Why most forums fail before the community can support itself

Written by on October 24, 2013

Despite being the best place to build your brand, customer-driven communities have always earned bad press. Too little activity, and new customers just walk past the “empty graveyard”. Too much, and the noise overtakes any value a customer could get.

Then again, websites like GmatClub, Ubuntu forums and Reddit have built their entire user experience around the community. I’ve noticed that throwing out a question to the community on Shopify gets me answers way faster (and more accurate) than through traditional email. It makes sense too – after all, community forums have completely changed the support game from one-to-one email to many-to-many.

So user driven communities are the greatest assets your support team can have?

Kind of. Done well, community forums can do lots more than just easing your support load. Active communities become hotbeds for customers to get even more engaged with your brand, attracting more customers to join your side of the game.

But more hands on deck may not necessarily mean a good thing. In fact, there are some reasons why your community forums may go horrendously wrong for your customer support.  And once your community starts picking up trolls and grime, it’s impossible to break out of the downward spiral.

Umm.. So community forums suck for supporting customers?

Not quite either. If you are in the business of providing unique, personalized services to every customer, you aren’t going to drive enough volume in your community discussions. Or if you’ve signed a pact of secrecy with your clients, it makes sense to keep the door closed on interactions.

The toughest part in running a community forum is feeding it till it reaches critical mass and becomes self-sustaining. And that little ride from the Graveyard to Critical Mass can be quite bumpy. Not to mention that everyone and their grandmother will be telling you all sorts of reasons why you shouldn’t even be on this trip. Here are the three usual reasons most businesses site for pulling the plug on their community forums, and how you could get over these hurdles:

#1: Most users don’t know how to use forums

Most users are just one-time fellas who pop in and write their queries on random active threads. They don’t have a clue about forum etiquette and most people don’t even stick around for a reply let alone contribute anything useful to the conversation.

Getting across this hurdle: Reddit is enough proof to demonstrate that most of the known world is familiar with forum etiquette. And the part that isn’t, is not on the Internet. The problem then? Two words. Forum Structure. A well designed forum shows your users where they should be posting what. A badly organized forum confuses users with all the noise. And at the end of the day, users have no idea where to look for what. On a side note, it might be a good idea to post a sticky thread explicitly letting users know the etiquette of your forums.

#2 Most community questions don’t mean much to the user base at large.

The popular customer questions and their definitive answers get captured in your knowledge base. In most cases, community discussions end up with offbeat, random and not-very-common issues that probably don’t mean much to the larger crowds. And that’s scary – because your community then doesn’t mean much to the “average Joe”.

But the silver lining is, there is no way you could have actually thought out all those edge case scenarios and written out explanations on your knowledge base. If you plotted out the traffic to each topic in your forums by the specific problem area they discussed you’d see a nice big bump up ahead, and a steep taper that seems to go on forever.

Courtesy: Leftclick.com

SEO experts and marketing folks call this the “long tail” of keyword distribution. While these out-of-the-ordinary topics probably cater to very few of your customers, for the ones who do, it’s right there waiting for them. This is traffic that hits the spot without you even trying.

Getting across this hurdle: While each long tail topic is great for the 1% of customers who come searching for it, it could turn out to be a distraction to the rest. Organizing your community discussions by popularity ensures the topics that strike the chord with a majority of customers stay on top.

#3 Forum questions are better handled through email

Yes, you’d probably be able to answer your forum questions better through email. Now. But how does that help the other customers who are just too shy to ask? In most industries, fewer than 6% of customers who genuinely need your help end up asking you. By just responding to emails, you are involuntarily discouraging customers from sharing their thoughts and ideas with the world.

How to get over this hurdle: Seed discussions by pushing interesting support threads, issues and solutions for the rest of your customers in your community. You’ll be doing both this customer and everyone else who has this problem a favor.

There are about a zillion reasons why community forums fail. It’s a more sensitive channel than Facebook, Twitter and all the other channels in your service because it requires more than just one person’s enthusiasm to become successful. But the biggest barrier to building your community forums isn’t your customer’s lack of participation. It’s your impatience. Strong communities are built over time.

If that’s reason enough for you to invest in your customers, start building your community forums with Freshdesk right away. And if you have more tips and ideas, or just plain disagree with me, I’d love to learn from your comments below.

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  • Brandon

    Great post on forums! What are your thoughts on your forums being searchable as part of Knowledge (big K)


    • freshdesk

      Thanks, Brandon! Technically, forum topics do show up when you search at Support Home but I don’t think that’s what you’re getting at. Yes, it would be useful to have forum topics show up even when you’re specifically searching the big K, because of those elusive long tails.

  • Forums are great for community, but crap for efficient support. (Even after reading your new article)

    For support people, forums are just big lucky dip barrel. It’s so hard to track where requests are at.

    Forums need ways to manage requests. They need assignment, priority levels, statuses, filtering, categories and so on.

    Forums need to be much closer in features to a ticket system to improve their efficiency for support.

    I loathe forums for support – whether I’m asking or answering. It’s just too easy for stuff to disappear into the mire.

    For example, when I got into the ticket system, all I see are open or new requests. If I go into a forum I see everything. And I have to visit every forum – no ways of monitoring all open requests across all forums.

    I really like the in ZenDesk you can turn a forum request into a ticket, but really, if the forums had all the management features of the ticket system, the only time we’d need too take them to tickets would be for private info like when requesting user logins. And even that could be handled privately if you added branching to forum threads – i.e. create a private branch.

    There you go – I’ve given you the answers to revolutionise forums. :/ I was never going to get time to do it myself anyways. Hope you guys do