While customer forums are only part of a full online customer community, they are usually the most trafficked and vibrant area of the community. The central role that customer discussion forums play in connecting customers with one another and lowering support costs, made customer forums a natural stepping stone for companies before social community platforms were widely available.
Though the core of customer forums usually takes the form of traditional threaded discussions, your company still has a lot of flexibility in shaping the forums around your strategy and target audience. For instance, you can decide to have the forums available to the public, secure and private, or a public/private hybrid. In another example, you must also decide how to use the data you are going to collect and which information your sales, marketing, customer support, and product management teams would benefit from.
As with any initiative, the strategy is the foundation for success, but not the entire equation. There are many tactical and technical elements to keeping customers engaged and helping them get value from your discussion forums.
Here are 11 features used by companies to create discussion forums that their customers love and that impact the business's bottom line.
Features in the World's Best Customer Forums
Feature #1) Segmentation
Not all customers need to have access to all discussion forums. You may have multiple products, each with their own forum, or forums for specific customer groups, like CEOs or user group leaders. Use the segmentation in your online forum software to only show customers the forums that are relevant to them.
Feature #2) Integrated Listserv
Did he just say listservs? Yes. Customer forums that have built-in listserv functionality play a big role in customer engagement. Your diverse customer base does not all want to engage your community in the same way.
Some people can engage in the online forums and others want to participate in conversation from their email inbox. Anyone who says that your company has to choose either listservs or online discussion forums is not giving you the straight story.
When you merge your forums with a listserv, you get the ease of use and accessibility of a listserv combined with the searchability and web-based archive of an online forum. They are synced so that anything that happens in the online forum is distributed to those subscribed to the forum's listserv, and everything that happens on the listserv shows up in the forum.
Feature #3) Email Engine
Despite all of the 'email is dead' rhetoric that comes with social networking hype, email is still a primary form of customer engagement. Your online forum's built-in email engine allows you to send messages to specific groups based on their profile information, group access, or discussion forum activity.
Take for an example all of the customers who commented on the thread about your new product or service. You could generate an email to that narrow group of customers notifying them that a company response was added to forum or of an upcoming webinar walking them through the new features.
Building online customer forums on top of a targeted email engine gives your company the tools to drive people back to the forums to help other customers or directs them to helpful information in another area of your support infrastructure.
Feature #4) Mobile App
While some companys' customers are not ready to access forum discussions on their mobile devices, the trend is moving the direction of mobile accessible forums very quickly.
The reasons for this are:
- Everyone is getting more comfortable with mobile apps and expect their important social interactions to be accessible.
- The demographic reality of younger people entering the workforce and older people leaving the work force.
- Fewer of your customers are stuck behind a PC all day €“ they're mobile.
If you customer forums provide valuable information and support to your customers, they are going to want to access and contribute to those discussions in an airport, at a client's site, in front of the TV at night, and waiting for a table at lunch.
Feature #5) Search Engine
It is imperative that customer forums have a good search engine. It should not only search the title, categories, and tags of a forums and its posts, but also index and search all of the discussion content itself.
Feature #6) Analytics
All online customer forums have some level of data collection and reporting. This ranges from customer profiles to discussion activity to sentiment analysis. Capturing the data is one story. Making that data useful in engaging customers and making business decisions is another.
The most important data features include how, and how easily, customer data can be used. Does the forum software have strong and flexible reporting on the back end? Can customer data be integrated in your CRM system to bring together traditional demographic and transactional data with your customers' web-based social activity?
Feature #7) Favorites
Your customers are busy. Give them ways to indicate which topics and discussions are relevant to them. Customers can receive email alerts when a new post or comment is added in a certain area.
Your customers can even use Google Alerts-type features to be notified when a certain word or phase is added to a discussion. "Favorites" features also allow customers to subscribe to a specific thread in a forum so that they can pinpoint and stay connected to exactly the conversations that are important to them.
Feature #8) Auto-Subscriptions
While a majority of the forums to which a customer subscribes will be driven by the user's preference and interest in the community, there are some discussions that certain customers should automatically subscribe to. Initial subscriptions enable your organization to preset subscriptions to certain forums when the customer joins the community. The customer can always modify their subscriptions, but the initial subscription to a specific product discussion or 'important news' thread will be set for them from the start.
In addition, some customers will be required to participate in specific discussions. For instance, members of your product advisory board will be required to be subscribed to the board's online discussion area. You can set all of that us using auto-subscription setting in your customer forums software.
Feature #9) Event Management
Having event software built into your forum platform enables your organization to seamlessly transition people who registered for live events, like customer conferences, or virtual events, like webinars, to event specific forums where the discussion of ideas and momentum can carry forward.
Feature #10) Limited Access for Partners
Customer forums are not just for customers. Lower support costs and add value to your ecosystem by incorporating partners into your customer discussions. However, most of the time, you'll want to give partners limited access to your customers. This includes giving partners access to only certain discussions and throttling the things they can do, such as only answering questions and not create new spammy posts.
Bring partners into your online forums in a way that both they and your customers find helpful creates unique valuable for your company, customers, and partners.
A big part of maintaining an active discussion forum is laying out the purpose of the forums, what is expected of participants, and which behavior is not permitted.
Online Customer Forum Takeaway
Most executives are serious about their customer engagement strategy. However, if you are going to be serious about your engagement strategy, you also need to get serious about your customer forum tactics and the features that are necessary to execute your strategy.
Launching online discussion forums for customers in an "if you build it, they will come" manner won't have a positive impact on your business. It takes serious community management and engagement-oriented online community features to make you customer forums a value-added support system on which your customers will rely.