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To Forum or Not to Forum

Is there an acid test for whether or not a community warrants a forum?



5:50 pm on Sep 20, 2009 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

I am seriously considering setting up my very first forum and I am determined to make it a success, however I fear that the intended audience may be too small and/or not "addictive" enough to keep it going. The topic of interest is the same as an eCommerce store that I am already running. I have the following goals in mind, although the priorities could change later:

1. Give the general Internet audience a place to go to ask and get their questions answered about my (and my competitor's) products. This will hopefully reduce the number of questions (industry wide) about trying to identify the brand they currently have and other useless customer support calls that never lead to sales. The questions about proper selection, identification, and installation are too specific and numerous to put into an FAQ or anything like that, it would be better to let people ask them and then find the answers based on prior people asking.

2. Generate traffic that can be driven to my store based on long tail search engine traffic from the forum.

3. Generate advertising revenue from Google AdWords and later from banner advertising (possibly from direct competitors).

4. Provide a lot of highly relevant pages that my store can get link juice from to help us get better rankings in the search engines.

5. Provide another revenue stream during our 4 month low season.

I have been doing research and came across this earlier post on this forum: [webmasterworld.com...]

ABC - Authority, Ballast Removal, and Community

Authority is no problem - with my store I was able to get to the first place for one of my most important keywords in Google within 6 months after starting my SEO campaign. I am still in 2nd place now (after more than 2 years). Also, right now there is no forum for this topic in existence - questions usually land on answers.com or in forums that are pretty far removed from the topic of interest.

Ballast Removal is something I will definitely work on when setting up and maintaining the forum, but I have no questions on that at this point.

Community is where I am seeing a possible issue. Most successful forums I have visited on the Internet have a topic that is somewhat addictive, whereas the product I sell is something that the vast majority of people will only buy once in their lifetime and spend a month or two on average during the purchasing and installing process. There may be something like 2000-3000 people in the US who manufacture, install, or sell the product who would potentially be addicts, but I think even if I market the forum directly to them I will only be able to get around 25-30 of them to post on a regular basis (my guesstimation). The rest of the members would be people who are asking questions for the month or two they are in the process of buying and installing, but I doubt many will stick around much longer.

Traffic volume may also be an issue. Even though I am listed in the #2 spot in Google for my most important keyword and I am hitting both SEO and PPC hard, my store only gets around 12,000 visitors in a month during the busy season. During the slow season it is around 1/2 of that.

My questions:

1. Is it possible to have a successful community forum based mostly (upwards of 95%) on transient traffic that will likely not stick around after they have completed their purchase?

2. I am a little at odds with how close or how far to associate the identity of the forum to my store. On one hand, I could drive a lot of my current traffic to the forum which will help to ensure success. On the other hand, if I make the identity of the forum too close to the store, it could scare people away from signing up because they might feel like they will get biased answers, and also it will scare away my competiors who I would like to participate in the forum (after all, the forum should be an Authority). Your thoughts?

3. How little traffic is too little to make a forum a success? The post mentioned starting off with a small niche and then expanding later, but my fear is that I am starting too small. Unfortunately, in my case the domain name of the forum will be dependant on how narrow or broad my field of questions is - and we all know that changing domain names is not that seamless.

4. Is there some kind of benchmark "acid test" that I can do with my intended audience to get some kind of answer whether the time to set the forum up (and maintain it) will be worth the effort?


7:32 pm on Sep 20, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 5+ Year Member

maybe you'd have better luck if you attach the comments to the actual items in your store -- a bit like the way amazon does it.

individual item pages are pretty difficult to rank on their own, but if you have some constantly changing original content on there then that would probably help.

and it will also means that you won't have the problem of a ghost town forum dragging down your site.


8:02 pm on Sep 20, 2009 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member

Actually, Amazon was one of the sites I was working from when I modeled my product pages. In fact, the new pages cut down the customer questions a lot because they are loaded with lots of features, specifications, available colors, multiple views, etc. They describe exactly what it is, but they don't also describe what it is not.

My problem is that many people call wanting to know if the product I sell is the same as what they already have. Unfortunately, there are no identifying numbers or anything else for the customer to be able to match them up with - the only thing they can go on are the images, which don't tell them very much.

In addition, customers have tons of questions about selecting the right product, special installation issues, color coordination issues, etc. that are overkill to put on the store. For example, we have installation instructions for the general scenario, but they really only cover about 50-60% of the installations and then you run into a lot of special scenarios that affect very small numbers of people.

The thing is, even when we can answer these questions, they rarely ever lead to a conversion. That is why I think it would be better if the customers could have somewhere to go before they pick up the phone and call us - like a forum dedicated to the topic.

The question is...would they?


9:12 pm on Sep 20, 2009 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Give the general Internet audience a place to go to ask and get their questions answered about my (and my competitor's) products. This will hopefully reduce the number of questions (industry wide) about trying to identify the brand they currently have and other useless customer support calls that never lead to sales.

It sounds as though you're trying to reduce your support burden. A forum would be exactly the wrong way to go about that, IMHO, because they tend to be a lot of work to maintain. You would be much better off with a multi-page FAQ.

You'll never get the number of useless questions down to none, but the thing with forums is they can be noisy, with people promoting their own stuff and newbies asking the same question over and over. Potential customers won't necessarily search the forums for an answer, because people avoid doing their own research when they have the option of asking someone directly.


9:59 pm on Sep 20, 2009 (gmt 0)

5+ Year Member


Thank you for your insight (and a vote for no). Reducing the support requests is actually only one of the goals.

One of the problems I am facing is trying to catalog all of these questions in the first place since our support reps are poorly organized. I (as webmaster) have asked for this type of information repeatedly to no avail, but since the company owners are the support reps there is little more I can do. That is why putting up a forum and letting people ask seems like a good idea (after all, they are already asking on forums that are completely unrelated to the subject) and then I can organize the information and put it where the customers can find it better.

I realize that the support questions won't go away completely but it is definitely important to work toward 0 questions as an ultimate goal even though you will never get there.

I should also point out that I didn't list the goals in any particular order - the ad revenue, traffic, and link popularity are the most important reasons to start a forum, the support aspect of it is just a positive side effect of it existing.

I also realize that everybody has something to sell and forums aren't the place for it and (provided I start a forum) I am debating whether to allow this kind of activity or even allow links. There are very few forums in my general category that allow any kind of promotion. I had it in the back of my mind to make a minimum number of posts and stay a member for a minimum number of days before the members are able to post links and even then make sure they are on topic and not just random links in the signiture.

And a lot of work...ok, make that 2 votes for no :).


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