Ecommerce activity is at an all-time high, partly due to the ongoing pandemic. In fact, according to a report by the IBM U.S. Retail Index, the COVID outbreak accelerated the shift from brick and mortar stores to online portals by as much as five years.
But that does not mean everyone starting an online store is automatically guaranteed success. For starters, you have to compete with major e-tailers such as Amazon, Walmart, eBay, etc. The top 10 in this category collectively control more than 60% of the total e-commerce sales market in the U.S. This means small businesses and entrepreneurs who sell online need to find creative ways to stand out from the millions of other eCommerce entities attempting to win over the same consumers.
What are some of the strategies involved in doing that?
- Promoting user-friendliness: intelligent web design, clear product descriptions, simple navigation, etc.
- Utilizing social media: the go-to method for most brands entering into the ecommerce space – most notably setting up business profiles on sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, among others.
- Online advertising: including pay per click, search engine, display, and mobile ads
- Content marketing: keeping your audience well-informed using a variety of interesting content such as blog posts, videos, tutorials, case studies, and more.
- Email marketing: sending newsletters, promotional emails, setting up automated responses, etc.
These strategies are all great and recommended. However, some of the most successful companies have also recognized the importance of creating deep connections with their audiences by building communities. That’s where online forums come in.
What is an online forum?
Also called a message board or internet forum, an online forum is a website that facilitates discussions via the web around a central topic. Members of a forum usually join because they share a common interest. They engage in conversations by posting messages, including questions and answers, opinions, general comments, and various content relating to the main subject. Anyone with access to the forum can view and respond to posts, create threads, ask questions, and share content depending on the rules of the forum.
For an eCommerce store, building an online forum is among the easiest ways to engage customers and boost the chances of success. Forums might sound like stale news in 2021. But in case you are wondering about their usefulness, it is interesting to note that companies such as QuickBooks and Shopify have built impressive online communities to help empower their clients who are trying to gain a footing in the digital space.
Why start a forum for your ecommerce store?
In the case of eCommerce sites, creating forums allows customers to partake in discussions regarding their products and services. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The more engagement a forum drives, the greater the chance for the associated online retailer to get closer to its customers in a meaningful way. In other words, it is a great way for an eCommerce store to promote its products and services without spending a lot of money. Unlike many marketing campaigns, forums often pay for themselves.
Reasons to use a forum for your ecommerce store
Need more evidence that it’s a good idea to start a discussion forum for your eCommerce store? Here are 10 solid reasons you should invest in building an online forum for your Shopify store.
Enables and optimizes customer support
Helping customers get assistance with product-related problems is an important aspect of running an eCommerce store. Providing timely and comprehensive customer support makes for a great customer experience. Furthermore, interactions that lead to a positive customer experience can boost spending by consumers by as much as 140%, according to research by Deloitte.
Customer support activities can be costly, especially for eCommerce owners just starting with a meager budget. Yet, not making it easy to get help can cause new and prospective buyers to go to the competition. Setting up a forum can help immensely where this is concerning because it allows you to provide suitable answers, as well as content that is relevant to the personal needs of users. Moreover, you can use the forum to monitor frequently asked questions, which can use to boost your FAQ page, knowledge base, and other support methods.
A source of customer self-help
With an online forum, customer support does not only mean help is provided by staff members. Online forums allow all users to share their experiences, post articles, guides, videos, and other helpful content surrounding a brand’s products and services. Users of the forum can also provide help directly to other customers. In addition, most forums allow archiving of discussion threads, so when someone else asks a question that was already addressed, they can easily find the answer in the search results linked to the forum.
The result is that online forums can be a useful source for an eCommerce store’s customer self-help strategy. Making it easy for customers to help themselves is extremely important because the vast majority tend to try helping themselves first before seeking assistance from a company – over 80% of customers, according to an article by the Harvard Business Review. Customer self-service support comes with several benefits worth mentioning:
- Increased productivity for customer support staff
- Reduced costs related to customer support
- Improvement of the customer experience
- Possible improvement in revenue
- More positive feedback from customers
Allows for helpful product feedback
Just how good are your product offerings and how can they be improved? You will never quite know until you hear from the people who use them. Having an online forum allows your customers to provide feedback on what it is like to use the products you are selling through your eCommerce store.
If you are the one creating the products, you can use the feedback to make improvements that will better suit the needs of the consumer. If you are a reseller, you can use the advice and information to seek out better variants or even make suggestions to your suppliers.
Helps with idea generation and innovation
Feedback from customers using your online forum is not only great for improving your current offerings. It can also help with providing ideas for business improvement or as a source of research when trying to develop innovations. For example, you can conduct simple market research using polls and surveys to find out what forum members think about a suggestion.
People have varying needs that you – or even the entire industry you are in – may not be currently meeting. Discussion forums make it possible for people to air their views on qualities and features they want in current products, as well as ideas they think would be great for the future. Your forum means you will have easy access to these views and ideas and be able to explore them for your future offerings while staying ahead of the competition. How cool is that?
Boosts customer loyalty
Generating great customer experiences that lead to loyalty amounts to more than just offering valuable products and providing robust support. Customers also want to have a strong brand connection that keeps them coming back. They want to see themselves in the brand’s messaging and image and know that their voices are being heard.
Online forums can make users feel like they are part of a supportive community that they can relate to uniquely. By sharing with their peers, they can bond over common interests. At the same time, members of a forum can get closer to eCommerce companies, engage directly with them, learn about their products and services, and get deep insight into their brand values.
This type of close connection lets a customer know they mean more to you than just landing the net sale. It can determine whether a customer remains loyal to your brand or moves on to the competition. The more loyal customers you have, the higher the possibility of increasing revenue through referrals and repeat sales.
Great for SEO
One of the side effects of online communities such as forums is that they can easily lead to vast amounts of user-generated content. Reddit and Quora, two of the largest online communities, are two great examples. User-generated content refers to pieces of information – whether it be customer reviews, testimonials, tutorials, research papers, videos, infographics, etc. – that are shared or created by users of the forum.
Two benefits of user-generated content are:
- It requires little to no effort on the part of the company.
- It can help with improving a website’s SEO profile.
As it relates to the latter, the presence of user-generated content in forums can contribute essential keywords and phrases that relate to the products offered by your eCommerce site. And since Google now includes user-generated content in its search results, your site’s pages can start ranking highly on the search engine.
Focusing on SEO as part of your marketing strategy is important. Why? Because good SEO helps to drive traffic to your website organically (without having to spend money on ads). It is difficult for any eCommerce entity to survive for long without consistent organic traffic. The more people can discover content related to your products, the more visitors you will get checking out your online store. This inevitably leads to increased revenues.
Enhances the effect of other marketing strategies
Your forum can help to boost the effectiveness of your other marketing activities. For example, active forum members may be more willing to share your promotional content on their personal social media pages because they already trust your brand. If you have a newsletter, your forum may also be a great place to invite new subscribers.
Moreover, having a vibrant forum can help you better understand the customer journey while improving your content marketing efforts accordingly. For instance, you can create blog posts, infographics, videos, and tutorials that are designed to address the main concerns often discussed in the forums.
Aids in crafting the right brand image
It is not easy to differentiate your brand identity in a crowded marketplace. But you must do so as the owner of an eCommerce store because consumers are searching for a good reason why they should buy from you.
With that said, when you engage in discussions with people who are part of your forum, you give them a chance to see what your brand is all about. At the same time, you get some insight as to what your customers expect from your brand, apart from product quality and level of customer service. Do they want to be involved with a brand that is honest, punctual, slick, smart, classic, etc.? Whatever the case, an active forum can help you figure it out, so you can craft the type of eCommerce brand your customers will be proud of.
Provides some amount of control over the narrative
Part of building a brand image is being able to have a say in how the public perceives you. In a thread on Facebook or Twitter that is authored by a casual observer, a brand has little to no control over how the narrative is steered. A single negative tweet, for instance, can quickly go viral and cause irreparable damage to a brand’s reputation, even if the initial message turns out to be inaccurate.
With a company-owned discussion forum, the brand has the opportunity to play a more “supervisory” role over what is shared by the members. They can respond quickly to negative feedback and address a customer’s concern, opinion, or even rumors before they spread further online. The forum moderator has the power to restrict or delete inflammatory posts, fact-check dubious information that was shared, and provide clarification where needed by users.
People seeking facts about a brand’s products, services, terms and conditions, etc. can also use the forum as a point of reference. Over time, the forum can help the brand to not only guide the narrative around it but also assist with building trust with customers.
All the benefits of an online forum amount to good business sense. Its ability to get feedback from users negates the need to invest in expensive market research software and related information-gathering activities. The fact that forums allow businesses to administer help and advice through staff, as well as via other customers, also reduces the cost of customer service. It is often far cheaper than setting up a help desk or hiring customer support staff.
Social media is great for keeping in touch with your audience, but many of its casual users are not keen on engaging with brands. The return on investment is not always great either. Organic marketing on Facebook, for example, has taken a huge hit over the years, with non-paid content receiving less and less reach for business pages.
On top of that, forums can complement an online store’s overall marketing strategy, reducing some of the budgets spent on things like SEO, pay-per-click advertising, and lead generation. Online forums are also relatively cheap to set up (even free in some cases), so almost any eCommerce store can launch one, regardless of the size of their budget.
Giving yourself a chance at success when running an online store means so much more than choosing the right eCommerce platform or even landing the next sale. This is especially true with the current world situation pushing more people to join online communities. Serious eCommerce marketers need to make it easier for consumers to connect and engage with their brands if they are to survive. Research conducted by several major publications has produced numerous online community statistics, demonstrating that setting up an online forum is the easiest and most cost-effective way to make that happen.