Online forums are destinations for community members to voice their opinions, submit suggestions and ideas, ask for or offer help, get updates through company-communicated news and messages, and even hold events. They are dynamic and volatile spaces where interactions must be managed carefully by the companies or individuals who manage them.

When they are set up properly for the purposes of help desks, forums can save companies a great deal of money by provided an asynchronous resource for customers to help themselves or help each other find the answers they need. This allows agents to spend phone and IM time helping only those customers who genuinely need live (more expensive) assistance. It also increases customer satisfaction, and provides a means of communicating announcements, news, product features and upgrades, release information, tips, known issues and fixes, and the current status of fixes being developed.

A successful community forum is one that is used by many to conduct relevant tasks. The key is to define well the purpose of each forum, and set it up correctly. Otherwise, a forum can quickly become hard to manage, disorganized, and a disappointment for all involved.

The following are best practice tips for setting up help desk forums to get the most out of them from the start.

The Difference Between Community Forums and Knowledge Bases

Sometimes forums are used as knowledge bases -- searchable containers of documented information used for reference. Commenting may be enabled, but for the most part communication is one way.

For example, a help desk forum may be used to answer FAQ questions or provide access to product manuals for customers and agents. This use, however, is contrary to the two-way personal interaction that defines a forum. It is akin to using a folder full of documents to hold an ongoing conversation when email or chat would be more suitable...

Apparently Zendesk agrees, because although the classic version of Zendesk combines the KB and forums, the recent rollout of Help Center separates the forum (now called “community”) and knowledge base features. Tickets and documentation go in the KB by section and category, and questions and answers are organized by topic in the community.

To receive updates on KB articles, users can subscribe. If they want to keep informed about questions, answers and comments posted in a forum, users can opt to follow. This is similar to subscribing to a magazine (one-way communication) or following a conversation (two-way communication). 

Key Players in Community Forum Development

Forum Users and Stakeholders

A forum works similarly to a Facebook page, but is usually organized by topic or discussion thread, and is readily searchable by keyword and tag. Users expect to interact with an organization’s representatives as well as each other to exchange ideas, concerns, testimonials, resources (internal and third-party), and guidance.

A forum is only as successful as it is useful -- and used. Raising awareness about and providing access to an online community is therefore essential. The ultimate strategy is to encourage users who have the kinds of needs the forum meets to rely on it as their primary resource.

It’s still a novel concept to have a public platform for an organization. There’s lots of room for error with the potential to generate waves of positive or negative consequences that will be forever documented online. Because of this, stakeholders tend to be particularly invested in the success of a community forum. It’s important to involve marketing and social media departments, sales, IT, customer service, partners, third party vendors, and users (internal and external) in conversations that impact the planning, development, implementation, use and promotion of a community forum. It’s also important to set goals so that the success of the forum can be properly assessed.

In addition to being a self-help tool for end-users, forums are customer-facing productivity tools for staff and other stakeholders. This aspect must be considered when selecting a forum tool and setting it up. Zendesk accommodates this core requirement by combining forum and knowledge base use and administration in the same application.

Moderators & Forum Managers

When forums are set up in a Q&A format, users may submit questions about product usage tips, ideas for new features, suggestions for improvements or tweaks, guides for other users, links to resources, and more. Because this wide arena of possibility exists, it’s essential to assign moderators to review content as soon as it comes in to the forum.

Moderators should be marketing / social media professionals and subject matter experts because they are communicating directly with large numbers of customers in a way that is not easy to retract. They should be skilled in responding appropriately to customer complaints. Perfect moderators often emerge as the most active forum participants.

In addition to answering questions through informative steps, clarification, encouragement or referral, moderators are responsible for removing inappropriate content and spam, warning users who are not following guidelines, and checking posted links to make sure they work.

Community managers oversee moderators, and are primarily responsible for the success of forums. They engage users and agents, attract traffic and overall growth, and make sure forums meet business goals.

Best Practice Tips for Setting Up Help Desk Community Forums

Test the waters -- End-users should have to do as little guessing about how to use the forum tool as possible. Therefore, it's important to have user groups test community forums prior to release, and allow users to submit feedback about the forum navigation, search function, guidelines, content, profiles, moderation, etc.

Focus topics on tasks -- Topics or threads in community forums should be organized according to the kind of task end users want to complete. This can mean creating topics based on the nature of their inquiry, such as “Suggestions for improvement” and “Frequently Asked Questions” or on their goal, such as “Report a bug / find a fix”.

Keep comments in the community -- To centralize comments, ensure proper moderation, and keep clear differentiation between knowledge bases and forums, consider disabling the commenting option on KB articles, providing cross-links to related community topics instead.

Words to the wise -- When setting up a forum, avoid using tech terms, abbreviations, terms related to internal processes, or terms familiar only to advanced product users (unless you have a topic area specifically for them). Wording should be entertaining, clear and concise, and accessible to readers at all relevant levels.

Tagging along -- Like keywords, tags are used to identify useful information and categorize it so that it can be found easily. They can also be used to label business information so that it can be tracked and measured. For example, a community moderator might place internal tags on posts where customers ask how to cancel their service so that agents can conduct prompt follow up. Tags should reflect the most unique aspects of a post’s content -- otherwise, important information can get lost in a heap of small, irrelevant words like “the” and “because”.

Suggested reading -- To enhance the usability of the forum, moderators should cross-link posts with other related posts and knowledge base articles as often as possible. This reduces the “dead-end effect”, giving users roads to follow without having to back up and start down another path of inquiry. It will go a long way to helping customers help themselves, therefore justifying the time and effort. Better yet, automated “suggested links” apps added to forums can do this work in a heartbeat with less risk of obsolete links.

Populate when you create -- Forums should not be rolled out until they have a reasonable amount of helpful content available to users, otherwise they look unfinished or thrown together. Be sure to include pictures of people and icons to break up long articles and make the community more approachable.

More best practice tips for setting up Zendesk’s Community

Related reading:

  • Writing Effective Knowledge Base Articles for Help Desks

  • How to Set Up a Help Desk Knowledge Base the Right Way

Got opinions on how to make community forums rock? Tell us below...

Ellen Berry is Content Director for Myndbend. Her background is in website development, graphic design, career development, project management, entrepreneurship, technical writing, and journalism. She has worked for small start-ups, Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits, in fields including biomedical research and development, IT, finance, telecommunications, publishing and digital media. Her articles are frequently published on high profile websites such as USAToday, ScientificAmerican, TechRepublic and MonsterWorking.