In defence of forums

When I put “forums are” into Google, the first options that come up are: “dead”, “stupid”, “full of idiots”, and “a waste of time”. Granted, many of those are sensationalist titles for posts refuting exactly those things. Though the idiots are indeed plenty, online forums themselves are far from dead. Modelled on bulletin boards and UseNet of the 70s and 80s, forums are simply threaded discussions around a niche topic, with an invested core membership of subject matter experts. Usually. Naturally, a number of elements are needed to ensure ongoing usefulness, but as a framework for building knowledge and community, they’re pretty solid.

I’ve been an avid participant of different forums over the years. (Catching up on new posts is a great way to fill in time between those adrenaline-induced moments of “stuff is broken!” in a tech support job.) But when Facebook, Twitter, and other activity stream-style options appeared, forums suddenly looked a bit dated.

Online forums haven’t seen much innovation in that time. Some still look dated, while others like Vanilla, have improved the user experience somewhat. Game mechanics, forum analytics, search, curation and moderation functionality are all features that make forum management and engagement easier, especially when aligned with purpose. But the framework of the forum hasn’t changed much because it doesn’t have to. The structure is familiar, and versatile.

Let’s consider what forums offer:

Persistent topics – People can read and add to threads and topics any time, at a time that suits them. There’s more opportunity for a discussion to grab attention than in an activity stream where it might scroll by and escape notice.
Taxonomy – The structure of sub-forums and categories provides a browsable taxonomy. With thoughtful management, that taxonomy can grow as the community needs it to.
Deep engagement – Forums are an efficient many-to-many platform of communication, but they also allow for one-to-one and one-to-many conversations that add to the overall knowledge of the group.
Owned platform – Forums can be owned and managed by the organisations and communities who use them, which puts the security of the data in the hands of the owners; and they won’t be subject to changes at the whim of a provider.
Searchability – As long as relevancy and quality are part of the algorithm, forum searches can return related posts irrespective of age.

While I think forum software doesn’t need a whole lot of innovation, it’s the attitudes to adoption and use that do. Purpose is paramount. Clearly define and communicate the reason for the forum’s existence. Measure the engagement and the contribution to the related business outcomes. Moderation may be critical to a good experience, or maybe you’ll just need to set some guidelines for self-governance. With care and consistency, forums are fertile ground for long-lived relationships and ongoing learning, so don’t write them off yet.

7 Ways Self-service is like a ShamWow

Like late-night TV, the mind can go from the sublime to the ridiculous when it’s dark and quiet. And so here I am with 7 reasons why self-service forums are like a ShamWow.

1. ShamWow’s in your face around the clock

Just like those ads, self-service forums can run around the clock. And if you have a thriving user community, those customers posting questions to the forums can get anecdotal advice and crowd-sourced help while you’re asleep or watching TV.

2. ShamWow is portable

That’s right the ShamWow can go anywhere. Keep one in the house, the car, the boat, the RV. Take a look at Mary Meeker’s 2012 Year End Update. Here’s just one slide that proves escalating mobile use. There’s plenty more in the full report.

Smartphone adoption

Mobile-friendly self-service portals give customers access to support wherever they might be at the time. Your entire knowledge base could be in their pocket.

3. ShamWow just does the work; why work twice as hard?

Why waste effort on solving issues that have been solved before? You’ve got knowledgeable users, so capitalise on that. You’ve got knowledgeable staff, so capitalise on that. Self-service puts those answers in front of the people who need them, at the time they need them, without you having to hunt those answers down again and again.

4. Once I got a ShamWow, I couldn’t live without it.

Self-explanatory. But if you need convincing, listen to this webcast of Peter McGarahan talking to William G. Purcell, from Paychex, Inc. He’s a big believer in KCS and self-service.

5. You’re gonna spend $20 on paper towels anyway; you’re throwing your money away.

How many of you have a self-service portal as part of your support toolset? How many of you have left it sitting empty and unused or outdated and unused? You’re paying for it, anyway; put it to work.

6. ShamWow is great for everyday use.

Self-service fills a range of support needs—FAQs, a place to collect and prioritise feature requests, customer engagement, standard troubleshooting and how-tos.

7. ShamWow sells itself. It lasts ten years; a sponge lasts a week.

Self-service forums enable you to retain and reuse knowledge gained from your support interactions over and over.

Want more? Here’s the ShamWow guy himself. Watch the video and see if you can come up with more. In the meantime, I’m off to buy a ShamWow.

Thanks to @sitare21 @PeterJLijnse @rfsis1 and @StuartRance for the late night twitter banter that inspired this post.