The Online Experience

Forums are arguably the new marketing tool for 2007, as evidenced by the growing number of savvy businesses that are enhancing their customers’ online experience by opening online forums on their websites.

With the rapid growth of online communities and user generated content, it won’t be long until online forums are an almost mandatory facet of any company’s online presence. Data from a SmartCompany/Roy Morgan poll shows that 51% of small and medium business (SME) owners in Australia use forums, and the figure is even higher in the US. A poll of 250 SMEs by the Capital Access network Small Business Barometer shows that 63% used message boards and forums.

In its simplest form, the online forum has been around almost as long as the internet (think bulletin boards). Today’s forums can be multi-layered and very sophisticated in their construction and scope but their basic concept and objective has not changed. For business owners, online forums enable the establishment of rapport with customers by facilitating discussion of the business, its products and services.

The objective of any online forum should be the encouragement of loyalty among existing customers – something which translates into stimulating more sales. Forums should also be a tool for winning new customers. However, in addition to recognising the potential benefits, it is very important for new business owners to understand the potential pitfalls that might stem from setting up an online forum.

Kate Morris, founder and managing director of clicks and mortar company Adore Beauty, set up her business in 2000 offering products for sale online as well as through a store in Carlton North, Melbourne. Since the launch, the Adore Beauty forum has received almost 35,000 posts and has about 600 registered members, and Kate says the forum has been a real eye-opener. “You really get to hear what your customers are thinking, and yes, we’ve responded in ways such as stocking new brands and so on as a result – we’d be stupid not to,” she says.

It can be a risk for any business to expose itself to such raw word-of-mouth, but if a business is prepared to be transparent with its customers, stand by its products and respond quickly to negative input in a forum, the result will almost certainly be a stronger bond between business and customer.

Seasoned web forum developers say that any business that tries to control debate on its forum does so at its own peril. If someone posts a negative comment, the business has the right, of course, to respond to that publicly on the forum. However, just as businesses that deal arrogantly with, say, complaining customers on the phone, businesses that use their forums to say “we’re right and you’re wrong” are shooting themselves down.

Mark Harbottle is a co-founder of web development company SitePoint.

“Just set the record straight and most people will come back on your side,” he says. He adds that it’s critically important that a business does not make its commercial intentions blatantly obvious when setting up a forum.

“People aren’t interested in humouring the site owner and getting into the forum to talk about a product just because the site owner wants them to.”

Making any online forum successful is about getting people there, not telling them what to say or do once they are there, says Mark, although he admits that generating traffic on a forum – and hence content – is probably the hardest aspect for any business.

“The hard part is not setting up a forum, it’s running it and growing it. It’s a long-term commitment, or it’s not worth doing at all,” says Mark.

So what’s the best way to start generating traffic?

“You have to feed the forum in the beginning, so say something controversial. You have to remember that 95% of people who read the forum never actually post anything on it, so arouse debate to get those people involved.”

Any business considering opening its own forum will obviously want to know the costs involved. The software required for a forum is surprisingly inexpensive.

Applications that sell for well under $500 are available and one of the oldest and most widely-used platforms is Ultimate Bulletin Board – the latest version, called UBB.threads, retails online for under $US250.

As the managing director of web development specialist DTDigital, David Trewern points out, there is plentiful open source and even freeware that can be used to create forums. However, there are follow-on costs that need to be considered, not least the cost of time.

“You have to configure and set up the software on your server and customise it. It’s a mistake for people to think that they should do this because it’s very cost-effective. While the software might not be expensive, customising it can be time-consuming.”

He adds that a business could spend “very little or $20,000” setting up a forum. For a business to keep track of what is going on in the forum means a member of staff having to spend half a day moderating posts or responding to queries. He agrees that any forum has to reach a critical mass if it is to become a valuable resource for customers.

“The forum will sit there empty if customers don’t understand what it’s there for and they see no value in coming to it. However, once a forum has been running long enough to gather a few thousand posts, then the value is all in the content,” says David.

Online forum dos and don’ts

DO establish a forum for the long term. Forums are never any use as short-term promotional tools for a brand. The forum is a long-term strategy for getting closer to your customers and that means investing a lot of time in it.

DON’T try and control forum discussion, such as through moderating out negative comments about your business. DO respond quickly to negative feedback in an honest, friendly and practical way.

DON’T try to set up too many categories for discussion at the beginning. Once there is traffic on the forum, it will become evident what categories customers are most interested in discussing.

DO make the forum appeal to a broad community, rather than directly relating it to your brand. Customer-generated comment is the essence of forums, but if you only invite comment about your brand, your customers will see the forum for what it is – a sales pitch.

Entrepreneur Amanda Gome is founder of SmartCompany.com.au, Australia’s online magazine for business owners & entrepreneurs. After two decades in business journalism, Amanda has interviewed almost every entrepreneur in this country worth their salt … and plenty that weren’t! She was editor of BRW’s Fast 100 and Startups magazine and she is also an adjunct professor of business at RMIT University.

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