By Brittany Lyons
Community forums have proven themselves an effective way to foster good customer relations and cultivate new business, which has put a lot of companies under pressure to utilize social media to reach their customers. While some companies accomplish this by simply establishing a Facebook business page and Twitter account, often that is not enough. Every social media vehicle has a specific purpose and target market, whether it's aimed at fry cooks or PhDs. While Facebook offers a forum for discussing any and all topics, there are many people who dismiss it as a purely social tool. By establishing a community forum, businesses can reach these people. Plus, the forum allows customers to discuss the company's products and services openly in a place where the company can benefit from their insights.
Obviously the size of the company is a factor in choosing software and hosting services to set up a community forum. Small businesses can choose free or inexpensive software and hosting that bring the costs down significantly from the estimates above. Most experts agree that the largest cost associated with establishing a forum is paid in time. But you shouldn't skimp here, because the more you put into the community the more you'll get out of it.
Building a community forum does not happen overnight. Companies with successful online customer communities like Verizon, Intel and Cisco all started small, and put in a great deal of effort to earn their increased loyalty and new business. Once the software is selected and you have the technology to set up the forum, you need to think carefully about how best to drive customers to the site. Selecting the right niche is of paramount importance, as it establishes the purpose of the community. For example, is this just a customer service forum, or do you want product input? Should it be a place to connect with customers on a personal level, or even a way to recruit new employees? Think small at the beginning, and then build out from there as the population grows. Each new niche you try to address should be developed fully to attract the necessary followers, but don't spread the forum too thin. It is vital to create interesting conversations to get the community's attention, but dividing it into too many categories will confuse and separate people.
Before launching the site, it is critical to establish guidelines and operating standards. Professionalism is key here, as customers must know what to expect from the forum. Making visitors comfortable will open them up to conversation with each other, and encourage the posting of comments and blogs to facilitate involvement. Guidelines should be written in clear and simple English so that the community members will want to actually read them rather than scroll to the end and click "I accept."
Above all else, you should respect the community, even as you're creating it. This sounds so simple, but it is important to be completely aware of ways to ensure the community feels important and appreciated. Showing respect includes being involved. Talking to the community and really listening to them will promote a positive company image. For example, when a member posts a great comment or message, they should be sent a message in return, and from somebody high up the chain of command—not just some grunt hired to handle the website. Highlighting member involvement and encouraging participation is very important. Constant moderation to provide feedback and keep people in line is also critical, as it helps demonstrate that somebody is in control and that all voices are to be respected.
A social media motto used by many experts is, “content is king.” What that means is that the best way to drive followers to any blog or community forum is to post relevant and interesting content, which is not as easy as it sounds. It is critical to give the community a good reason to keep coming back to the forum. Providing interesting content, and allowing them to interact with it, is the best way to ensure their continued interest and participation.
About the author:
Brittany Lyons aspires to be a psychology professor, but decided to take some time off from grad school to help people learn to navigate the academic lifestyle. She currently lives in Spokane, Washington, where she spends her time reading science fiction and walking her dog.