A Deep Dive into Discussion Forums - benefits, best practices, and what to look for in a platform
In today's fast-paced digital landscape, online discussion forums have become a mainstay for businesses looking to engage their customers and gain valuable insights. These online communities provide a platform for customers to communicate with each other and with the business directly, allowing for open dialogue and the sharing of ideas.
The benefits of discussion forums for businesses range widely. For example, they can improve customer satisfaction and can act as a goldmine of innovative product ideas that come directly from your audience.
In this post, we will explore different types of discussion forums and how each one can help you meet a variety of business goals. We'll also share best practices for creating an effective discussion forum for your customers.
What is a Discussion Forum?
A discussion forum is an online platform that enables people to engage in ongoing conversations and share information about a particular topic or theme. These forums are often created on community engagement platforms designed for business use. A Discussion forum is a tool for community building, and 80% of company founders state it is important for their business. Forums help companies connect with customers, gather feedback, and establish a sense of community, and they are also an opportunity for users to connect with like-minded people and participate in a shared experience.
How discussion forums better your business
There are tangible, measurable results to building a community around your business. Discussion forums help businesses glean valuable insight which can help scale, engage, and improve all their efforts.
Improve your customer support and success outcomes
When you provide customers with a platform to ask questions or raise concerns, your support team can respond more quickly and effectively, increasing levels of customer satisfaction. Forums can also reduce customer support costs because other users or admins can answer customer questions, allowing the support department to operate with fewer representatives. Your support team can even respond to queries within the forum by providing supplementary links to an FAQ or self-service option for customers.
Discussion forums also allow businesses to identify and address issues before they emerge. By monitoring discussion posts, businesses can detect patterns in customer feedback and use that information to improve their products or services. This proactive approach can lead to higher customer satisfaction and improved customer retention.
Forums can also foster a sense of community among customers, which can lead to increased loyalty and advocacy. Customers who feel connected to a brand are more likely to refer their friends and family, leave positive reviews, and continue doing business with that brand.
Increase customer engagement and drive organic growth
A discussion forum is a powerful tool to drive growth and nurture your customers as they become loyal brand advocates.
With a platform for sharing experiences and opinions, brands can create a sense of community and foster meaningful interactions. By participating in these discussions, customers become more invested in the brand and show a higher level of engagement and loyalty.
When monitoring forum discussions, businesses can gain a better understanding of their customer's pain points and use that information to improve their products or services. When customers see that a business is actively listening to and implementing feedback, they are more likely to engage and become advocates for the brand.
Another added benefit: as customers interact with one another and members of your team inside multiple discussion threads, they will naturally create content related to the subject. If the community is optimized for SEO, you can leverage the user-generated content to increase organic traffic and drive business growth.
Build better products with your customers
Your customers are your greatest asset in product development. Use their ideas to create innovative solutions and make effective product decisions.
Discussion forums can be a valuable tool for businesses looking to gather feedback on products or services. By engaging with customers in a forum, businesses can get real-time feedback on everything from product features to pricing. Product developers can use this feedback to make informed decisions that meet the needs of the target audience.
Discussion forums provide a centralized approach to collecting customer feedback and implementing it. You can update customers on the status of various ideas, share a product roadmap, announce product changes, and share product education materials to improve product adoption and user satisfaction.
Types of discussion forums
Public vs. private forums
Public discussion forums are open to anyone who wants to participate and are a great way to foster community and engage in open dialogue. However, they can also act as a breeding ground for trolls and harassment, making it more challenging to moderate and foster productive conversations.
Private discussion forums, on the other hand, offer a controlled environment where members can engage in more intimate and focused conversations. While private forums may not reach as wide of an audience, they are a valuable tool for building strong relationships and fostering deeper connections within a community.
Niche-specific forums vs. general interest forums
General interest forums can be useful for casting a wider net and reaching a broad audience, while niche forums can be a more targeted approach for reaching specific demographics or communities.
Some well known-examples of of general interest discussion forums would be Quora or Reddit (the latter dubbed ‘the front page of the internet’). There are countless communities inside these websites on almost every topic imaginable. Companies do utilize these forums for marketing in a variety of ways, but you need to tread carefully. General interest forums are a place for people to connect organically about their shared interests and users don’t appreciate overly corporate input. However, general interest forums are a great place to gather enormous amounts of data and insight from customers.
Meanwhile, a business can create its own niche forum as a way to cultivate a community around its brand and establish itself as a thought leader in their industry. To effectively use their niche forum, businesses need to become a useful resource that provides value to their target audience. This can include sharing industry insights, answering questions, hosting discussions, and creating opportunities for networking and collaboration.
One great example of how to use a niche forum to build a loyal following and brand awareness - Sephora, a beauty retailer, created a forum where members can share beauty tips, ask questions, and connect with other makeup enthusiasts.
There is value in both general interest and niche discussion forums - the key is to understand the purpose of each to maximize its potential to engage with your audience.
Social media forums vs. standalone forums
Many companies build communities on social media and even create smaller discussion groups within those platforms. Doing so can be the easiest way to start a customer community. However, there are significant pitfalls to using social media as your main tool in community building, such as lack of ownership over your data and limited customization capabilities.
Standalone discussion forums, on the other hand, offer a more focused and engaged community for businesses to participate in. They can also offer more control over the conversation and the ability to moderate the content. However, it might take longer to grow your member base and requires a more targeted approach to reach potential customers.
Ultimately, the best approach for a business will depend on its specific goals and target audience, and many businesses may find value in utilizing both social media and standalone discussion forums to reach and engage with customers
What to look for when choosing a discussion forum platform
- Features and functionality: Look for features such as user registration, moderation tools, search functionality, the ability to create sub-forums, multi-linguality, and more.
- Customization: Consider the level of customization the platform offers. You probably want to tailor the forum to fit your branding, but some platforms go beyond that and provide tools to customize the forum layout and navigation too.
- Integration capabilities: Can your discussion forum platform easily integrate with other platforms and software you use in your organization? Powerful integrations simplify data management and ensure a seamless experience for your team and your customers.
- Scalability and performance: Make sure the platform can handle the amount of traffic you expect to receive and can scale as your community grows. Discussion forums built on social media might perform well when you start, but as your member base grows and are creating new posts each day, you’ll need more advanced features that allow you to adjust forum settings easily and provide a high-speed and reliable experience to your members.
- Security and privacy: Security and privacy are crucial when it comes to discussion forums. Ensure the platform offers robust security features such as two-factor authentication, SSL encryption, permissions, and protection against spam and malware.
- Mobile responsivity: Since many users access discussion forums on a mobile device, consider the design and user interface of the discussion platform and whether it is optimized for mobile use.
- Cost: Consider the costs associated with the platform, such as licensing fees, hosting fees, and maintenance costs.
- Ease of use: The platform should be easy to use and navigate for both administrators and users. Building a discussion forum is not a one-time job. You’ll need regular modifications as you grow your forum, so an easy-to-use platform will make a big difference. Providing templates that simplify building different spaces is also a plus sign for a forum software.
- Support: A strong user community and support network can be invaluable when building a discussion forum. Look for a platform with an active community and strong support resources, such as documentation, onboarding, and tutorials.
📖 Not sure which forum software better fits your needs? We’ve compiled a list of the best discussion forum software with a complete breakdown of pros, cons, pricing, and more.
Best practices for building a successful discussion forum
Discussion forums can become a bit like the wild-wild-west if you don’t establish some ground rules. However, if you diligently follow best practices, you can build a thriving community around your brand that fosters engagement, builds trust, and establishes your expertise. Here are some best practices we recommend:
Create clear community guidelines and policies
Guidelines and policies help users understand what is expected of forum participants in terms of behavior, language, and other important aspects of the forum's culture. It is important to make the guidelines and policies clear, easy to understand, and enforced consistently. You can also include a section that outlines consequences for users who violate the guidelines and policies, such as temporary or permanent bans from the forum.
📖 There’s a lot to creating community guidelines and that’s why we’ve outlined Everything you Need to Know About Community Guidelines.
Encourage user participation
Users are more likely to participate in a forum when they feel welcomed and valued, so it is important to create a positive culture. You can achieve this by engaging with users, responding to their comments and questions, and creating interesting and relevant topics that encourage discussion and debate.
Establish a strong moderation system
A well-functioning forum needs a moderation system to ensure discussions meet your community guidelines. There needs to be a clear process and to ensure all members are following community guidelines and a management system to follow when a violation occurs. Depending on the number of posts appearing in your forum each day, you may need a dedicated moderator.
At Bettermode, we have a dedicated community manager, and one of their roles is community moderation. We find that having someone whose sole task is community moderation helps us get the most benefit from it. However, there are many ways to establish an effective moderation system that facilitates healthy communication inside your discussion forum.
Implement a notification system
Users are more likely to participate in a forum if they receive notifications when new topics are posted or when someone responds to their comments or questions. You can implement a notification system using email, push notifications, or other methods that are convenient for your users.
Promote the forum through social media and other channels
Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are great places to promote your forum and encourage users to join. You can also promote your forum through email newsletters, blog posts, and other marketing channels that reach your target audience. There are many creative ways to cross-pollinate content from your discussion forum and social media channels - use content from each and share it on the opposite platform to get more feedback and entice new members to join in on the discussion.
Discussion forums are a powerful (not to mention fun!) tool for businesses looking to engage their customers, gain valuable insights, and develop innovative solutions for their audience.
Forums can take all kinds of shapes and sizes, but don’t be taken aback by seemingly endless possibilities. If you take the time to envision the community you want to create, the other decisions will fall into place and you’ll be left with a community that serves your business and your customers.
Looking for more?
📖 Here’s more insight and inspiration on building a discussion forum:
- Embedding a Forum: The Ultimate Guide to Maximize Community Engagement
- How a Customer Support Forum Can Benefit Your Business
- 11 Outstanding Brand Community Examples