By Anna Johansson
If you’re interested in doing more for your customers, building a better reputation, and enhancing the value of your content marketing strategy all at the same time, you might consider launching a customer forum on your website. However, merely launching a forum isn’t enough to guarantee your success—you need to know what you’re getting into before you fly blind into this relatively new marketing space.
The Benefits of a Customer Forum
First, you need to know the potential benefits of a customer forum. As Single Grain highlights, one of the best examples of success in customer forums has to be American Express’s OPEN Forum, which is open to experts and amateurs in business management (and everyone in between). SalesForce also has an impressive forum for developers trying to work with the platform, and marketing giant Moz has a thriving community of members.
So what are the benefits that AMEX, SalesForce, Moz, and hundreds of other brands are seeing?
- Brand loyalty. First, anyone who uses a customer forum regularly is going to grow more loyal to the brand. They’re seeing the brand on a daily basis, interacting with it, and may even be able to consider themselves part of the brand community. This encourages loyalty, and of course, more purchases (not to mention brand evangelism).
- Free content. If you want to rank higher in search engines and be more visible online, you need more content, but it costs time and/or money to produce content—unless your customers are producing the content for you on your open forum.
- Self-service. Depending on the nature of your products and services, a customer forum could help your customers help themselves, allowing experienced users to guide inexperienced ones and giving confused customers a chance to answer their own questions.
- Thought leadership. Launching and nurturing a forum will allow you to produce some new ideas as a community that your brand can take credit for. Content from your site will make you appear as a thought leader.
- Not many companies are using customer forums, so you could immediately differentiate yourself from the competition.
How to Launch a Forum Successfully
So what does it take to launch a forum successfully?
- Stock posts and users. Reddit, one of the most popular online communities in the world, started with its founders loading invented users and posts to give the forum the appearance of active participation. If you launch your forum completely empty, nobody will want to take part in it. Discontinue this practice as soon as you build a “starter” community, but until then, don’t be afraid to take the time to create an archive of posts, users, and even conversations.
- Test, test, test. Before you launch, make sure everything works the way it’s supposed to. There are tools that allow you to easily create a forum from a template, with just a few clicks, but even with these tools, you should take the time to evaluate your forum’s functionality before making it public. Recruit some test users in the demographics you’re trying to target and see what they think before launching—there’s still time to make some adjustments before you go live. All it takes is one bad experience to turn a customer away forever.
- Have a dedicated team member in charge. When you launch, make sure at least one member of your team is dedicated to the oversight of the forum. They should know what your main goals are, post actively (both starting new conversations and responding to existing ones), and moderate users and comments to make sure your forum follows your original vision.
- Create a moderation plan (proactively). There are many different approaches to forum moderation, so you’ll need to have a plan in place before your forum launches. Be clear about what types of content are and aren’t acceptable, and document how your moderators should behave (especially if they’re internal employees).
- Highlight top posts. Make sure your forum has some way to highlight the best content your users eventually produce. This could be a “top 3” section, a ranking algorithm, or filters that allow for sorting. You’ll want your best content to be the most visible, so new users get a good first impression.
- Find ways to advertise. Your forum won’t be able to grow in a vacuum. Find a way to publicize the existence of your new forum, and emphasize the benefits your users will gain by joining your community. You can advertise traditionally, use social media, or even spread via word-of-mouth—make the existence and availability of your forum known.
- Attract high-value users. Finally, do what you can to attract high-value and high-profile users to your forum. If you can recruit a handful of influencers to moderate and/or post regularly on your forum, they’ll bring a host of users with them. You’ll also want a system in place to reward your top contributors.
These tips and tricks just cover the launch phase of your customer forum. If you want to remain successful, attract new users, and grow your presence to cover even more online ground, you’ll need to invest in more. You may choose to accelerate your advertising, attract more users on social media, or just have your staff contribute to more conversations. Find the path that’s right for your brand, and keep nurturing your community until it reaches the level you desire.
Anna Johansson email@example.com is a freelance writer, researcher, and business consultant. A columnist for Entrepreneur.com, HuffingtonPost.com and more, Anna specializes in entrepreneurship, technology, and social media trends. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.