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.

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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:

  • "Crowd-sourcing" service and support. Setting up an online forum is an easy way to outsource some of your customer service and support to the "crowd" -- or to your community of customers and admirers. "If someone has a question about a piece of software, hardware or a phone, there is a great chance that someone else has had that question as well," Messick says. It allows a business to speak to many customers as once by answering that question online in a way that other customers can find it. In fact, some forum software solutions help you optimize search terms to make it easy customers to find exactly the question they are looking to answer through search engines. Letting customers help each other can help you cut support and service costs by reducing the amount of e-mail or trouble tickets your staff needs to respond to.
  • Consumer research. An online forum can also be a place where customers can provide feedback on your products or services and generate new ideas. Members of the community can post an idea and gain critical mass around the ideas. "A lot of companies don't have a lot of funds to do focus groups," Messick says. "From a business standpoint, the benefits [of online communities] can include marketing, product marketing and development, and Rr&D."
  • Social "CRM." Online forums or communities can also act as "the hotel lobby," Messick says. "It's a public space that the company owns where customer can talk to one another. If they have a question, they can talk to the concierge or, if it escalates, they can go to the manager. The beauty is that it's still owned by the hotelier." In other words, it's not an uncontrolled conversation happening on Twitter. It's a supervised discussion in which the company plays a role. Messick calls this "social CRM" -- a form of customer relationship management fostered by communication with customers through social networking. Instead of dealing with merely data, you are now able to gain insight into your customers from conversations and relationships. "The fact of the matter is that your customer lives in this world and they expect you to be there, too," Messick says.

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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:

  • Set your goals. Decide just what you want to achieve with an online community. Perhaps, like Seymour Duncan, your sales can benefit from expert users giving advice and assistance to new customers. Or maybe your community can encourage your customers to show off ways they're using your products, like, which incorporates games, contests, and challenges for members into their forum. There are many reasons for having a forum on a commercial website. You just need to identify yours.
  • Find out what motivates potential members. Before you even think about starting your own community forum, you must find out just who your potential audience will be, and what they really want to talk about, Pfleging says. Attend meetings or conferences of your prospective clientele, and pay attention. Don't just be there for the official presentations, but sit in on informal conversations, and listen to what they talk about among themselves. "If you're dealing with butchers, auto mechanics, stone masons, no matter -- get to know them, and how they relate to your product," Pfleging says. Take the time to join and participate in several established online communities and social network sites. Particularly look for some that are similar to what you have in mind. Take note of things that you like and dislike about how they function, and try to incorporate these notes into your design.
  • Use the right software. Choosing the format for your online community is a crucial step. Generally, make sure you have threaded or nested boards, where each post links to its responses, instead of a "flat" message board where every post follows the previous one linearly, Pfleging says. A flat discussion tags the newest comments onto the bottom of responses already listed, and the conversations tend to be more difficult to follow. It's usually easier to find relevant information in a threaded discussion, since you're not making users read through the entire list to find what they're looking for. There are a variety of different software and Web-hosted solutions. Some are free. Others, like Get Satisfaction, are free but offer premium upgrades that can help you coordinate some of the forum interactions with your other IT systems so you can better serve your customers, Messick says.
  • Help create meaningful content. When you've installed and set up the basic message board software, you'll need to seed the initial discussions just a little, Pfleging says. "If I'm a customer, I need to get a sense that it's open and active so you should start to put in frequently asked questions and answers," Messick says. "When I go there to ask a question then I see that I'm not the first one." Create a few pertinent posts that relate to some of the comments your customers may have sent in e-mails or through phone support. But be careful to not overload the forum, as this can lead visitors to think you're trying to dominate the discussion. Better to allow the resulting discussions to grow organically, with members free to talk about almost anything. Users will help your site evolve in directions you may have never anticipated. You can then bring the more appropriate discussions, those beneficial to your business, to the front, highlighting them so members see them when they first arrive, keeping your site interesting. In addition to starting a forum, make other changes throughout your site that encourage communication. When posting articles, podcasts, transcripts, or other new info on your site, make sure there are also ways for visitors to post comments in response to the piece.
  • Give members an identity. When a company sponsors an online community forum, it must plan on giving up some control, allowing the members to do some of their own policing. This doesn't mean you won't need to have moderators; different officials from your company may want to participate and answer questions on occasion but at least one person should be in charge of moderating the forum, Messick says. Forum members usually will assist by alerting the moderators when a post is in some way against policy, or offensive in some way. This has several positive effects: It gives members a sense of co-ownership of your site; reduces the amount of moderating you'll have to pay employees to perform; and creates a sense of being trusted that goes a long way toward increasing loyalty, Pfleging says. Set up a method of identifying your more active members with several levels. Include the amount of time they've been a member, as well as numbers of posts/responses. This will create a ladder of status they'll want to climb, both in staying as active members longer, and increasing their interaction or participation.

"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."

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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."

Dig Deeper: Taking Advantage of Online Review and Answer Sites

Online Forums:  Additional Resources

Online Community Report
Website for online community professionals.

Stat Counter
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.