Using A Forum To Build Credibility

The Forum, RomeDo you know all your current and potential customers personally?

No of course you don’t. You can’t, you don’t know who they all are. And that means they don’t know you either.

The first point of contact with your potential customers is often your website. This then is your opportunity to demonstrate who you are, what you do, and your level of expertise. A well-managed forum can help you with this.

Although it takes time, allowing visitors to your site to ask technical questions to which you provide useful and knowledgeable answers is an excellent means of showing off your skills. You can also build empathy with your site visitors, becoming a “real” person with whom they can have a “real” conversation. You’re no longer just a name on the internet somewhere.

Other Sites

That’s on your own site. Of course another useful way to build credibility is by being a lurking expert on other people’s forums. This may additionally give you an opportunity of driving traffic to your own site, if you are able to put your web address in your signature or post.

Look for interest groups related to your work. Maybe there is a particular software you use which has an enthusiastic user community. Or is there a local networking group with a forum sharing experiences of trading in your area.

Common Guidelines

Whether it is your own or someone else’s forum to which you are contributing, the golden rules are the same:

1. Contribute regularly

2. Make your contributions relevant, useful, factual and courteous

3. Never disparage someone else’s contribution, even if it’s on your own site and you disagree. If you have to respond to someone breaking the rules of your own forum, explain that they are out of line but do so politely.

The Feedback Forum

The Influence of the “Impartial Review”

FeedbckBig retailers like Amazon have found that customers are being influenced more and more by the reviews of their products provided by other purchasers. Customer reviews are seen as being impartial, and reflect how the item in question is used in real life rather than ideal test conditions.

Naturally if you sell something and ask for reviews, you’re going to hope that those reviews will be a glowing tribute to the fantastic object just bought, and the superb service of the wonderful firm that sold it! Alas this won’t always be the case.

So why use a forum for collecting feedback?

Well the one thing about straightforward star ratings or quick reviews is that with some systems it’s difficult to respond. Ideally (and remembering that this could take time) you will want to use a Feedback Forum as a two-way conversation with your customers. Got positive feedback? Thank them and promise to keep up the good work. Got negative feedback? Well if it’s justified, apologise and explain how you’re going to do better. That makes you look human and genuine, likely to increase trust. If the complaint isn’t justified, at least you have the chance to put your side of the story.

But what if all I get is “moan moan moan”

Ouch. It could happen, and it’s not nice to be on the end of a moan. But do remember that if it’s a moan on your forum, you can see it, you have a chance to respond to it, and importantly, it’s telling you something you badly need to know about your products or services. In this Web 2.0 world, if your customer can’t tell you about their bad experience, you can be sure that they’re telling everyone else on Twitter, Facebook, or in extreme cases, the blog they’ve created specially for all your other dissatisfied customers to complain on! Think I’m exaggerating? Think again. I’ve seen just such a blog (generally to do with broadband.  *sighs*)

The saying “A complaint is an opportunity” applies

As with more traditional customer complaint handling, you can use the way you deal with forum feedback as a driver to making improvements to your products or to the way that you operate. Tell the customers through your forum and website what you’ve done! Now instead of just being any old supplier, you are a supplier with a human face who really cares about what customers think, responds positively to problems, and looks for opportunities to improve.

Do be careful to monitor comments and screen out gratuitous filth

Sadly not everyone is going to complain in a considered, rational and polite manner and you don’t want to put other users off reading your forum… Make sure you have clear forum rules about use of bad language and personal insults (ie not allowed!) and do avoid getting into libel difficulties. If the rules are clear, you can go in and edit posts to clean them up or delete if really off the wall. Do remember to explain why though.

Seek opinions on new products or features

If you’re worried about having to spend a lot of time moderating a feedback forum, you could open one for a limited time, purely as a way of canvassing views about new products. You could ask if there are missing features, or what  people think about the existing products. Although you could run a survey instead, using a forum allows you to go in and perhaps ask follow-up questions to clarify the points people make.

Many ways to use feedback

I hope I’ve convinced you that a feedback forum could have a place in your business. If you’re interested in implementing one, do contact me, Caroline Hogarth, at Sort Out Your Site.

The “More Ways To Use” Forum

Blue Peter makes imageFor anyone who grew up with Blue Peter on the BBC, it’s second nature to look at an object and think “I could make a Christmas Decoration/lovely present for Aunt Mabel/Tracey Island out of that”.  Do you sell “objects”? Well if so, wouldn’t it be great to collect together all your customers’ ideas of what else they’ve done with your products that you haven’t thought of yet?

That’s the idea behind this kind of forum.

It works for all kinds of  things.  Do you sell clothing? Ask buyers to post pictures of themselves in your outfits. Do you sell food? Ask for recipes – here you could encourage feedback from people who’ve tried out the recipes too.

Of course the “More Ways To Use..” forum is an ideal addition to any site which is selling the raw materials for making other things, whether that’s food or hobbycraft, or full-scale construction materials.

Your Own Ideas

Naturally you will have many ideas of your own on how your products could be used. These should be used to kick off the forum topics and invite comparisons and further success stories. I am of course assuming that we are not talking about any items subject to licensing requirements, since non-standard use of some things could be outside the license and create all kinds of problems.

But putting that aside, a great way of kicking off the forum would be to post pictures, recipes, worksheets or instructions for downloading. Then invite comments from readers, and encourage them to share their own stories.

You could offer an incentive such as a monthly prize for the best idea – this has an added benefit if you can get people to provide you with addresses for your mailing list at the same time.

People usually enjoy talking about their ideas and successes, especially to a receptive audience which will give them lots of appreciation. Make sure you at least are that appreciative audience! Commenting on people’s comments will inspire others to take part in a conversation. In no time, there you are personalising your company to its customer base, and inspiring confidence in the products.

Can you afford not to run a forum like this?!

As ever, you need to be vigilant about what is posted on your site. You or a team of invited moderators will need to check the comments and respond or prune as appropriate.

But so long as you sort out that aspect, you could end up with a self-generating, keyword rich resource helping your Search Engine  Optimisation and building customer  loyalty with less effort than you’d need to generate the same level of content yourself.

If you’d like a forum installing to complement your website, Sort Out Your Site would be very happy to help you.

Just Contact Us.

Using A Forum/Bulletin Board For Technical Support

FAQ pictureThis is an excellent way to both collect and answer “Frequently Asked Questions”.

Starting Up

Well you probably have a set of questions that you know people either have asked or will ask. Your first Topic should therefore be FAQ and you can list each one of your questions and the response. I’d suggest that you close this topic, so that users can’t simply add more comments or responses – set up a separate Topic for them to do that. Best to keep the FAQ section clean as it will be somewhere that you would expect a lot of traffic.

Developing the community

Allow new topics to spring up in something like an “Ask the Community” topic or subforum. You could divide this from the start into “Questions” and “Successes”.  Encourage users who have a query which isn’t covered in the FAQ to put it in the Questions section. You will naturally need to haunt this forum in order to provide answers, but you may well find that there are other enthusiasts who take part regularly. If some of these are genuinely helpful and keen, it could be worth your while to set them up as official “gurus” with some kind of incentive. As these are people who are not employed by you, you must remember to add some sort of disclaimer about answers on the site being given in good faith, and that views expressed are not necessarily representative of the Company.


As your community develops, you will need to keep a close eye on the content of your forum. If it starts to really get going, you may no longer be able to manage moderation (i.e. policing the content) yourself and you may need to rope in other moderators. This is where enthusiastic community members could perhaps be enlisted if you don’t have enough people in-house to manage it. You’ll need a set of clear rules for the forum, to ensure a consistent approach and avoid argument. Moderators should be invited, and some sort of incentive such as a discount for long-service or answering a particular number of queries could be a good idea. Special “rank” seems to go down well. Don’t forget that if the moderators themselves operate their own websites, and they are allowed to use a signature including a link, then that gives an additional benefit of increasing traffic to their site and is an incentive in its own right.

Building FAQ

Don’t forget to collect more FAQ from regular queries in the forum. Your main aim is customer service, and a customer would rather be able to go straight to the right place for an answer. I’ve seen too many boards where the answer to a common question is buried in a long discussion somewhere.

Which leads to another Must – make sure you have a good search facility as the forum grows. Only the desperate are going to spend a long time looking for an answer to their query. If they don’t find it quickly, they’ll search elsewhere and you’ll lose control of the answer they are given….

What Use is a Forum/Bulletin Board Anyway?

Zebra TalkingCapturing Conversations

I first came across forums in connection with one of my hobbies. Here at last was a means of communicating across the world with the otherwise isolated fellow-enthusiasts I’d longed to make contact with. Essentially, a forum or bulletin board is a way of capturing conversations on the internet. Unlike chat-rooms (or instant messaging services) where the individual messages are generally short and disposable, on a forum you can often include articles or instructions for discussion, and the responses are all captured and can be further organised if necessary into separate conversation “threads”.


Now if you think about it there are several ways in which capturing a conversation could benefit your business. This is a way of engaging and consulting your customers with relatively little effort or cost after all.

Here are some ideas. I’ll develop these in more detail in later posts.

1. Technical Support

Support fora are very popular in the IT world in particular. What a great idea to tap into the combined expertise of all the users of your particular product. You may well find that ideas are generated for new uses for the product, you will certainly pick up any signs of recurrent problems or weak areas, and so often enthusiastic users will come up with new ideas for incorporation – “It’s great but I wish it could do…”

2. More Ways To Use…

Sell something that can be made into something else? This could include foodstuffs or craft materials. A forum can be an excellent way to collect suggestions for recipes or patterns. You can seed it yourself and ask for contributions from customers – you could give prizes or discounts to encourage quality contributions.

3. Feedback

To be  used with caution and a stiff upper lip!

Feedback from customers is known to be a great influence on potential purchasers. How you answer the feedback is key – if there is a complaint or dissatisfaction you’ll need to deal with it, and publish the results. However if you’re really serious about your customer service and product quality, this could be a powerful tool in your favour.

4. Building Credibility

Particularly useful for consultants who are basically selling information and their own expertise. If you set the scene by creating a series of articles and then inviting comments to which you respond, you are establishing your own expertise and developing that essential sense of relating individually to potential clients.

Don’t forget that if any of these forums are directly connected/part of your website, then all the information that is generated on the fora will contribute to your search engine optimisation efforts. Just imagine, loads of new, keyword-rich  content that you haven’t had to write yourself!

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