Online forums have almost become mandatory for any business that’s serious about its online presence – but the significant benefits always come with potential pitfalls. Forums are the new marketing tool for 2007. SIMON LLOYD points both out.
By Simon Lloyd
A growing number of savvy businesses are enhancing the online experience they offer customers by opening online forums on their websites. Forums are the new marketing tool for 2007.
With the rapid growth in 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 the SmartCompany/Roy Morgan poll shows that 51% of small and medium business (SME) owners use forums.
And in the US that figure is even higher. A poll of 250 SMEs by the Capital Access network Small Business Barometer shows that 63% use message boards/forums.
In its simplest form, the online forum has been around almost as long as the internet (think bulletin boards), and although today’s forums can be multi-layered and very sophisticated in their construction and scope, their basic concept and objective has not changed.
From a business owner’s perspective, online forums enable the establishment of a 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, and hence to stimulate more sales from them. It’s also a tool for winning new customers.
However, a business owner who decides to set up an online forum needs to be aware of the potential pitfalls it can drag along with it, and not just the potential benefits, significant though they can be.
Kate Morris, founder and managing director of clicks and mortar company Adore Beauty, set up her business in 2000 offering beauty products for sale online as well as through a store in Carlton North, Melbourne.
Last October Morris opened a forum on the Adore Beauty website and says that since then “it’s gone nuts”. “We launched it just to see how it would go,” she says, “but what we hadn’t properly realised is that by letting customers tell you what they think about the business and anything else, they certainly will tell you!”
Since launch, the Adore Beauty forum has received almost 35,000 posts and has about 600 registered members. Morris describes herself as a “beauty junkie” and says most forum members would also match that description.
According to web developers, businesses that find such a “sweet spot” get the best results from their forum. In Morris’s case, this sweet spot is a niche of consumers who simply “adore beauty”.
She explains: “Say you have a passion about beauty products. The chances are you might not be able to share that with your real-life friends, ie they probably don’t want to talk all day with you about eye-liner. But you can be part of a big [online] community where members feed off each other and get excited about what you’re excited about, and that’s the great thing about the forum.”
The forum has grown to include numerous beauty categories for discussion, a general area where members can talk about, for example, their favourite restaurants, and an area for Adore Beauty news announcements.
But what has it meant in terms of feedback about Morris’s business?
She says that any retailer opening a forum has to be prepared for all sorts of comment from forum participants – positive and negative.
“We have had very little bad feedback, but the forum is like being a fly on the wall, listening to all the things our customers talk about. Some retailers like to assume their customers only buy their products and don’t shop anywhere else, but of course that’s not true. A lot of companies don’t like to hear that so they won’t give their customers an opportunity to discuss their competitors and so on.”
Morris says the forum has been an 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.
For any business to expose itself to such raw word-of-mouth can be a risk, 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 inevitably be a stronger bond between business and customer.
Seasoned web forum developers say that a business tries to control debate on its forum 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.
But 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.
A co-founder of web development company SitePoint, Mark Harbottle, says: “Just set the record straight and most people will come back on your side.”
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 Harbottle, although he adds that generating traffic, and hence content, on a forum in the first place 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,” Harbottle says.
And the 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: there are applications available for well under $500. One of the oldest and most widely-used platforms is Ultimate Bulletin Board – the latest version, called UBB.threads, retails online for under $US250.
And as the managing director of web development specialist DTDigital, David Trewern points out, there is plentiful open source and even free ware that can be used to create forums.
But according to Trewern, there are certainly 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. But for a business to keep track of what is going on in the forum could mean 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,” Trewern says.
Online forum do’s & 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 by, for example, moderating out negative comments about your business.
DO respond quickly to negative feedback in an honest, friendly and practical way.
DON’T try and 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 relate 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.
For other hints and tips on enhancing your online presence, see our Growth Resources, Internet, section.