Why and When Should I Start a Community Forum?

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A week ago, we launched a community forum for Alfred and I couldn’t be happier to have done so.

This series of post covers why we chose to start a forum, as well as some tips for setting up and running your own successful community forum.

Part I: Why and when should I start my own community forum?
Part II: Setting up your forum: Top tips for using Get Satisfaction
Part III: Making the most of user feedback

Don’t forget to sign up to the RSS feed if you don’t want to miss the rest of the series!

Why choose a forum

When we launched Alfred, our main means of support for users was Twitter. When we needed more than 140 characters, we’d swap over to email.

As our community grew, once we found ourselves with a few thousand users reading our tweets (gasp!), yet many asked the same question frequently (eg. Will you be adding x feature?) because they hadn’t seen the older answer to it.

Let’s face it: Twitter is today’s news but tomorrow’s virtual chip paper. It was time to look for a new way to provide answers. That isn’t to say we’ve entirely dropped email; on the contrary, we’re now able to focus email responses on those who really need one-on-one answers.

We chose a forum because it allowed us to answer publicly, leaving longer-lasting, more valuable answers which could be revisited the product evolved. So is a forum right for everyone?

Red Light: Not Now

There are a few key pieces of the puzzle needed to start a forum on the right foot. Here are a few hints that the time might not be quite right.

1. It’s quiet in here!

Too few active users in your forum give newcomers the impression that nobody uses the app and that it might not be actively developed. One-on-one emails with users or a private beta testers’ space can help you get more in-depth feedback, allowing you to improve quickly until you have enough buzz to warrant a public forum.

2. Starting in a time of crisis

If your users are up in arms about something that’s wrong or bad with your product, it may be challenging to change the tone of the forum once the problem is resolved. Try to start your forum in a time of peace and positivity so that the first few exchanges set the tone for constructive, helpful communication.

3. Changing behaviour

If you’ve encouraged the same behaviour for a long time – for example, emailing you for support – you’ll need to signpost your forum well to direct users to the new home for discussions. This isn’t so much a problem as a change of routine, both for yourself and for users who’ve gotten used to emailing you at their every whim.

Green Light: Let’s Go!

On the other hand, what are the hints that it’s time to stop, collaborate and listen and change the way you interact with your users.

1. You’ve answered the same question more than three times

Sounds familiar? If you’ve had to email users back with the same answer a few times, your product is probably ripe for a forum environment or, at the very least, a clear FAQ.

Tip: For common answers or short snippets you find yourself typing often, consider a tool like TextExpander to save your fingers and your sanity.

2. You must make time

Can you afford a few minutes a day to review the comments you’ve received and respond to them? Usually, that’s all it takes; a quick sweep of the latest questions, a few replies and thank you’s. It’s easy to forget or let it get deprioritised but you should do it as regularly as brushing your teeth – twice a day.

When releasing new features, for example, you need to plan to spend a bit longer listening and answering as you’ll get a burst of interest.

3. Your users can help

In every community, there are a few super-helpful users. Talk to them and see how you can turn them into customer champions. Encourage them to answer questions and thank them profusely and publicly. Sometimes, that’s all the recognition they need!

4. You can take action on feedback

By this, I don’t mean that you’ll take every suggestion and implement it right away. (In fact, we’ll look in Part III at why this is a bad idea!) You simply need to be able to show users that bug fixes are taken seriously and that at least some of the sensible and suitable feature requests are considered.

Get started now

That said, it’s never too early to talk to your users. While a forum may not be right for your product yet, even the smallest seedling of a community should be nurtured.

I’ll never forget the first handful of Alfred users who bravely downloaded an app no one had ever heard of, the first donators or the bloggers who first took the time to write about us. Without these early adopters, a product goes nowhere. Thank these people often and be genuine about it.

Think you’re ready to launch your own forum? In the next post, we’ll talk about choosing the right forum and why we decided to adopt Get Satisfaction. I’ll also share the tips and tricks I’ve discovered since we launched our own.

Need help getting in touch with your community and finding the right communication channels for your product or service?

Pepsmedia, the company I co-founded, offers these services. We can help you build better relationships with your users and discover who your own fans are, so get in touch!

[Photo credit: Sierra Romeo on Flickr]

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