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Forum Software vs. Online Community Platforms

By Joshua Paul | Small Business

Where do your customers go for support? Despite the simplicity of the question, there are several factors that make the answer unique to your organization.

The first part revolves around the behavior of your customers. Even though they may prefer to speak with a live person, research indicates that 90% of people go to the web, before calling or emailing your company. Does this stats match your experience with your customers?

The other half of the equation is the online self-service options that your organization provides to support your customers. Your customers can’t take advantage of online support options that are not there.

Web Self-Service Customer Support Options Are Evolving

Increasingly, companies are implementing online systems to meet their customers’ demand for web self-service knowledge. According to CRM Magazine, almost half of businesses that offer web or mobile self-service support options reported a reduction in customer support phone calls.

Top tier research firm, Gartner, forecasts that by 2020, customers will manage 85% of their relationship with companies without interacting with a human. However, narrowing down your company’s online support choices can be a tedious and overwhelming process, particularly in light of the abundance of technical and social business jargon on the web.

To help you decide, we’re comparing two options: discussion forum software and online community software platforms.

Choosing Between Customer Forums and Customer Communities

Online support forums are a popular option for many businesses. Companies leverage peer-to-peer interactions to lower support costs. Plus, forums build a sense of loyalty and belonging by giving your customers access to other customers and experts in their field, as opposed to interacting with only your company.

By nature, people like to help each other. Online support forums are filled with people willing to give explicit and authentic answers to your customers’ questions.

However, depending on the structure of your organization, standalone forum software might not be the right solution to support your online self-service support needs. Particularly if ongoing customer engagement is a driving force behind customer retention and developing customer advocates, your online support strategy might need more functionality than forum discussions.

In this case, an online customer community platform might be a better fit. While online community software does include discussion forums, they can also offer an array of other features to keep customers informed and engaged.

Forum Software vs. Online Community Platforms image forum software vs online community softwareForum Software vs. Online Community Platforms

To help arm you with the right information to make the best decision for your business and customers, let’s take a look at some of the similarities and differences between forum tools and online community software.

Similarities Between Forum Software and Online Community Platforms

The main overlap between these two customer service options is that they both offer online discussion forums, whether standalone (forum software) or as part of a more robust community-building strategy (customer community platforms).

The following is the basis for their common advantages:

  • Peer-To-Peer Support. Both options are great for generating peer-to-peer support activity. Offering social support through customer forums lowers customer service and support costs while creating a positive customer experience.
  • Familiarity. Since discussion boards or forums have been around in various forms online for quite some time, they offer a framework that customers or members recognize, know how to use, and can easily understand.
  • Conversations. Both forum and online communities options facilitate the number one thing members want to do in professional networks: have discussions and network with their peers.

Now that you have an idea of what forums and online communities have in common, let’s break down the differences so you can narrow in on the best choice for your organization.

The Differences Between Forum Software and Online Community Platforms

  • Simplicity. Forum software’s basic functionality requires less training. If the other elements that come with online community software aren’t attractive to your business or organization now or as your operation grows, simple might be better.
  • Number of Ways to Engage. Speaking of those other elements, online communities have more features that create value and help keep your customers or members engaged. From event management tools and secure resource libraries to built-in customer feedback surveys, email, and wikis, online communities offer several different options to engage with your customers beyond discussions.
  • Segmentation. With forum software, your customers or members will likely have access to a single discussion forum. In contrast, online community software enables segmentation of discussions and information to accommodate different products lines, customers types, or strategies.
  • Design. Forum software usually has fewer design features than a full online community platform with a built-in content management system. This added flexibility enables your private social community to match your brand more seamlessly.
  • Integrated Listservs. In addition to having forums, online community platforms also have a built-in email listserv so customers or members can participate in forum discussions through their email inboxes.
  • Analytics. Online community software allows you to track progress with deeper engagement analytics to give you a better idea of how and in what capacity your customers or members are participating.
  • Integration. Online communities tend to have tighter integration with CRM systems or association management software, which allows you to push or pull data from the two systems and create a better experience for your customers.
  • Implementation Time. The implementation time for forum software is less involved than an online community platform. Sometimes, launching a discussion forum is as easy as copying a script into your HTML page, whereas online community strategies involve more planning and resources.
  • All-In-One Customer Engagement. Online customer community platforms can act as a “one-stop-shop” for the information that is important to customers or members. Since forums usually only offer discussion boards, community members need to access other systems to get the other information they’re looking for from your company or about your products.

Making the Best Choice for Your Business or Membership Organization

Questions to Ask Yourself

With these similarities and differences in mind, here are a few questions to ask that will help narrow down your self-service support network technology:

#1) How Many Groups Will You Manage?

Since most forum software can’t nest groups very well, an online community might be the way to go if you want to segment discussions to keep them relevant for users of different products or member types (e.g. partners vs. customers). However, if your business or membership organization is operating on a smaller scale, forums are  a simpler option.

#2) How Much Security Is Needed For Your Discussions?

If maintaining the privacy of customer information and activity data is a big concern for your organization, the flexibility and strong secure model of private online community software is probably the better option for your business or membership organization.

#3) Do You Need to Track Membership and Collect Dues?

Online community platforms can help manage membership and dues on an individual or company level. However, if you don’t have membership requirements now or plan to track membership in your community in the future, this might be an unnecessary feature.

#4) What Type Of Information Will Your Members Want To Share?

This question will give insight into whether a discussion-only forum platform is enough for your customers or if you need more the extensive profile and engagement options of online communities. This extra might include crowdsourcing product feature requests, video libraries, and blogs.

#5) What Is Your Long-Term Strategy for Customer or Member Engagement?

It is important to overlay long-term thinking on your social technology decisions so that you don’t find your organization invested in software that can’t support your strategy. Maybe forum software would be enough for your business or membership organization right now, but will it satisfy your customer engagement needs in the future?

Forum Software vs. Online Community Platforms Takeaway

Though having options can often complicate a decision, knowing the pros and cons of your choice can help you make the decision that best benefits your company and customers.

There isn’t a right and wrong answer when it comes to choosing between forum software and online community software. However, both have distinct differences and advantages that you should carefully consider and compare to establish the right foundation for achieving your business or membership organization’s support and engagement goals.

Forum Software vs. Online Community Platforms image 38633e2b 4ea2 4c30 aff3 c3109d429325Forum Software vs. Online Community Platforms

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