Online forums have been around since the 1990s, although the technology for an online bulletin board was actually invented in the 1970s. Over time, forums developed the features we recognize today: logons, member profiles, threads, etc. In this article, we’ll introduce you to the forum, and explain how online forums work, and share advantages and disadvantages of starting a forum–whether you’ve got a passion to share or you’re thinking of adding one to an existing brand or business.
What is a forum?
Forum definition: A forum is a gathering of individuals who come together to express their ideas, opinions, and concerns. A forum requires open dialogue and should be a safe space to exchange differing ideas, whether it’s online or in person. A forum is relatively “flat” in terms of power dynamics; it may have Hosts or conveners who guide the discussion, but every member should have the ability to contribute if they choose.
What are forums used for?
- Meeting like-minded people and finding community.
- Organizing conversations around things you care about.
- Expressing differing ideas of opinions.
- Finding answers to questions.
- Mastering goals together
- Organizing customer service or delivering information.
- Getting honest feedback I'm hearing from constituents or members.
- Helping people feel heard.
What is an online forum?
An online forum is an internet space structured around and dedicated to conversation, usually through posting questions, answers, and responses. Like an in-person forum, online forums should also present a flat power dynamic and celebrate the safe exchange of ideas and opinions.
Online forums do not usually happen in real-time. Many popular discussion forums are conversations that carry out over months and even years, as users keep adding new input. By archiving past responses and arranging posts (either in order of posting or by popularity), a forum can host an engaging discussion that is carried out over days, months, or even years.
Some online forums are built around a special interest, anything from organic gardening tips to fiery political debates. Some are built around a product, like the community of bookkeepers who trade notes about using Quickbooks, the accounting software.
Whatever topic the online forum is dedicated to, a successful one needs users who will continue to come back and engage, putting their time and energy into keeping the conversation alive.
An online forum can be a section of a website that is dedicated to other things. This is common with forums for popular products and services. For example, the Adobe website is technically dedicated to its products and sales. But since these products are complicated to use, an online forum with a mixture of paid employees and loyal fans devote themselves to answering questions.
The best and most active online forums are those that happen as part of a vibrant community–we’ll get to that.
Advantages of online forums
- Bring members together around shared interests and passions.
- Members create content and respond to questions, and user-generated content lets you scale fast
- People naturally organize and join discussions that interest them
- Forums can provide incredible value at scale and first-hand experiences
- Software solutions make forms more engaging and robust than ever
- A forum can easily become a thriving digital business
- Good forums grow through word of mouth–people will tell their friends about great conversations
Disadvantages of online forums
- They need to be moderated–either by a host or by software–to make sure members feel safe.
- It's easy to get lost with the activity between logons–that's why a good activity feed is a must.
- They can fizzle out. That's why great host needs to keep the conversation going.
What are online forums for?
Online forms have been around for a few decades now, and most of us have gotten used to them in one form or another. Here are some of the things we use online forums for:
- Social networking: Sites like Quora and reddit have turned forums into giant social media companies devoted to questions and answers. Reddit has 55 million daily users in its forums.
- Brand communities: Active online brand communities have become a place people can go for customer service, share tips and knowledge, and even to meet fellow brand enthusiasts. For example, Apple has a volunteer forum that answers questions about its products. QuickBooks has an active forum of business owners and accountants who get help with the product. And here on Mighty, the women's apparel company Oiselle has a powerful brand community where women share fitness tips, make lasting friendships, and even give ideas for new products.
- Customer forums: Even though there's some crossover between a customer forum and a vibrant brand community, it's worth drawing a line here. Some brands have stuck a forum onto their existing website, and there's nothing happening there. Somebody may ask a question now and then.
- Online communities: We know that an online community is so much more than a forum, but most online community platforms still share some features of a traditional forum. Organized user discussions, responses appear under existing threads, and mixed together with awesome features like livestreaming, courses, events, and membership options, a forum can be part of a healthy community.
- Special interest forums: These still exist on different websites, and are basic forums dedicated to a topic of interest to the users. They lack the robust engagement to be considered an online community, but people show up and ask and answer questions. For example, we found Model Train Forum.com is a forum dedicated to creating model railroads.
How to use an online forum as a business
- Unlock member-led growth. When you use a forum as part of an online community, and give your members a place to belong, you've got a model for growth like no other. There's a new generation of businesses doing this. If your business can gather people around a shared purpose, help them feel belonging, and keep them connected, the sky is the limit.
- Put your customer service on autopilot. Most brands need some type of customer service. But what if you could create a place where your supers would show up and use their knowledge to answer members questions for free? That's a value proposition.
- Help your members succeed. Even as a brand forum, people don't show up to be sold to. They show up to get value. Figure out what they want and help them succeed–even if it's just making sure they are getting the most out of your product or service.
- Add a community. Maybe your brand can benefit from the network effect that community gives. When you add a community and take the time to set it up and launch.
7 Examples of online forums
The GHF Forum: A forum dedicated to families who have kids who are gifted. It teaches them how to educate a gifted child at home, whether they are a homeschooler, a hybrid schooler, or a public schooler.
The BWBJ Black Birthworkers Forum: A forum dedicated to Black birthworkers supporting each other, sharing tips, and answering questions.
The Little Tern Forum: An online forum dedicated to little tern conservation across the British Isles. Since different regions and governments are all sharing challenges with preserving little tern colonies, The Little Tern Project allows them to share knowledge and best practices and to get their questions answered.
reddit- Reddit is an online forum and a global social media network. Passionate users devote themselves to the conversation, with the best answers receiving an upvote. The platform itself is one giant online forum, with thousands of divisions into specific topics: AKA subreddits. The conversation can be everything and anything, from celebrities to hobbies to religion.
Quora- Quora is another massive online forum, dedicated exclusively to questions. Users can ask questions like, "Is 35 too late to go back to school?" or " What's something you've learned that you wish you knew sooner?" It’s a lot of fun and easy to fall down the rabbit hole of the fascinating stories users share.
Quickbooks- The Quickbooks online forum is a dedicated community of accountants and bookkeepers who trade their knowledge of the software. Users receive a rating based on their knowledge of the product to help readers understand the reliability of the information. It’s a treasure trove of support, especially for business owners who do their own books and can get stuck on simple questions like, “How do I combine multiple invoices.”
Adobe- As mentioned above, Adobe makes a suite of creative products, dedicated to photography, video, audio, and more. The products are extensive, but also complicated, meaning that users are constantly learning and the product is constantly evolving. The online forum creates the support users need to get the most out of their product.
Online forum sites
If you love the idea of starting a conversation with your own online forum, creating your own Mighty Network might be just the ticket.