When their purpose is clear and managing them is organized, forums can be one of a company's most valuable tools to share information, solve problems, inspire ideas, and develop engagement among companies' internal and external communities.
Forums can seem like the wild west of online communities. Potentially thousands of people passionately engaging - or feuding - over topics of shared interest, with moderators riding shotgun and trying to keep order. But forums can be harnessed for good and can be a fantastic way to connect and converse with co-workers, partners, and customers.
Forums offer amazing communications flexibility. They can enable conversations of just about any kind. People can ask and get answers to questions, brainstorm, seek feedback, or get assistance with issues. With internal forums, staff can save time and effort trying to find information or resources. Subject matter experts can quickly and efficiently determine where their time and expertise are best focused.
What makes forums work well
The range of platform functions goes a long way toward forums' success. Some of the features that Igloo's Forums app offer that enhance user experience include:
Clear forum types. discussions, ideas, problems, or questions. Each forum channel can be set up to support one or several of these types, depending on the company's and community's needs. This functionality helps guide conversations, and members can easily understand what inquiries best fit where. These delineations also assist in organizing and filtering content, grouping it for analysis, and enabling clear reporting. Igloo's built-in social analytics enables you to track resolution time for different topic types, helping you track if problems are solved faster than questions are answered. It can help you determine what resources are effective (or missing).
Voting on content. Members can vote content up or down anonymously to surface the best answers, help make decisions, or concur with suggested fixes that helped them. Voting is also a great way to showcase subject matter experts and community champions and display the best content in widgets.
Concluding topics. When the best, most accurate answer (or answers) has been posted, it can be marked as definitive. It then becomes "sticky" and appears at the top of the thread so people know that no further input is required. This is handy when you just want The Answer, rather than perusing the whole thread. It's also a great way to identify who really knows their stuff over time, and to report on how many threads get "solved" in a given time frame.
Sorting and filtering. You have a question or problem and you're busy. You don't have the time or interest to go scrolling through long conversations. You just want to find the right information, now. Sort by status (new, resolved, unresolved), and on criteria like topic type and date range. As valuable as this functionality is for members to find information, it's also a great administrative tool to find unaddressed or ageing issues to improve customer satisfaction.
Thread and post management. Sometimes content ends up in the wrong place - a support inquiry ends up on a product thread, for example. Admins can move the thread, or just off-topic posts. This helps the company maintain order in its forums, helps people find what they need where they expect to see it, and helps train members on correct post creation and placement.
Moderation and editing. Sometimes people get a little sloppy or a little heated, and need to be reminded to keep things professional. Or someone mentions something that's not quite public knowledge yet. Moderators can be assigned to preview posts before they go live; edit posted content, topics, or types of posts; send feedback to the person posting; or outright reject a post if necessary. While internal company forums have a tendency towards professionalism, it's always good to know you can enforce the ability for everyone to play nice.
An ounce of prevention
It's important before implementing forums to determine what they're needed for, what they will be used for, what the company hopes to gain by adding them, and what they hope their community will gain. Who will have access to them, and what can they post? Who will be moderating and who will be responsible for ensuring questions get answers and issues get addressed? What will be an acceptable response time frame? Answering these questions will give you a framework of what kind of community you'll build with your forums.
It's also important to discuss and determine, insofar as you can in advance:
- guidelines for acceptable content and behaviour
- escalation path
- who internally "owns" each forum channel, or the forums as a whole
- what degree of editing/removal is acceptable for moderators
- who will manage responses to complaints or forums-related inquiries
- what the company's responsibilities are from a legal and security perspective.
And, of course, it's important that all of the forum's rules and guidelines be clearly written for members and prominently displayed.
Igloo's forums have settings at the individual level, determining which types of content (discussions, ideas, problems, or questions) will be encouraged, or which combination of types. User permissions, groups, and moderation are also set at the individual forum level to ensure each one has the right balance of encouraging discourse and keeping things tidy.
Key features in any forum are those that enable members and administrators to clearly and accurately express themselves, whether it's succinctly explaining a question or how to fix a problem. Igloo's forums enable rich text formatting in posts, and the inclusion of images and file attachments (you can never have enough screenshots). Responses to posts are inline and chronological, so discussions are easy to follow.
Igloo's forums also offer widgets that can bring greater visibility to new, highly ranked, or as yet unsolved content, recent comments, and other parameters that help keep staff abreast of community needs and engagement.
Combine these features and you have an incredibly efficient workflow. For example: Person A creates a post explaining a decision that needs to be made and lists some options. A discussion follows, with people voting on their preferred option, offering other suggestions, asking questions about ramifications, etc. Eventually, the preferred solution becomes clear, and is marked as definitive. Then a staff member can attach or link to next steps information: a project room, a wiki, etc. and the discussion can move from forum inquiry to real world project.
Of course, while this process is going on, you'll want to be kept in the loop of how the discussion is going, if your input is needed, if a decision has been made, etc. You can follow a forum or posts to get notifications on updates, and you can customize them depending on how often you want to be alerted to changes. Or, if you weren't involved in a discussion but need to be, another member can post anfor you, flagging you to join the conversation and provide input. You can even contribute to a discussion right from the notifications, simply by replying to the email to leave a comment.
It doesn't even matter where you happen to be when you're asked to join the conversation. With Igloo's forums app, you can contribute directly on the forum via desktop, tablet, on your phone, or even by email.
Forums can be the wild west, but they don't have to be. By planning out in advance what the company and community need and the best way to format that, they can be an ideal way to engage with other teams or customers. Forums can facilitate greater brainstorming, information sharing, problem solving, and improve customer service. All of which are benefits worth upvoting.