Strategy Briefing: Do Forums Have A Future In 2023 and Beyond?
Should you launch your new community on a forum-centred platform?
It depends on whether you’re building a customer support community or not.
If you are, great! Go ahead and use a forum-centred platform.
If you’re not, then the picture is a little murkier.
Forum Use Cases Have Slowly Narrowed Recently
The number of community use cases for which forum is the best solution has steadily narrowed over the past decade or so.
Let’s begin with the five primary uses cases of community:
As you can see above, these are:
- Success (or practice).
- Peer/friendship groups.
- User groups.
Ten years ago, a forum might well have been the best platform for all of the above. However, new platforms have increasingly emerged to better cater to unique use cases than a forum can.
What Makes Forums Unique?
We’re so familiar with forums we don’t often reflect on what makes them unique.
The answer is simple. Forums create pages. Lots and lots of pages!
Each discussion (or topic/question) is essentially a new page created at the request of a member. Someone with the answer responds and this answer is documented for others to find. The more pages there are, the more people are likely to find the answer to their question before having to use any other channels.
This is the primary reason why forums deflect support tickets, but chat channels don’t. They’re not indexable. This makes forums much less like chat rooms and more like Wikipedia. Forums won’t wow you aesthetically, but, like Wikipedia, the technology is reliable and it’s easy to find what you want.
A forum is the best tool for documenting the collective experiences of a vast number of customers in a searchable database containing thousands, even millions, of answers.
So is a forum still a good fit for your community or not?
The answer primarily depends upon whether members creating thousands of pages of searchable information would be a great help. If you’re selling simple, retail, products, the answer might be no. But if you’re selling a complex technology product, the answer might well be yes.
Why Forums Aren’t Usually The Best Fit For Customer Success Communities
Not long ago, it was common to launch a forum for members to proactively share their advice about a product or topic. That sometimes still happens today, but it’s becoming rarer than before.
These non-support communities have a remarkably high failure rate. The problem is they rely upon a small group of experts willing to share their advice. But if you’re an expert in a topic today, you don’t want to share your wisdom in a forum.
Expertise gets buried in forums. Each new post pushes the former off the page. Experts want to share expertise in a place where they can build their reputation, grow their audience, and exercise some measure of control. They can then leverage this platform for tangible and intangible rewards.
Social media platforms (including those like YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Substack and Medium) are now the preferred choice for experts to share their knowledge. They offer better tools and the grand prize; the opportunity to go viral.
The best approach for brands is encouraging members to share expertise in places which suits them and then aggregating/promoting it within a central location.
But What About Reddit?
This approach works well when the potential knowledge gap between newcomers and experts is vast – and thus the number of experts is low. However, when the knowledge gap is low when someone can be considered an expert in months rather than years (i.e. most video games), there is another very powerful option – Reddit.
After some early stumbles, Reddit has become powerful by offering a hybrid forum/chat experience. In Reddit, the best expertise naturally rises to the top through the votes of other members.
This presents an enticing offer. If I share a detailed article on a forum, it will be chronologically buried by each new post that appears – regardless of quality. But if I share it on Reddit, there’s a chance it might attract a lot of votes and spread like wildfire.
While other platforms have the mechanisms of voting Reddit (Discourse), none has yet been able to replicate the culture of voting like Reddit.
Peer Groups and Communities of Interest
The rise of group messaging apps (Slack, Teams, Discord) along with the growth of Reddit and Facebook Groups have pretty much swallowed the peer group market (along with the communities of interest). A large number of legacy forums remain, but you will struggle to launch a new one in the modern era.
The problem here is simple. Other platforms have made it easier to chat. By chat, we don’t mean someone asking a question and another person responding. We mean the places where people casually hang out without having to discuss a defined question.
Forums were always clunky substitutes for real-time discussions. They required someone to come up and post a topic of discussion. But then in the real world, conversations flow seamlessly (and effortlessly) from one topic to the next. It’s not surprising that group messaging apps (along with Facebook Groups) have swallowed this market whole. They make it easier to do that.
The standard argument against these tools is once these groups become big, it becomes impossible to follow the conversation. The problem with this logic is most members aren’t trying to follow the conversation. They’re happy to dip in and out whenever suits them – just like they do when they meet their friends.
Until fairly recently, most user groups relied upon a forum experience. But they always faced the same dilemma; outside of events, they struggled to sustain any meaning level of conversation.
Often they become repositories for event recordings and notices of upcoming events. This was never the right fit for the functionality forums offer.
This situation was ripe for new entrants and platforms like Bevy (and Meetup) have successfully stepped taken the lead here. They provide better event experiences for members. They recognise that people want event-first, discussion-second experiences. They deliver the key functionality that members want better than forum-centred platforms ever could.
Advocacy / Marketing Use Case
There are some great examples of forums being leveraged to attract new customers or drive sales (Element14 and Sephora). By bringing people into an environment you control, you have plenty of opportunities to create community-generated revenue.
However, you might struggle to find many examples created this decade. The problem is these communities are essentially communities of interest. Most audiences prefer to have these discussions on more modern experiences like Reddit or social media than older forum platforms. People care far less about finding the answer to a question than learning ‘what’s popular right now’. Social media and popularity-driven platforms are simply better for that.
And if the goal is to drive advocacy, there are often simply better platforms for that than forums. Platforms like BazaarVoice, Olapic, Influitive, and others all make it easier to work with brand advocates, create user-generated content, and attract new customers than a forum does.
The Strategic Implications
Our strategy philosophy is always to align our clients to current trends. If you don’t you’re forever fighting an uphill battle. That’s why it’s essential to identify the trend and then determine how best to align with that trend.
The major trend here is the shifting preference of members to use whichever technology best serves their immediate needs (as opposed to a forum-centred platform which supports all of them).
Strategic Implication 1 – Select The Platform Which Aligns With The Trends
If you’re launching a community, ignore the outdated dogma and select the platform that best aligns with future trends.
The above isn’t written as a comprehensive list. By all means, do your research or ask us for help. But make sure you aren’t beholden to ancient dogma or vendor-driven advice about which platform to select.
Pick the platform that best satisfies your use case.
Strategic Implication 2 – New Use Cases Require New Platforms
If you’re shifting or broadening your community’s goal, you probably need to shift or expand the platforms you’re using too.
Many efforts to adapt a forum for a new use case fail because it’s not aligned with member preferences. Members have habits for your current forum and preferences for the behaviours you want them to perform – which involve other platforms.
Just because a use case is enabled for that platform (i.e. user groups, knowledge base, events) doesn’t mean members want to use that platform to do those things. Community vendors have tried (and largely failed) to incorporate more use cases into their platforms. They can replicate a lot of the functionality – but it’s never as good as a platform dedicated solely to that use case.
As you expand your use cases, be prepared to expand the number of platforms you use too.