Before social media, community forums reigned supreme as the primary digital medium for customer-to-customer communication. While social media has taken over in popularity, millions of people still use forums (like Reddit) to interact with other customers and discuss different products and services online.
Businesses use forums to engage customers and answer questions that people have about their products and services. Users can speak candidly and interact with other customers who share their same interests, questions, and criticisms.
In this post, let's look at how you can create a forum website for your business. Then, we'll provide some best practices you can use to leverage it as a customer service channel.
How to Create a Forum Website
- Pick a location to host your forum.
- Choose a software to create your forum website.
- Organize your forum's structure.
- Design your forum's theme.
- Create user rules for your forum website.
- Start conversations with interesting discussion topics.
- Publish your forum on your website.
- Advertise to your audience.
- Increase engagement with badges.
- Moderate user participation and respond to customer inquiries.
- Collect user feedback.
1. Pick a location to host your forum.
The first step is deciding where you want to host your forum. It can be a page that's found at the end of the URL, like www.example.com/forum. Or, it can be a subdomain located at the beginning of the URL, like forum.example.com. Where you choose is dependent on your current web hosting provider and how you've organized and built your site.
2. Choose a content management software to create your forum website.
Once you have a web addressed picked out, the next step is to choose a content management software. This software builds your forum's pages and lets you design and categorize its content. The right software makes all the difference, so be sure to select one that can match the theme and features of your current website.
3. Organize your forum's structure.
Before creating pages, you should consider how you're going to organize topics. It should be easy for customers to find what they're looking for and your forum's navigation features should support its visitors' needs.
Start with identifying the topics you'll want to create discussions for. These can focus on troubleshooting specific products and services or could be for general topics like customer ideas and workarounds. You should also include a search bar, so visitors can bypass categories if they're looking for a specific page. Organizing your forum this way will help users navigate your site and find information that's relevant to their interests.
For example, on Mumsnet, a parenting forum, the navigation at the top makes it clear what topics are covered and organizes them in sections. If you don't have a specific topic in mind, the threads are organized by active conversations.
As you can see above, on the right side of Mumsnet, there is a "Trending Now" section that has a list of topics. So besides the navigation, users can click on this button and will see a list of topics in alphabetical order.
Another way to organize your content is by popular and featured topics. This is how the Visa Developer community forum is organized and it's one of my favorite forum designs. In the screenshot below, you can see popular community topics and featured topics.
Additionally, the Visa Developer forum has great navigation because it also features tutorials, blogs, and webinars. Community members can engage with the community and use educational resources in one location.
Regardless of how you organize your content, your forum page should have these elements:
- Search bar
- Navigation menu
- Sign in/Log in button
- Popular community topics
- Widgets for upcoming events, latest blog posts, webinars, or tutorials if applicable
4. Design your forum's theme.
Your forum's theme should match your surrounding website. It should use the same colors, logos, and layout as your existing content so customers aren't confused when they navigate to a new page.
Some content management systems provide themes that match most website layouts. In the example below, users can select from a variety of options when choosing their forum's theme.
5. Create user rules for your forum website.
Visitors should feel empowered to participate in your forum's discussions. To do that, all users will need to abide by a set of rules that promote healthy, informative conversation. These rules ensure discussions stay on topic and everyone feels comfortable with contributing.
Some example rules you can start with are:
- Be respectful, even when there's a disagreement.
- No foul language or discriminatory comments.
- No spam or self-promotion.
- No links to external websites or companies.
- No NSFW (not safe for work) content.
A great example of community rules comes from the Educational Theatre Association.
As you can see in the screenshot below, the organization lists its top rules, including how to participate in constructive, productive conversations. These rules are a great place to start.
Additionally, the site also has a complaint and reporting process so users know what to do when they see someone break the rules of conduct.
6. Start conversations with interesting discussion topics.
Before you publish your forum, you should write some general discussion topics that encourage conversation. This will break the ice for new users, especially when your forum is starting out. After all, it's much easier for users to comment on a post than it is for them to write their own.
7. Publish the forum on your website.
Now it's time to publish your forum. Set your pages live and connect your forum's home page to your primary site. Users should be able to easily find your forum when they visit your brand's home page.
8. Advertise to your audience.
Now that we've covered the technical steps you'll need to take to create a forum, the next step is to make it an active community. Like an awkward middle school dance, getting participants engaging with each other can be a lot easier said than done.
Start with reaching out and advertising to your most loyal customers. These people are genuinely interested in your brand and will be excited to participate in your forum. If you can get them talking, other visitors will be more likely to join the conversation.
You can advertise to them by targeting them in social media ads or reaching out via email. Additionally, you can advertise your community on search engines. Just think of all the ways you currently advertise your marketing campaigns and begin a campaign for your forum.
9. Increase engagement with badges.
Of course, engagement is something that's hard to kickstart. You don't want to manufacture it and have the conversations seem stilted. A great to encourage engagement is to provide incentives.
For example, one incentive you can provide is badges. When users regularly participate in your forum, reward them with badges that other users can see. Your most active users can be your "regular contributors," and will feel a sense of belonging by participating in your community.
10. Moderate user participation and respond to customer inquiries.
Forums are living, breathing, active communities, and once you create one, you need to participate in it if you want it to thrive. This means your business should be leading discussions and leveraging the forum as a continuous resource for customer feedback.
Customer service reps should be assigned to mediate your forum and respond to customer inquiries. They should make sure users are abiding by the forum's rules and answering any questions that customers have about your products and services. Not only will this help keep your forum active, but it will also provide a delightful support experience.
11. Collect user feedback.
As your forum grows, it's important to collect feedback from its users. Ask them how they're enjoying the experience and where you can make improvements. Doing so will keep users engaged and satisfied with your forum's content and interface.
A great way to do this is to start a thread on your forum directly. In that thread, you can link to a survey. On the other hand, you could also email all your community members an NPS or customer satisfaction survey just like you would when you're collecting feedback on your service organization.
Now that you have your forum set up, let's review some best practices when using it for customer service.
Community Forums for Customer Service
Route customers to your primary support channels.
Community forums are designed to foster discussion, and while these conversations often center around customer roadblocks, solving problems on your forum can sometimes be tricky.
In some cases, it makes more sense to work with a customer through your traditional customer service channels than it does to work with them on your forum. Since anyone can comment on a public forum, it can become difficult to keep track of the ongoing thread between you and the customer. Especially if it's a long-term case, transitioning the conversation to your help desk or ticketing system can help your team retain valuable information that will help them solve the problem faster.
Use screenshots and screen recordings to demonstrate troubleshooting steps.
One benefit of using a forum for customer support is that it's easy to include content that can contextualize your troubleshooting steps. For example, you can include screenshots and screen recordings that outline what a customer needs to do to solve the problem they're experiencing. Now, when other customers have that same problem, they can refer to your images and videos instead of having to submit an additional support ticket.
Keep track of customer ideas and workarounds.
Forums should inspire customers to provide honest feedback for your products and services. This will lead to valuable discussions that highlight areas to improve your business.
When mediating your forum, have your team keep track of ideas and workarounds proposed by your customers. You can even assign a specific segment of the forum to these posts, like in the example below.
Community forums are a great way to get feedback from and engage with your customers. When customers are actively engaged in your community, they'll be more loyal and give your company fresh ideas.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in April 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.