Many of the most successful sites on the internet gained prominence by recognizing an important fact: people online want a way to interact with each other.
From the AOL chat rooms of the 1990’s, to today’s immensely popular social media sites, platforms that give people a way to connect with one another make up a huge part of the internet.
For that reason, online forums are a popular type of website. If you’re unfamiliar with the meaning of “online forums”, but wondering if they might be right for your brand, here’s a rundown of all the most important information you need.
What Is an Online Forum?
An online forum is a space online where people can hold discussions. It differs from a chat room in allowing for conversations to happen over time, rather than messages going back and forth in quick succession. And unlike social media sites, an online discussion forum is typically focused on a particular subject matter, brand, or fandom.
Online forums are usually organized into a number of categories, in which members can post their questions or discussion prompts and reply to each other. Many forums allow members to share multimedia content as well as text, and forum posts are often longer than those on social media sites or in chat rooms.
The Importance of Online Discussion Forums
An online discussion forum provides a lot of value both to the people that participate in them, and to brands that choose to include them as part of their website. If you’re on the fence about whether an online forum platform makes sense for your brand, these are some of the main benefits members and brands get out of them.
The Benefits of Online Forums for Members
The decision to start an online discussion board should center on providing value to your audience. If done well, an online forum offers several key benefits to members.
1. Online forums enable people to form communities.
Humans are social animals. We seek relationships, and being a part of a community provides mental and emotional benefits that are hard to understate. While this has always been true, people used to mostly be limited to their own geographic area when it came to finding and forming communities.
The internet now makes it possible for people to look beyond their own neighborhoods and cities and find online communities to participate in. If you can help people in your audience connect with others they relate to, you enable them to tap into all the benefits that come with being a part of an active community.
A successful community provides a sense of belonging, along with opportunities for learning and entertainment.
2. Forums help people connect with like-minded individuals.
Online forums are generally centered around something members have in common. If you create a discussion board for individuals, your product will be the thing they have in common. If you create an open forum around an industry or hobby, people will gather based on their shared interest in those areas.
Whether people are joining because they all use the products you sell, they all work in the same types of jobs, or they all love to spend their off-work hours pursuing a similar interest—they’re coming together with something they can connect over.
Online forums bring people with common interests together, sometimes allowing for connections they lack in other areas of life. An enthusiastic bird watcher whose family doesn’t share her passion can feel less alone and get birding advice by joining an online forum for birders. Someone who spends their entire workday using a particular software product can find other people in similar roles and swap tips and best practices in a customer forum.
While a forum may be full of people who are different in most other ways, by starting from a place of having something compelling in common, they can often find value in each other’s company.
3.They provide a space for education.
Online forums often become a useful space for members to learn from each other. Members of online forums focused on a particular type of job or industry can share resources relevant to their work. Hobbyists can share recommendations with each other related to their hobby.
Many brands have created online support forums where a customer with a question about using the product can bring it to the group and get an answer from other members of the community. For example, with our Facebook group, Website Owners Helping Website Owners, HostGator customers are encouraged to ask questions and get support from each other:
The internet is full of information, but sometimes learning from other individuals helps you find the knowledge you need faster. And knowing information comes from someone with similar experience or interests makes it more trustworthy than what a member might find via a Google search.
4. They give members a place to ask questions.
From philosophical musings on life to practical questions about how to complete a specific task, online forums are a place where members can bring questions they have to a group of people likely to have a good answer.
Questions fuel discussions. And a community members can tap into for answers gives them a clear place to turn when they need help solving problems.
An internet forum about a popular TV show can discuss questions about the mystery driving the plot, or which characters to ship. A product forum can address questions about the best ways to employ the product for specific uses, and how to troubleshoot common issues that come up. Questions and answers are a big part of what keeps forums active and valuable for members.
5. Customers can take ownership over their role in the community.
Being a part of a community feels good. Knowing you’re an integral member of a community feels even better. As a community grows more active, some members will begin to stand out—it could be those showing up the most consistently, the ones providing the best answers, or those who pose the most thought-provoking questions.
The more the forum owner and other members start to recognize their contribution, the more invested these members will be in continuing to make the internet forum a valuable space.
You can recruit these community members to become moderators or admins, or provide them with labels like Conversation Starter or Product Expert to make their role in the community more explicit. When members know their involvement is recognized and appreciated, they’ll take more ownership in keeping the community thriving.
The Benefits of Online Forums for Brands
If the forum you build provides those benefits to members, it will inevitably provide a few values to your brand as well.
6. Online forums encourage loyalty.
When people feel connected to a community that’s hosted by your brand, that translates to feeling a connection to you as well. The benefits they get from the community—the answers people provide to their questions, the sense of belonging, the entertaining interactions—all become associated with your brand.
And when a member of a customer forum starts to consider an alternative product, if they realize switching to a competitor means also leaving behind a community they care about, it makes the decision much more challenging.
7. They give your audience a reason to keep coming back.
Getting someone to discover and visit your website once is challenging enough. But the true measure of a brand’s long-term success is how effectively you can get people to keep coming back.
An active forum full of ongoing discussions will draw participants to your site again and again. The most involved members will return regularly to check for updates to the conversations they’re a part of. Some may even make a daily habit out of visiting your forum.
This is one of the most compelling reasons for a brand to consider becoming host to an online community—it gives members a reason to think about and interact with your brand continually. As long as they’re getting value from the community, they’ll keep coming back to the space you’ve created.
8. Forums enable customers to support each other.
Customer forums can reduce the workload of your customer support teams. If a certain portion of your customers turn to the forum when they need help, they’ll be doing so instead of getting in touch with your customer service team.
As long as they trust other members of the community to provide adequate answers, they’ll still get the support they need. But your customer service team will benefit from a lighter workload.
9. They provide a direct line to your audience.
Understanding your audience is one of the most important requirements of running a successful business—no matter what you’re selling or what industry you’re in.
When you host an online forum, you have direct access to the people in your target audience. You can ask them questions within the forum, and hold polls or surveys to collect more data on what they’re thinking. You can learn more about how they feel about your brand and product, what they think of similar competitors, and any relevant feedback they have.
10. Customer discussions lead to valuable audience insights.
And just as importantly, the discussions they have there—those that have to do with your product, as well as those that don’t—will teach you a lot about what their general priorities, thoughts, and concerns are.
If your forum members frequently bring up the same questions, then you’ll know those are good subjects to create content around. If they regularly share articles from a particular resource, then you know where to check to see what topics are on their minds on a regular basis. The more you learn about your audience, the better a job you’ll be able to do of making sure your website, products, and marketing materials all address what matters to them.
5 Best Practices for Hosting an Online Forum
Simply creating a forum on your website won’t bring all those benefits. You have to put in the work to build your forum into a community that brings real value to its members.
While the particulars of building a successful online forum will depend on your audience—you need to think about what they’ll want to get out of it—you’ll increase your odds of success by employing a few best practices.
1. Have a forum strategy.
Before you create an online forum, take time to clarify what you want it to be and what you hope to accomplish with it. By starting with a specific vision and the goals to match, you’ll be able to put together a plan that will help you achieve them.
Building a thriving forum takes work, so in the strategy stage think through what tactics you’ll use to attract members and get them coming back. Determine who will be in charge of running the community and moderating the messages.
When your forum’s small, that latter job may seem negligible, but as it grows you need to be prepared for the possibility of trolls and conflict. That’s work someone will need to take on.
2. Develop clear guidelines for your forum.
You may want to think that everyone in your audience is kind, thoughtful, and considerate. But the reality is that online communities can be brought down fast by people who abuse other members and demonstrate harmful behaviors. They can even be threatened just by members clashing—if you aren’t prepared to handle disagreements effectively. You can hope for the best, but preparing for the worst is crucial.
That means starting from day one with a clear set of guidelines. Think about what types of issues, conversations, or language you don’t want to see in the community. For ideas, you may want to review the guidelines of communities you’re currently a part of, or others similar to the one you’re creating.
Some good rules you to consider include:
- No self-promotion or spamming, except in spaces designated for that purpose
- No discriminatory behavior, such as slurs or racist and sexist comments
- No NSFW (not safe for work) material
- No discussions of illegal activities
Have a plan in mind for how you’ll handle it when people break the rules. Will they get a certain number of warnings, followed by a ban? Will you delete offending posts, or leave them there for others to learn from (some communities have a rule against “dirty deletes”)? Having guidelines is only useful if you are willing and able to enforce them.
3. Provide initial themes and structure.
Online forums typically have a structure already in place when people join. They’ll be divided into a few main categories, which make it easy for people to find conversations they’re interested in faster. And in the early days, those categories will also signal to members what the forum is all about and may help inspire the first questions and discussions that get going.
To get things started, brainstorm what categories and subcategories to include. Think about what topics you know your audience cares about and start there. Once the forum gets going, you’ll likely expand on your initial list of categories, so you’re not stuck with what you come up with now. But having a good list to start will help your audience get accustomed to the space.
4. Plant discussion topics.
When you’re at a party, you always need that one brave person to start dancing before anyone else will join in. A forum can be similar. People are often hesitant to be the first one to contribute. So take that pressure off the shoulders of your first members, and start the conversations yourself.
In each of your main categories, come up with discussion questions you can add to get conversations going. This is definitely a smart practice for when your forum is just getting started, but it may be one to stick with moving forward to keep engagement up.
5. Host events and live discussions.
Another way to keep engagement up is to set up regular events within the community. The nature of a forum means that conversations can last over hours or days, whenever individual members have the time to check in. But you can add additional value by also scheduling times for people to have conversations in real time. These can feel more fresh and active, and give people an incentive to show up at specific times to participate.
Make sure these events provide value to your audience members. Consider topics they care about to focus on. Bring in relevant subject matter experts to participate and be a draw for members. Host book groups or online movie nights. Anything that gives your members something interesting to gather together for.
Is an Online Forum Right for Your Website?
Having a forum requires work, but creating a community around your brand can provide benefits for years to come. If it sounds like the right choice for you, create a thoughtful plan for getting your forum up and running. And make sure you’re prepared to moderate and manage it over time.
Not ready to dive in to building an online forum just yet? Dip your toes in the water with a Facebook group. Read our guide to creating a successful Facebook community.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.