By Patrick Clinger, CEO of ProBoards
Do you remember the Internet bulletin boards and newsgroups where people exchanged news, ideas, and debated topics? Well, they’re still alive and kicking, only now they’ve been fortified with hundreds of new features, Web 2.0 technologies and are even easier to use.
Now called “Internet Forums,” these collaborative discussion groups, which provide a home for hundreds of millions of unique monthly visitors to interact, are proving to be the best and fastest way for businesses to serve their customers. Forums also provide companies with a platform to introduce and market new products and learn about their customers’ needs in order to better serve them.
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.
Forums also allow your customers to help each other and champion your product, which increases user happiness and helps customer retention rates. These company advocates foster and promote loyalty as they evangelize your products services for you AND without a ding to your marketing budget.
One such company that’s successfully leveraging forums to serve their customers is audio equipment developer and manufacturer, Emotiva. Their “Emotiva Lounge,” developed in July of 2007, has nearly 12,000 active members with about 5,000 forum postings every week. Using ProBoards forum software, the company developed the Emotiva Lounge to introduce and market new products, interact with their customers and service their needs.
“Through our forum, we’ve given our customers direct access to our engineers and product developers,” said Jessica Laufman, marketing director at Emotiva. “This direct connection between our company and customers has allowed us to create a really wonderful and powerful user community – a real ‘win-win’ for everyone.”
On their forum, Emotiva also reaches out to their customers for their input, opinions, and feedback, which allows them to gain access to business intelligence that helps improve their 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.
This direct customer connection enables immediate customer feedback and helps ensure the company’s long-term success.
“The open engagement we get with our forum has translated into happier customers and has helped boost sales because we’re able to learn what our customers want and create solutions to fill their need, while fixing possible problems,” continued Laufman. “ We’ve grown significantly by leveraging ProBoards and word of mouth through the forum.”
Forums also enable 24/7 customer support even when your offices are closed. For example, 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. This means a better customer service experience for your visitors, without the need for committing further company resources.
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.
For Emotiva, the company’s Emotiva Lounge is actually self-policed and self-moderated by a dozen or so forum members.
“By allowing our forum to be self-policed by our customers, we enable the conversation to happen organically, which helps build product interest, trust in our company and long-term loyalty.”
To support this self-policing 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.
In addition, forums are also 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.
Forums provide an invaluable resource for business, increasing customer engagement and loyalty, while providing an outlet for direct, valuable customer feedback. Directly involving your customers in open discourse can bring significant marketing benefits and an increased online presence to any company. The vast potential that online forums bring to both you and your customers cannot be understated.
About the Author
Patrick Clinger is founder and CEO of ProBoards, the world’s largest host of free forums on the Internet. ProBoards just launched ProBoards Version 5, the most powerful and easy-to-use Web 2.0 Internet forum software. The company boasts over 3.5 million forums created, 22 million registered users, and more than 15 million unique monthly visitors on the web (www.proboards.com).