Before there was Twitter and Facebook (News - Alert), Internet bulletin boards and newsgroups were the places people exchanged news, ideas, and debate topics. They’re still around and growing, with millions in existence and growing daily – they just have a different name. Today, we call them Internet forums, and they are booming discussion groups that provide a place for people who are passionate about a topic to interact, and companies who want to market products or engage with their customers to commune. Online forum users participate and monitor the forums they belong to on a daily, if not hourly basis, and they are active to the tune of hundreds of millions of unique monthly visitors and page views every month.
For businesses that want to engage customers in a more intimate, two-way communication than today’s social media, creating a forum can be an effective vehicle for learning about their needs, including ways to best serve them – a strategy that can deliver increased customer loyalty.
Give Your Customers a Voice
We all know that companies live and die by their customers, so why not actively engage with them? Forums provide the means to secure immediate customer feedback, helping to ensure your company's long-term success.
Adding a forum to your website gives your customers a voice in your organization and makes them an integral part of your online presence. It also fosters the creation of your own unique online community. Your customers are ready and willing to engage with you online, and the information they provide can be invaluable.
By reaching out to your customers on a forum for their input, opinions, and feedback, you gain access to worthwhile business intelligence that can improve your internal decision-making process. People are more than willing to provide their opinions; you just need to provide the platform to make that engagement happen. The instant feedback that you receive through your online forum can provide you with invaluable information that can help you quickly adapt your products and services to meet their needs.
Turn Your Customers into Advocates
One of the biggest advantages of providing customers with access to a dedicated forum is the collaborative engagement that follows. Over time, your active forum members will learn more about your business through their interactions and become some of your most staunch and vocal advocates. As a result, these frequent visitors can be extremely helpful with assisting and influencing your other customers, as they have already acquired a great deal of knowledge about your products or services.
When a new member comes to your forum looking for advice or needing an answer to a question, many times other forum members will be ready and willing to answer. In this way, your forum enables you to provide customer support 24/7 – even when your offices are closed. This means a better customer service experience for your visitors, without the need for committing further company resources.
To support this effort, you’ll need to provide positive reinforcement to members that can have an impact on your forum community. Publicly recognizing their contributions will not only help build loyalty towards your brand, but will also allow them to know their efforts are appreciated. This encourages other members of your forum to follow suit and enriches the overall dialogue of your community.
Increase Customer Loyalty
Those who regularly read and participate in online forums are dedicated helpers and communicators that offer companies a ready-made audience for customer service, marketing programs, product feedback and consistent engagement. Using a forum helps foster a sense of community, and leads to repeat visitors and stronger customer loyalty.
Your customers all have a common interest: your product or service. By empowering your customers to express their thoughts online, you break down existing communication barriers and encourage members to have a vested interest in your company through their continued engagement. Further, publicly engaging with your customers shows your clients that you are listening to their concerns and are dedicated to meeting their needs.
Allowing people to help each other by having an open customer support forum allows your customers to be your advocates. Letting users help each other and champion your product increases user happiness and helps customer retention rates.
Building Your Online Presence
Forums help boost your online presence and image. By actively engaging on a forum, your strong online presence shows a dedication to your customer base. This increases the confidence of your customers knowing that they can reliably get support for your product or service.
While most companies have a Facebook page or a Twitter (News - Alert) account, social media is not the last word in customer engagement. Sites like Facebook and Twitter allow you to get a message out, but they don't encourage two-way communication. You want your customers to feel like you're listening to them, not dictating to them. By providing a more intimate, interactive conversation, your organization will score you more points with your customers than simply blasting out generic messages to your entire customer base through social media channels.
Forums can help you disseminate your company's message quickly and cost effectively. By posting news and announcements to your forum, you reach your core audience quickly and get timely and honest feedback in return.
Further, forums are full of keyword rich discussions that can help your site's SEO. Since forums are all about initiating and continuing discussions, you will have a never-ending supply of new content being created on your site. With search engines prioritizing fresh content, forums frequently appear as the top results for many search engine queries. When customers use search engines to find information about your product or service, you can expect that results from your forum will quickly provide relevant answers.
Another added benefit of online forums is how they police themselves. Participants gain credibility and lose it based on their contributions to the forum. Legitimate criticisms improve a company’s operations, while personal gripes are refuted by informed customers. Smart business managers can take the feedback on the forum and make changes that directly impact a customer’s loyalty, perception of the organization and the bottom line.
Patrick Clinger is founder and CEO of ProBoards (www.proboards.com), a host of free forums on the Internet.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi