Using a Customer Forum to Build Content and Traffic

Creating a strong community based around a company through a forum is a fantastic way to build the bond between customers and brand. This connection to other customers and to the company itself is excellent to inspire loyalty in customers. It also provides the business ample opportunities for getting to know their customers and what matters to them. By listening to and participating in conversations they can gain far greater insight into their consumer base, improving the customer experience and further enhancing brand loyalty.

How to create a forum

There are a variety of different techniques that site owners can use to create effective forums.

  • Create a hosted forum on one of the many free hosting sites
  • Create a hosted forum on a hosting site and buy a personal domain
  • Create the forum directly on the company website

A forum can be on the company website, which will ensure that the site is protected from ads and other extras. You also have much more control over the appearance of the forum. When the topics on the forum that show up in the search engine results page (SERPs), they will point traffic back to the company site, further enhancing backlink count and SEO results.

There are several different types of forum options for those who want to host their forum. Those using certain website hosts, such as WordPress, can use plugins that will easily create a forum with just a few clicks.

PhpBB is the open source forum software that requires a little more work but can be a good option for those who are comfortable doing so.

phpBB forum software

Follow these steps to successfully download the program.

  1. Secure the FTP and login credentials for the database from the host
  2. Secure an FTP client if you do not have one already
  3. Download the phpBB package
  4. Unzip the package to find the directory (which can be renamed)
  5. Login to the serve with the FTP client and upload the folder

Making the forum a success

Creating a successful forum means finding people in your preferred business niche and convincing them to stay and engage with others on the forum. While accomplishing this goal can become progressively easier as the forum becomes established, the most challenging aspect of running a successful forum is getting the conversation started. Many people quickly click off an empty forum, even if they would have made the ideal participant.

One of the fundamental decisions is whether to moderate and approve all comments, review and remove inappropriate ones, or let it be more wooly and open. If the forum membership has a reasonable hurdle, like being a paying customer or a certified user then regulation is less important. If membership is open, then the comments should be moderated to prevent competitors’ negative or specious comments. In truly large forums of more than 10,000 the moderating effort may require a few hours a day.

At BrightEdge we have more than 2,000 BrightEdge certified users who are admitted to a LinkedIn group, and we run our customer forum there. Both BrightEdge employees and customer forum members start topics and reply to questions. The forum helps define and support the community and improve customer satisfaction and retention. Additionally, a professional network makes an excellent platform because it allows members to display and gain career value from their BrightEdge certification.

BrightEdge certified professionals network

Attracting people to the site

Like any other website, it is important to optimize the site for search engines. That means using keywords to communicate your purpose clearly to search engines and participants. Use keyword and keyword phrases in sections such as:

  • the page title
  • headlines
  • the ‘about us’ page

The meta descriptions of the pages you create for the forum should also be strategically developed. This is the text that a search engine user sees when your forum appears in their search results. Use the text to include keywords and to invite people to explore your high-value forum.

Here is what users see when the TripAdvisor Forum appears in search results: it is concise and appealing for those interested in learning more about travel.TripAdvisor Forum

You can also invite people to your forum directly. Let regular customers, friends and family know that the forum is ready for conversation and that their input would be appreciated. It can also be valuable to post links letting people know about this community option in places such as the business’s social media pages, at the end of communications from the brand– such as emails or newsletters– and on the company website. Many customers appreciate the opportunity to connect with the business’s representatives as well as other customers.

Create a forum that encourages conversation

A common mistake of many over-eager forum builders is to create a forum filled with dozens of different conversation categories. What they neglect to remember, however, is that having so many different options just makes the entire forum look empty. New forums will only have one or two conversations at first, so that leaves room for numerous empty categories.

Instead, focus on building a forum with only a few categories, maybe even just two or three. Define these options broadly to give people flexibility. Forums can always be restructured and new categories added if the conversation successfully attracts regular participants.

Site owners should also show initiative to start conversations themselves. Most casual page visitors will not arrive at an empty forum and start conversations. Regularly begin new topics under each category and purposely invite people to respond to those particular conversations.

It is important to remember the purpose of the forum. It is generally accepted for brands to create special areas of the forum to deal with topics directly related to the brand, as the company AVS did here.

AVS Forum

At the same time, people do not come to the forum to receive a direct sales pitch. Even in the AVS forums, there are over 30 different categories, but only a handful that mention the company name. You should foster genuine dialogue among community members and not be afraid to step back when the conversation begins picking up speed.

Protect the forum

Forums regularly come under attack from a variety of different sources, including spambots and trolls. It is important to protect the forum from these sources to maintain the integrity of the community. There are a few practices that can help keep the forum secure.

  • disable the search function for guests and only allow it for registered users
  • enable CAPTCHA or similar visual confirmation for people registering
  • enable CAPTCHA or similar visual confirmation for people making guest posts (or disallow guests from posting without registering)
  • Use the GD CAPTCHA foreground noise to make it harder for spambots to recognize the text

It is also important to protect the forums from some of your registered users. It is not unheard of for people, protected by the anonymity of the internet, to say things that they would not say in real life. To make sure the community remains safe and secure for those who want to genuinely discuss issues related to your business, include a list of clearly define behavioral expectations for users.

This would be an example of forum rules, as posted on the popular forum, Reddit.

Rules of Reddit

The popular American Express Open Forum is more lengthy and more professional in appearance with each example fitting well with their intended audience.

American Express Open Forum

In addition to SEO value, the legacy conversation makes an effective knowledge base that helps customer self-solve problems. This can help reduce customer service costs.

Before beginning a new forum, companies need to establish a clear plan of how they are going to build the community, which at a minimum include goals, strategy, tactics/cadence, resources, budget/staff, and measurement system. Whichever route is selected, the company should assign at least a partial full-time equivalent as a community to operate, facilitate and police the forum.

Creating a successful forum requires a bit of work to establish the community and a few quarters to nurture and build it, but when done well, it contributes to loyalty, retention and efficiency.

See some fun community content that is really working: check out BrightEdge’s SEO Jokes post.

 

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