Forums have been a mainstay of online discussion since the 1990s, long before the dawn of social media. With their focus on a specific topic and egalitarian structure, forums became cemented in our online culture as spaces for the greatest enthusiasts of a given subject to interact with like-minded people. In a sense, they were the original online communities.
Twenty years on from the golden age of forums, the web landscape has changed dramatically. While forums still have their uses and remain popular in certain corners of the internet, they are not fit for purpose as a marketing tool or as a source of true expertise. These roles have been taken on by online communities, which aim to facilitate knowledge-sharing and strengthen relationships between organizations and their audiences.
Let’s take a look at 4 key differences between forums and online communities, proving beyond any doubt that only one of these platforms is up to the task of harnessing our collective intelligence.
Forums do not promote expertise
People generally tend to browse and engage with forums related to their interests and hobbies. While this means that discussion is often passionate and insightful, it also means that some users will speak with authority on subjects they are not true experts in. The lack of any hierarchy amongst members makes it impossible to discern experts from non-experts, facilitating the spread of misinformation.
The problem with forums is that they do little to mitigate the effects of this type of atmosphere. A forum is essentially only as strong as its team of moderators, meaning that discourse can often become bogged down by mindless chatter. In this cacophony of noise, true expertise can slip through the cracks and go unnoticed by those who stand to benefit from it the most.
Expert communities are built with learning, knowledge-sharing and collaboration at their heart. Users can be singled out for their qualifications and given a platform to share their knowledge with the community at large, allowing everybody to learn from them. This more hierarchical approach allows the most worthwhile contributions to receive the most engagement and prevents those with true insight to share from being drowned out. By making community members better at what they do through learning and knowledge-sharing, expert communities are able to foster collaboration and harness the power of collective intelligence.
Expert communities allow for sharing dynamic multimedia content in a variety of formats. Forums are not designed or equipped to present content in a multitude of ways; they are essentially little more than message boards. While this format is not without its uses, it makes forums less capable of becoming learning platforms due to a lack of flexibility in presentation.
The capacity of expert communities to host discussions in interactive, engaging formats including video panels and webinars opens up different paths to learning and ultimately makes them a more inclusive platform than forums. For members who prefer to learn in a more visual way, it provides an alternative to sifting through large paragraphs of text in order to learn key information. Video sharing also helps brands and community members display a more personal side that might get lost in a traditional forum. With an expert community, brands are able to activate participation in a variety of ways and tap into people’s desire to help one another, which has grown to be one of the biggest drivers of customer participation in the wake of the pandemic.
In putting learning and knowledge-sharing front and centre, expert communities make harnessing collective intelligence easy. Content that might previously have been split between 2 or more websites can be consolidated in one place, making the community a hub of knowledge and insights that incentivizes users to join. Once again, forums come up short here, as their abilities do not extend beyond written discussion.
Expert communities are proactive
Forums are useful when it comes to problem-solving. Whatever problem you may be having with a product, it’s likely that someone else has been through the same thing and consulted other users for advice. For a quick and easy answer to any problems that might arise, forums are usually a safe bet.
The problem is that this is a reactive approach; users engage with forums when they are already dealing with a problem and looking for a solution. Expert communities are proactive. They facilitate peer-to-peer communication that begins to drive the direction of that brand’s products or services. Users will look to the community for inspiration instead of quick fixes, making more of the collective intelligence waiting to be harnessed.
Expert communities drive revenue
Expert communities can be monetized, creating a new revenue driver for brands that take the time to build one and helping to ensure a healthy ROI. Premium content can be gated and made exclusive to paid members, incentivizing people to register.
Communities can be used to host training courses for your brand’s products, allowing you to charge for access and open up an ongoing revenue stream. Meanwhile, sponsors of a community can have a room built specifically for their product or even build a community of their own. This effectively gives sponsors limitless scope to demonstrate expertise, meaningfully engage with community members and build relationships, making it a greater driver of revenue than a forum or regular content site.
While forums often use advertising space as a means of driving revenue, this is where the monetization capabilities of this platform come to an end. Ultimately, there is a limit to your potential ROI when building a forum - one that pales in comparison to that of an expert community.
Out with the old, in with the new
Ever since the internet came into existence, its primary function has been bringing people together and helping us to harness the power of collective intelligence. Forums and message boards have played a major role in making this dream a reality - but in 2021 the format feels antiquated and limiting. When used to house the customer community of a brand, forums usually feel like a side project; something that has been thrown together and is not entirely connected to the brand itself.
Expert communities take the good elements of forums - the ability to discuss topics at length and their focus on niche subject areas - and expand upon them, allowing brands to consolidate their online presence in one space. In today’s market, customers want to feel personally valued by the brands they use, forming a relationship which goes beyond being merely transactional. The community approach makes this a reality, allowing customers to participate in an ongoing dialogue with a brand and their fellow customers that becomes an integral part of the brand experience, not just an added feature.