By Patrick Clinger

Many companies are already successfully leveraging the power of online forums to reach a new level of interactive customer service.  Ranging from Microsoft and Apple to thousands of small businesses, sports teams, and bands, these companies are discovering that forums are an efficient way to connect, engage and interact with customers and learn what they want, with the added bonus of turning many into passionate company advocates.

Those who regularly participate in online forums offer a ready-made audience for customer service, marketing programs, product feedback and company interaction.  Providing a basic forum for this segment of your customer base can go a long way towards enhancing your brand, but a few helpful tips can take your forum to the next level:

Organize your forum into different categories so that similar discussions are grouped together.  This will make it easier for your customers to navigate your forum and quickly find what they are looking for.

Personally welcome new members to your forum, as this will help build a sense of community.  You can also provide some brief background information on your forum and offer suggestions for navigating and getting started.

Post messages asking for member input.  This information can provide valuable business intelligence to help your decision-making process on new products or services.  The feedback you receive will help you improve future iterations, hone your message, react instantly to customer questions, and immediately address possible concerns.

Promptly reply to customers and address their needs.  Responding openly builds customer loyalty and helps turn your customers into advocates who may assist others when you’re not available.

Post a new message each day on your forum to help build activity.  Content is still king and providing new and interesting information helps keep the conversation going.  Kick-starting daily conversations is a great way to keep your forum members engaged and staying on your site.

Promote your forum using your existing channels.  It’s quick and easy to link your forum from your existing website.  Be sure to leverage your existing social media contacts by linking to your forum from Facebook and Twitter.

Patrick Clinger (pictured) is founder and CEO of ProBoards, the world’s largest host of free forums on the Internet.  The company boasts over 3.5 million forums created, 22 million registered users, and more than 15 million unique monthly visitors on the web ( @proboards