Look no further, in this post we’ll cover everything you need to know about choosing forum software for your online community.
Where do your customers like to gather?
If you answered Facebook, then you’re probably right. But where do they go when they want to have a proper conversation or get real advice? It’s not likely to be on social media, where posts either get lost amongst a crowded newsfeed full of ads and cat memes, or even worse, they get trolled by unwanted comments and opinions from keyboard warriors.
Chances are, your customers will head to smaller online communities on Reddit or question and answer communities like Quora. Others include niche forums; focus groups where members unite under a common interest or purpose. And those communities are probably built around forum software, one of the cornerstones of the internet.
What online forums are… and what they’re not
Let’s start by clarifying what forum software is and what it does.
Back in the day, forums offered a way for people to build friendships and connect with others from all over the world. You could even consider them precursors to what social media has now become.
But, despite the rise of social media, forums haven’t lost their place on the web. People still use them to share information, ask questions, and troubleshoot challenges they’re having.
Although social media sites can achieve these things too, the fact that we’re bombarded with content doesn’t exactly make it easy for people to find information or get the answers they need as easily as they would on a forum.
Forums are public social communities based around a shared interest, the many subforums on Reddit being a popular example. They all serve a similar function – to give people a space to share their interests, primarily in the form of text-based content.
But forums aren’t really the same thing as social networks. Forums are normally categorised by topics, whereas social networking is all about friends and followers. That’s why social media puts more emphasis on private and instant messaging and, these days, even voice and video calls.
How to have the best of both worlds
If you want to create the best community experience for your customers in 2020, then relying on outdated forum software isn’t going to cut it. But you probably won’t see much engagement on social media either. So, what’s the solution?
You could find a happy medium that blends together the best of both worlds.
Luckily for you, modern forum software makes it possible. When you can build a community of your own, you don’t have to play by the rules of the big social networks. You don’t even have to use their branding. Instead, you can pick and choose the features that are important to you, and have a look and feel that’s consistent with your brand. With a mobile-ready solution, people can even engage with your brand, and with each other, while they’re on the move.
The 5 non-negotiables of choosing forum software
Modern forum software is a lot different from older solutions. After all, you don’t want your community forums looking like a Usenet discussion board from the 90s. If you’re not even sure what those are, then it’s probably for the best. There are a few features and functions all community forums should have, so we’ll start with those:
Actually, it’s probably better to say mobile-first. One of the biggest issues with old-school forum software is how non-user-friendly it is on the small screen. We’re so used to using our smartphones to check social media, watch videos on YouTube, and Google answers to everything. Using your community should be just as easy as doing any of those things. Sure, having a web-based version for the big screen is a big bonus, but chances are most of the time your audience spends engaging with your community will be spent on the small screen.
You probably wouldn’t be reading this article if you were set on putting all your efforts into building your community on Facebook. For your brand to take centre stage, you’ll want an app which lets you apply your own brand colours, background, and logos. You can do that with all open-source forum software, but unless you or someone you know has some coding skills, it’s probably better to go for a white-label solution that you can easily customise yourself. Remember, simplicity is key to getting your new community off the ground fast!
#3. Direct messaging
Discussion forums are traditionally public, and people don’t normally use them to send direct messages. But since we’re talking about community forum software, you’ll probably want a way for your members to message each other privately and perhaps even add people to lists of friends. This is great for helping your audience get to know each other, and it’s good for your brand as well. After all, when people become a part of a community that’s closely attached to your brand, they’ll be more loyal to the company behind it as well.
#4. Content management
There’s not much point in having a branded community if it ends up being a complete free-for-all. To keep your audience engaged, you’ll want to publish your own content, like articles, videos, and images. It also helps if you can keep everything in one place. Community forums are also good for publicising events and important updates. You’ll need a way to manage all this content, as well as keep an eye on what your members are posting. Members should also be able to moderate each other’s posts and report any unwanted behaviour.
#5. Privacy and security
OK, we understand it’s boring, but this is a big one. It’s also an increasingly important selling point. More and more people are growing tired of giving away their personal information to big advertising companies to sell and use as they wish. We’re looking at you, Facebook-Cambridge Analytica.
One of the huge benefits of using your own community forum software is that your data remains yours and yours alone. Your members will appreciate your efforts to give them an exclusive and private space to keep in touch, and that’s a clear competitive advantage over the major social channels.
Buy or build your own – how far should you go?
There isn’t a single software vendor in existence which can be all things to all communities. That’s why many of the world’s biggest companies develop their own forum software in-house. But they’ve also got armies of software developers, huge budgets, and some pretty unique requirements. Let’s look at the options, and find out what sort of companies they’re best for:
Build your own forum software
Every company is unique, so it stands to reason that the only way to get exactly what you want is to build your own. At least, that’s how it could work in theory. We’re really only mentioning this for the sake of transparency because, unless you’re running a big enterprise, building your own forum software or social media app probably isn’t practical.
It costs an average of $171,450 to build a mobile app. On top of that, you need to think about upkeep and future upgrades, not to mention it takes several months to build a viable product. There’s also a very real risk of diverting your attention away from what matters most – tending to the needs of your target audience.
Enterprise-grade forum software
These are the ready-made solutions tailored to the needs of bigger businesses. They’re often customisable, but they also offer a whole range of features that are likely to overwhelm businesses.
Enterprise platforms are more expensive and complex for a reason – they’re built for a much wider range of needs, and they have to support huge workloads. That means they have steeper learning curves, and they often get steeper. Also, in their efforts to accommodate a lot of demanding users, they may end up adding too many features rather than sticking with a narrower focus.
Small-business forum software
Small businesses crave simplicity and affordability. But luckily, that doesn’t have to mean compromising on quality. Some forum software designed for small businesses doesn’t offer a very complete experience. They might only offer a handful of very simple functions like link-sharing or content curation. But then there are also white-label apps like our very own Disciple platform. Solutions like ours are most suitable for niche communities and small businesses which want to provide a familiar but unique experience their members will love.
The beauty of using a white-label solution is that you have a working platform right out of the box. All you need to do is apply your branding, choose which features and functions you want, and publish your app on the app stores. By choosing a service-based solution like ours, you can even have your app published and maintained for you. That means you can get your community up and running in less time for less money.
Is community forum software the best choice for your business?
Every brand has customers and potential customers. More often than not, those people will come together to share their experiences. They may head to Twitter to look for service status updates. They may ask their friends on Facebook for recommendations on the latest things to buy. Others could head to online discussion groups on Quora or Reddit looking for advice from experts in the field they’re interested in. Your biggest customers may even go to such lengths as publishing lengthy reviews or guides on using your product or service. The list goes on.
By giving your target audience a place they can call home, away from all the distractions of social media and discussion forums, you can join in the conversation. And that’s when you take that first big step towards becoming a more customer-centric brand, whether it’s by using modern forum software, a mobile social networking app, or, perhaps something that provides the best of both worlds. Hint hint – that’s us!