Online Customer Forums

By Daniel Shefer August 09, 2007

18 months ago at Interwise, we formed the Interwise Power Users Forum. We meet online with our customers once a month and share best practices, discuss product designs and features, or anything ?Interwise?. Customers love it as we significantly improved our communications with them; our sales people use it as a sales tool and our Product team is so much closer to the users. About half the sessions are delivered by the customers themselves. They use the forum as a platform to showcase their work and to discuss issues that are important to them.  Here's what one happy customer had to say:

'Please allow me a moment of your time to thank you for the Power User Forum. The forum has been, and will continue to be an invaluable source of information for me.  I'm sure my peers in the group would agree, based on the many questions asked and the data shared by you and your team.'

This article describes the advantages of an online customer forum and offers tips on how to set up and manage one.

CABs vs. User Forums

Many companies reach out to two types of audiences. The first is the Customer Advisory Board (CAB) and the second is the Users Forum. The basic difference between the two is the audience. CABs are good for high-level guidance and input. Members are usually senior managers from bellwether accounts as well as industry pundits. The issues discussed in CABs are general in scope and cover the company's direction and high-level product issues. Members in User Forums are what we call ?power users?. They use and administrate the product on a daily basis. User Forums are more about the day-to-day usage of the product, how customers interact with it, any issues they are having, etc.

Advantages to Having a Users Forum

Happier Customers

  • Improved communications with customers.
  • Customers feel that their input is important and that they can influence the product.
  • By sharing best practices amongst your customers, they will become better at using your product and more successful at their careers.

Input from customers

  • A Power Users Forum is ideal for a sounding board for new ideas
  • See if your developer's really hit it on the head. Customers love to be consulted
  • Ask for ideas for new features
  • Not sure about priorities? Ask your forum.

Increase Sales

  • A successful Power Users Forum can be used by your reps as a sales tool in itself. Prospects appreciate vendors that actively engage them for product input; 'Buy my product and be part of the Users Forum'.

Topics For a Users Forum

  • Product design questions. Use the forum to ask your customers what they would like to see in the future product. They'll love you for it!
  • Feature prioritization. Ask the members to prioritize the requests that they raise in the forum as well as requests form other sources. Having the forum members prioritize has several advantages. It gives you important insight to their needs. If done properly, you can get a better picture as to what will help them in the long run and not just was bugging them that morning. When the forum members are presented with requests from multiple sources, they get a better understanding of the pressures you are under to satisfy other customers' requests as well as their own.  Another advantage is when asked to prioritize not only their own features but those of other customers as well, they may recognize that other customers? requests ARE more important than their own.
  • Get your product experts online to talk about advanced features. Nothing like hearing it from the person who 'wrote the book.'
  • Share best practices. Have your customers present their usage of your product. People like to talk about their work.
  • Use the forum to get feedback on your product plans even before the actual product design process begins. It will keep you from going too far with an idea that only seems good from your perspective.
  • Before each Beta release, present the new product to the forum to get their immediate feedback as well as to get them excited to be Beta testers.

Sample Agendas

The first Interwise Power Users Forum looked something like this:

  • Opening words by Interwise's VP of Marketing (5 minutes)
  • Introductions of the members. It's important to make participants feel comfortable (10 minutes)
  • Forum Administration--When, where, how, who (5 minutes)
  • Guest Speaker: 'Best practices --Lessons learned at Comverse' (45 minutes)
  • Demo of the highlights of the upcoming release (30 minutes)
  • Open floor

Another session that focused on product functionality had the following agenda:

  • Opening words (5 minutes)
  • 'Meet the Product Team' (10 minutes)
  • Feature Requests Discussion. The Forum was asked to present requests up to a week before the session. This gave us time to ask for clarifications. The requests were then organized and presented to the forum and discussed. (60 minutes)
  • In depth discussion of the product's reporting functionality. (20 minutes)
  • Open Floor

Who Should You Invite to the Users Forum?

  • Customers that use your product frequently. We call them 'Power Users'. Speak with the account managers. They know their customers and should be in the loop. They can usually recommend the right person for the forum from each customer.
  • The Product Management team. This is a great opportunity to increase their contact with customers.
  • Team leaders from Development. Give them an open invitation. Whenever you know a specific topic that will be discussed, make sure to invite the relevant development team leader to the forum.

Start small and then grow the forum. Start out with two-dozen or so customers till you get a feel for the forum and a handle on logistics. In any case, make sure that the number of participants from your company is less than that of the customers. It won't look good if your customers are outnumbered in the forum.

Advantages to Using a Web Based Communications Tool

Using an online, synchronous communications tool such as Interwise ECP [my company's product] has many advantages:

  • It's much cheaper than a physical meeting.
  • Logistics are much simpler. For both you and your customers, there is no travel or budget involved. It's as easy as participating in a conference call. For you, there's no need for renting a space and other logistics. Basically all you need to do is send out the invitations and prepare your presentation.
  • Turn-around time is much shorter. As there are no logistics involved, sessions can be scheduled at will and with short notice.
  • Sessions can be recorded and emailed or posted for members that could not make it to the session.

Message Boards

A common technology used for support and user communities are message boards. board is used to post messages, files, ask questions etc. Using one increases the added value of the forum.

A word of caution.  Shortly after starting our Forum we set up a threaded messaging server (WebBoard from Akiva). After communicating repeatedly with the forum about it and posting several dozen messages, files, tips & tricks etc. ourselves, it became clear that the message board was going nowhere. We looked into this and found that when our Power Users had a problem or a question they would just pick up a phone and call our support staff to whom they have direct access.  Lesson learned: if users have free, immediate access to your tech support, a message board will not offer them added value.  We removed the message board soon thereafter.

Forum Recordings

Use an online communications product that can record the sessions for you. If you can edit the recordings yourself, great. If not, make sure you add a budget for editing.  Most sessions will require very little editing. You will want to delete any 'warm up' chit chat when people are still joining the event, making introductions etc.

You can always give your sales team sample recordings to give to prospects as teasers.

Communicating With the User Forum

Communicating with the forum is not limited to online events. Use email to increase your contact with the members. For example, when a market research question comes up, use it as a pretext to email them. Periodically, offer the forum small incentives such as a raffle for Amazon gift certificates. Just be careful not to inundate them with too much email. Emailing the forum more than once a week and you risk becoming a burden.

Create an email alias for the forum. Whenever you email the forum, use the BCC field. The last thing you want is a competitor to get hold of your customer list. Save time by creating email templates for the following:

  • Introduction to the forum that describes what it's all about and inviting them to join.
  • 'Welcome to the forum' email.
  • Invitation to events.
  • Reminder for the next event.

A few words of caution:

  • When communicating with your Forum, remember that you just opened a parallel communications channel with them. Make sure to BCC the relevant people in your company such as the account manager or support staff on any communications or else it will come back to bite you.
  • Any inconsistency between what you tell them and what the account manager or support staff told them will make you look bad.
  • Be aware that more sophisticated customers might try to play you against their account managers to get what they want.

How to Gauge Your Customer Forum's Success?

  • First and foremost, ask your Forum Members what they think. Do customers see value in it and want to participate in it?
  • What do your Forum members have to say about it?
  • Do your sales reps sell it as an added benefit to buying your product or service?
  • Are you getting requests from the field to add members?

Other Issues

Turn Out Rates

For live, web based events, when people register themselves to the event, good show up rates are anywhere from 40 to 50%. When the participants don't sign up themselves (=they are less committed emotionally), you can expect show up rates of less than 30%.

International Forums

If your customers are spread around the world, you will have to consider both language and time zones differences. We have found English to be acceptable for our users in non-Asian countries. Depending on your customer base, you may have to hold sessions in multiple languages.

Customers spread over time zones presents another challenge. They will not participate in your sessions unless they take place within their workday. Due to the time differences, you will not be able to get your American, European and Asian customers all into one session. At Interwise we hold the English sessions at 9 AM PST. Most of our European customers participate in sessions that are delivered from Israel at a later time.

Summary

So here you have it. With a little planning and budget, you can leverage the web to create an online users forum to save money, improve communications with your customers and make them happier, all in one sweep.

This article and its contents copyright (c) 2002 by Daniel Shefer.

Categories: Market Analysis
Daniel Shefer

Daniel Shefer

Daniel Shefer is Director, Product Management at Warp Solutions. Contact him at DS_PM@spamex.com.

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