It takes a village to build a business, and that's especially true online. Here's how to cultivate your customer base through a vibrant online forum.
The Internet has erased the geographical boundaries of doing business, turning every local company into a potentially global competitor. The Web has also enabled people to join together into communities based upon like interests or like beliefs or like preferences for certain products or services. One of the best ways for a business to help foster community is to start an online forum.
Online forums allow both real and potential customers to interact with you and with each other to discuss your products or services while helping you troubleshoot flaws. They can even help you learn about possible improvements to make. Online forums often consist of a variety of different technology tools, including message board forums, chat, instant messaging and more. Community members join the forum and use these tools to communicate, while your company moderates the discussion and makes sure it's achieving your business goals.
Why start an online forum? "It makes for happy customers for one thing," says Bill Pfleging, co-author of Geek Gap (Promethius Books 2006) and a speaker on the topic of making business and technology work together. "It's an easy way for customers to communicate with the business. It also gives many of other customers the chance to participate. Customers who are fans of the product, the website, or the company may know how to use it better than other people. So you have the situation where customers go on and say, 'How do I use this?' Other customers may already know how to do this and may be willing to share."
The answer is then posted on the forum so the next person who comes along with the same question may find their answer quickly. This relieves a lot of pressure from the business' support lines and can ultimately save the company money, Pfleging says.
The article below will outline how businesses can benefit from online forums, how to set up an online forum, and what to watch out for.
Online Forums: The Business Benefits
A wide variety of businesses can benefit from setting up online customer forums -- or "communities." Companies that manufacture products may field questions from customers about how to put together their products or how to best use the products, or customers may write in with suggestions for other uses for the products. At the same time, service companies can use the forums to answer a lot a variety of questions about their offerings.
"Say you operate an extermination company. You can answer a lot of questions about the various bugs and rodents that have to be exterminated. If people have worries or questions, they can post them on the forum," Pfleging says. Those questions can be answered by company representatives and/or by customers. "It helps grow trust, which ultimately helps your business if you're providing answers to serious questions people have about products, services, or areas of expertise."
One of Pfleging's favorite examples of a business that has created a "community" using its online forum is Seymour Duncan, makers of guitar accessories and parts like electric pickups. Since launching its forum in 1996, Seymour Duncan's forum members have been instructing one another in new ways of wiring pickups to change how they sound, and they also give advice on topics ranging from simple to complex. This not only relieves the company's support centers by having customers answer questions for other customers, it also gives their client base a real sense of ownership, cementing their relationship to the company and its products, Pfleging says.
"The whole point of an online forum is to create a space that connects customers with companies and customers with one another," says Keith Messick, vice president of marketing for Get Satisfaction, a San Francisco-based company that offers a software-as-a-service online community solution. "It's a great way to engage customers and a great way to get people passionate about your brand or company."
Here are some of the other potential benefits to businesses of setting up an online forum:
Online Forums: Getting Started
Are you prepared to make a commitment? Online community doesn't always pay for itself within the first month, or even six months, Pfleging says. But if you structure your online forum right, you will find that a virtual community can help you build a better relationship with customers that can boost your bottom line for a long time to come. "That's worth more than any immediate ROI," Pfleging notes.
There are some obvious choices you need to make when setting up a forum. Here are some steps to help you get it right:
"Typically, an online community has between a 1 and 10 percent participation rate, with the rest of your logged visitors being lurkers," Pfleging says. "Don't be surprised if it takes a lot of time to nurture and grow your community. Collected stats should be factored in and be used to affect your future site development."
Online Forums: Pitfalls to Avoid
Don't be afraid that when members post something negative about your product, it will create poor sales. Better to let them do that on your forum, rather than one of your competitors' sites, or an independent one. "The fact is, if the criticism is justified, then you can take the high road and thank them for their diligence -- and for saving you from going to the trouble of expensive market research," Pfleging says. And if it's unjustified, well, you may not even need to say anything yourself. You'd be surprised at how fast loyal users will jump to defend a favored product. In the highly connected world we now inhabit, it makes your business look more self-confident, as well as open and honest, if you allow your community members an uncensored, public feedback forum.
Being approachable is one of the great keys to effective business. In terms of using online forums, it's the key to retaining customer loyalty. Make sure your forum users have some means of contacting you or one of your staff charged with managing discussions directly. "When companies are not open to transparency, they bury their heads in the sand and believe that this conversation isn't happening," Messick says. "But people are talking about your company positively or negatively either at cocktail parties, at the gym, or online. Smart companies build a community to provide that space and engage in that conversation. The pitfall is not being open to transparency."
Online Forums: Additional Resources
Online Community Report
Website for online community professionals.
A free yet reliable invisible Web tracker, highly configurable hit counter, and real-time detailed web stats collector.
Forum Software for the Web
Fairly comprehensive listing of forum software maintained by David R. Woolley.
SitePoint’s Guide to Forum Software
Nice basic how-to for several top forum software systems from online media company and information provider targeting Web developers and designers.