happening on platforms they ignore, yet still choose to ignore them.

In a way, what I’m doing is exposing marketers as frauds. They want to “join the conversation” as long as that doesn’t actually mean having conversations with customers. It’s either that, or they just are ignorant to the impact forums have.

You mentioned some of the research you’ve done. I am sure that your approach feels right to you, which is important, but I have always felt it was also driven by data. Outside of the banking industry, what does the data tell you, as far as forums and their place in the social web?

The notion that forums fuel much of the online conversation holds true in most industries. I did several spot-checks recently to make sure I wasn’t seeing this from a limited run of subjects and everything from panty hose to cars to cell phones and more show that forums are the top or second-most popular source for conversations. There are some variations, of course. When people talk about restaurants, they typically offer quick mentions on superficial networks like Twitter. “I’m going to McDonald’s.” They don’t tend to dive deep into conversations about brands there.

But when you look into conversations about health, you’re right back to forums as the top source. So it doesn’t always hold true, but in many and I would even say most cases, forums are where people are talking about the subject.

You’ve worked with many brands over the years. No doubt you’ve participated in forums on behalf of brands before, or at least coached someone who did. What are your most memorable or meaningful interactions with forums in that context, as far as the positive results for the brand?

In the early days of my advising brands in social… years ago… like 2006 (heh), I was working with a spirits client that was launching a new whiskey. There was a fairly active spirits forum I had joined a few months before and participated in lightly with full disclosure (via signature) as to who I was and what brands I worked with. I actually reached out to the admin when I joined and told them who I was and that I wasn’t there to sell or spam, but more get a read on what people were saying about various brands, my own and others. So we had this product launch and we thought that forum community would be a good group of people to introduce the product to.

I reached out to the admin and just asked, “How is it best to let them know this new product is coming out and we’d like their feedback on it?” He appreciated the respect for the community so much he asked me to send him the information and he posted it. Talk about a win for the brand?! The admin essentially endorsed the brand – or at least took on the responsibility of introducing it to the community. Couldn’t have asked for a better turn out.

And the response from the forum was nice. Very fair and honest feedback that I took back to the brand and they took it to heart, even adjusting some messaging to be more clear about the product.

In October, I wrote an article where I said that many social media monitoring services don’t comprehensively monitor social media, especially if they don’t monitor forums and online communities. Going back to the banking industry, if you are in that industry and your social media monitoring efforts only really track and prioritize public posts on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, you are missing out on 90% of the conversation. If you “monitor social media” by only seriously paying attention to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, etc., are you really getting the full picture of social media? And are you doing a disservice to your clients?

The answer to that isn’t all that easy. First of all, if you’re using a social media monitoring service, you can only use the technology to monitor what it provides. Most say they monitor “all” or “most” of the web, even though they don’t. There are private forums, “no follow” forums and websites and, if you want to take it to a new level, there’s Dark Social – email and instant messages that drive sometimes 50% of all referral traffic, according to some testing done by The Atlantic. So let’s first establish that using technology alone, you can’t monitor all, or even most (probably) of social media.

If you wish to add some human analysis and monitoring to that equation, you’re looking at a ton of human resource hours committed if you want to keep up with ALL conversations, all forums, all blogs, etc. The smallest bank on the planet could put a team of 100 people on social monitoring and still not keep up with all the relevant content out there.

So to think that a company is doing a disservice to its customers by not monitoring everything is, I think, a little strong.

But it is imperative, in my opinion, that a social marketer pay close attention to where the customers of his or her brand are participating, whether forum, blog or social network, and actively monitor those communities however the technology best allows. To not seek and prioritize monitoring and participation is a disservice, but not just to customers – to the community and the brand itself. You can’t be everywhere, but you can be in the most important places and you can establish that expectation with the audience so they know where to find you.