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Article 7 min read

What is forum software and how can it benefit customers?

Last updated August 27, 2021

Before there was social media, there were forums. And now there is social media, there are still forums. Most are owned by individuals, fans and clubs to discuss their favourite things. Some, like Reddit, Quora and Stackexchange, cover thousands of different subjects. And there are also forums hosted by companies. That’s what we’re talking about here.

Hosting a forum on your company website, where customers and prospects talk about your products and services, will either seem like a great idea or a disaster waiting to happen, depending on your viewpoint. We’ll go over the potential drawbacks and some cures for them below, but first, let’s look at the positives of running a forum focused on your business.

Why have a company forum?

If you appreciate the importance of customer feedback, there are plenty of ways to get it. Surveys, helplines and simple star ratings all spring to mind. But have you ever considered launching a forum to augment these sources of information?

From solving technical problems to showing you offer great customer service, forums can be a brilliant public-facing channel to give your company a human face and show the world what a dedicated, satisfied customer base you have. Let’s look at the benefits.

1. It’s another customer support channel

Because customers themselves are answering questions raised by their peers, a forum can take the strain off customer support teams. Your customer support agents can get on with handling calls and live chats while customers help each other out with rookie or technical issues. And best of all, the responses are there forever, so the forum will eventually build itself into a knowledge base where people researching your products and services can find out more about them.

2. Foster a sense of community

Building a relationship with your customers is important for customer retention, and there’s no better way to do it than to build online communities of like-minded folk. There’s no doubt that customers trust other members of the public to give honest answers untainted by spin and marketing. Although everyone is aware that the forum is run by the company, it still holds true. As long as staff members are clearly identifiable by different icons or tags, it feels authentic and trustworthy.

3. Raise issues company didn’t think of

You might have a publicly accessible knowledge base to enhance the user experience, but you’ll inevitably miss out certain things you had never thought of. Products have a tendency to take on a life of their own out in the wild, and might get uses or snags that your development team had never foreseen. A user-friendly forum platform is the perfect place to air these issues and product uses.

4. It can help to come up with knowledge base articles

Having the forum doesn’t mean you can simply do away with the knowledge base. The two can run side by side, with the KB being the authoritative version. However, customers can play their part in raising new subjects that your team can investigate and write about.

5. Collecting customer feedback

A forum is a hands-off way of gauging customer satisfaction, as people will often express themselves more honestly when they feel unprompted. This kind of customer experience monitoring is gold dust to any business looking for continual improvement.

6. It brings search value

If you’re in a competitive field, search engine optimisation (SEO) is a very important way to boost your ranking on Google and other engines. Since the search engines are looking for keywords and subjects to make the site relevant to certain searches, having hundreds of contributors talking in focused terms about your subject can raise your site’s authority, especially if external sources link to the forum topics.

7. It can inspire product development

Looking at what people are talking about on your forum can inspire product development. If a member asks “can this product do this?” or “does it integrate with that?” and the answer is no, you could have just identified an unmet need that you can work on. It could lead to improved versions, or completely new products.

What misgivings do companies have?

While the benefits of running a public forum are spelt out above, it would be remiss of us not to mention that some companies still shy away from the channel, perhaps with justifiable reasons.

The qualm that stands out the most is that you could end up giving people a channel to publicly vent their dissatisfaction with your service, and you’re paying for the privilege. But is this always so bad? First, you can use the forum to openly and honestly hold your hands up and accept you’ve made a mistake. Customers appreciate that, and it can often take the heat out of a complainant’s fervour.

Alternatively, you can feed back that you think the customer might be wrong, and explain why. Again, it can help de-escalate a row and shows you’re paying attention. Sometimes a private message defuses the situation, but you do always have the option of deleting the thread if it goes against your values.

Another source of worry is that people will make abusive or libellous comments on your forum, and that you can be held legally responsible. While it’s true that you could be blamed and potentially prosecuted for such comments, you can moderate forums, use AI to filter out abusive language and only accept comments from signed-up members with some form of ID. Be seen to be taking reasonable steps to keep the forum a safe and legally secure place, and you should be fine.

The importance of moderators

Moderators can play a part in keeping the forum happy and useful, as we’ve pointed out before. They don’t have to be your employees – trusted contributors can rise to mod status and many will relish the opportunity, especially if you offer them perks.

Moderators can play a role in deleting harmful or inaccurate material, spam and advertising (and AI can help here too). They will also be able to delete, modify or archive outdated material, for example if your cloud-based service has changed and the old advice no longer applies. It’s also inevitable that duplicate subjects will be raised, so moderators can delete them or redirect them to previous threads where the query has already been answered.

What forum software should I use?

We’ve got a regularly updated post on the best forum software, and you might not be surprised to learn we rate Zendesk’s forum software very highly indeed 😎. It’s a versatile, user-friendly platform that plugs in seamlessly to the complete Zendesk offering, allowing you to link users to your customer support and CRM so you can get a fuller picture of every customer.

However, if you’re not a Zendesk customer, the benefits of a forum remain, and there are other options. You can start with open source forum software like phpBB, Discourse, Vanilla Forums or Simple Machines Forum. Most of these can be installed with one click from your hosting package, so go into your control panel and look at what’s on offer. You can then download and install themes to make them your own, or have one professionally made for you.

The pros outnumber the cons: get forumming

We hope this piece has shown that the risks of owning a forum are far outweighed by the rewards, from helping your support team to creating a friendly face for your business. If you are careful, keep it well moderated and encourage open, fair and friendly discussion – even if it’s critical of your business – a forum can work wonders for your public face, your sales and your customer support.

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