While a forum can be an important part of a flourishing online community, there are other things you can do to provide more value to your users.
Community does not always equal forum, but forums are often part of that equation. Ideally, your community will have more than just forums, and here are a few ideas of what you can build. Some of these are hard, and some are easy, but all will add more value to your online community.
- Community-supported reference lists
It can be as easy as starting a wiki document with a table template and allowing your community members to add to the list, or you can go all-out and build a web application with a fancy UI and a database on the back end. The purpose is to provide your users with a place they can maintain reference information, such as hardware compatibility, supported drivers, regional resellers, retail locations, etc. To see which of these your community may like, read your forums and see if there’s a type of question that comes up all the time, e.g. “Who carries this brand in Wichita?” and then you’ll know.
- User group infrastructure
If your peeps want to form user groups, be a darling and give them a place to coordinate. It can be just a forum on your existing community platform, or something new, but the key is to give the users control of their groups and stay out as much as you can.
They can be open to public, or invitation-only, but integrating your beta programs with your community efforts is always a good thing. Let’s say all your betas are non-public, which is often the case. Sifting through forums, you may find your most engaged users, and those who are very knowledgeable about a given product, so you may invite them to participate in your beta. As a result, they will feel special, and when the product comes out, they will have more in-depth knowledge to better help other users.
- VIP program
Speaking of special people, you should think of starting a VIP program. While this means that you’ll have to run a whole additional community on top of all the work than you already do, the payback in mindshare and good karma can be immense. By building a core of super-fans of your brand you invest in long-term evangelism. Often you don’t even have to do much more than recognize them in public and give them access to the people they respect inside your company. It would be better of course if you could run programs such as embargoed pre-launch briefings and focus groups with them, as well as provide discounts and exclusive opportunities to them. However, you’ve gotta start somewhere, and a little recognition goes a long way.
- Customer advisory council
Same as with VIP programs, listening to your customers may be one of the most powerful tools you have for increasing engagement and also just finding out what your users want to see from you in the future. Attaching that to your community will provide visibility to this program and even people who aren’t on the Council will feel like you are doing your homework and listening to your customers by just seeing that it is there. Of course, you would have to get buy-in from your R&D people to actually engage with the Council, or otherwise you’ll have a bunch of disgruntled influencers on your hands!
- Influencer outreach
And now that we’re talking about influencers, creating a special community program–be it a dedicated private forum or something more sophisticated–is also going to get you a lot of return on investment. Nurturing your relationships with key influencers is important, whether they like you or not. If someone hasn’t written a favourable review of your product yet, information-starving and excluding them will not change that. You will only be able to change your critic’s mind after you find out why they think your products suck. And you won’t find that out until you engage with them.
- Community blogs
Some people have their own blog, and some (like yours truly here) have multiple. Most people however don’t. Providing an opportunity to create a relevant blog on your community platform may convince some people to post their thoughts about your products and brand every so often. Starting a blog is like staring at a blank page: intimidating. When you have an opportunity to contribute to an existing blog aggregator, this barrier may be reduced. I can hear it already: “But what if they write something wrong? What if they write something negative?” If they are wrong, other community members will correct them. If they are negative–better they be negative in your “clean and well-lit place” where other people may respond with positive comments and endorsements, than somewhere else.
- Community lists and aggregators
Start creating and maintaining lists of social media profiles of the people you would like your community to follow: Twitter lists, blog aggregators, that sort of thing. If you are afraid people will get confused between the official and external content, maintain two of each: “Official corporate blogs” and “Community blog roll;” “Official Twitter list” and “Community twitter list.” You get the idea. Again, takes work, and you have to have a way to keep these lists tidy, but it pays off in higher visibility for the content you want to be noticed.
These are just a few ideas that you can incorporate. To answer the title question: No, it doesn’t always have to be a forum, but having one is usually a good start.