I started selling software online 16 years ago. Until this year I never had a forum for any of my products. I handled customer support for PerfectTablePlan and Hyper Plan by email and kept customers up-to-date with an opt-in email newsletter. But I rethought this position with my latest product, Easy Data Transform and started a forum at forum.easydatatransform.com in December 2020.
My ISP offered various forum software packages, but I really wanted Discourse, as I consider it head and shoulders above all the other forum software I have interacted with as a user (even if I find the badge system a bit patronising). I didn’t want the hassle of setting up and patching a Discourse server, so created the forum through www.communiteq.com (previously discoursehosting.com). It was suprisingly easy to set-up. And it gives the option to export everything, in case I want to part ways with them. The sheer number of options in Discourse are quite daunting, but I stuck with the defaults for the most part.
Some people use Facebook Groups for their product forums. Ugh. You have almost no control of such a forum. Facebook could even be showing ads for your competitors on your forums. Or they could just decide to shut you down and delete all the content. That is before we get on to the fact that Facebook make their money monetising hatred and abusing our privacy at an industrial scale. No thanks.
The advantages of a forum are:
- Letting customers talk to each other, and post content helps to create a community around the product. Which, in turn, can add a lot of value to your product.
- Customers can help each other with support questions. Sometimes they will answer before you are able to or will give a different perspective. Or even give a better answer.
- If a customer asks a question that has already been asked, you can send them a link to the appropriate forum page.
- It is a quick and easy channel to communicate with customers. I can post a link to a new snapshot release in a few minutes. This is much quicker than sending out an email newsletter. It is also more interactive as customers can respond on the forum and see each other’s responses.
- A lively forum is ‘social proof’ that your product is worth buying.
- A forum with lots of content should have a large SEO footprint.
The disadvantages of a forum are:
- The time to maintain it. A forum that is broken or full of spam and unanswered questions is worse than no forum.
- Disgruntled customers potentially airing their grievances in public.
- The cost of the forum.
- An empty forum looks bad.
- Bad actors can be a pain. For example, people posting links to spam or competing products.
It probably only takes me 1-2 hours per week to post on the forum at present. Some of that is time I would have spent answering support emails. If that rises substantially then I may have to delegate it.
I try very hard to provide a good product, with good support and haven’t had any issues with negativity, so far. But I know from my experiences moderating Joel Spolsky’s Business of Software forum that moderating a busy forum can be tricky, time-consuming and emotionally draining.
The cost of the forum is currently around $20 per month, so pretty low. That may climb, but hopefully sales will be climbing as well.
I was a bit worried about whether the forum was going to look empty. I warned customers that the forum was an experiment and would be closed if there wasn’t enough activity, to manage their expectations. I also created a ‘sock puppet’ account and ‘seeded’ the forum with a few support questions that I had been previously asked by email (with the permission of those that asked) and then posted answers. But I only did this a handful of times and then the forum started to take off.
I have heard stories of people getting 1000+ spam posts a day on their forum. But I haven’t had any issues with bad actors, so far. I’m not sure how much of that is down to Discourse and how much of it is down to luck. But, no doubt issues will occur at some point.
I still have my product newsletter, which I send out every few weeks when there is a new production release.
Overall I am pretty happy with how the forum is going. Should you have a forum for your product? As always, it depends. I think you should consider it if:
- Your customer base isn’t tiny.
- You want to interact with your customers and get feedback. This might be less the case with mature products.
- You have the time and energy to police and maintain it.
- Your product is relatively open ended or complex. For example, if your product just checks whether website are up or down, there is probably a very limited amount you can discuss.