Starting an online community is a considerable commitment, especially for online retailers. Even ecommerce brands planning to use existing support forums as the basis of a more extensive discussion space are faced with a long list of tasks.
If you’re thinking about launching a forum centered around your ecommerce brand, you’ve probably got lots of questions.
What are the long-term benefits? How much will it cost? Does community-building provide a worthwhile return on investment (ROI)? What’s the best way to get started when it comes to technicalities? The list goes on.
In this post, we’ll answer all of those questions. Online forums provide an array of benefits to ecommerce retailers. And we’re going to look at nine of the most significant ones.
Is Now the Right Time to Build an Online Community on Your Ecommerce Site?
The majority of retailers recognize that launching online communities will provide benefits for their businesses. But many are also unsure about whether or not time and resources might be better spent elsewhere in the short and medium terms.
If you’re thinking about delaying the launch of your forum or discussion board, here are a few reasons to reconsider:
- Forum participation is growing. Global Web Index reports that forum usage increased among 64% of people in 2019.
- More companies are choosing to build communities. 75% of large companies had at least one online community in 2020. For small businesses, the figure is 40%.
- Members of Gen Z, a market cohort with increasing spending power, trust community forums almost as much as traditional news sources.
- Online communities deliver an overall return-on-investment of 4,530% for businesses, amounting to an average value of $682 per member annually.
- 92% of marketing professionals believe that their online communities are positively impacting their businesses.
For more data and research about how businesses are embracing and benefiting from online communities, take a look at our in-depth article on the topic.
Is Building a Community Difficult?
As a retailer, you might be concerned that building a forum will be prohibitively expensive, time-consuming, and technically demanding.
If this is the case, then there’s some good news.
Building a community isn’t difficult. Only a few years ago, starting a forum presented sizable technical and financial burdens.
However, modern software solutions, many of which are aimed specifically at retailers, streamline the whole process of designing, launching, and managing an online discussion space, eliminating the need for technical expertise and hefty development budgets.
And while maintaining your forum will require an investment of time, the overall return on investment will almost certainly justify any additional staff costs.
Types of Ecommerce Communities
Once you’ve decided to move forward with your plans to start an online forum, another question will inevitably arise: “What kind of forum should you build?”
The answer will depend on the resources you have available and your business goals.
Generally speaking, there are three types of ecommerce communities:
- Help and support boards – These are designed as a space where customers can ask questions about your products and services. Forum moderators and support staff will be responsible for most replies and answers, although other members may participate. Support forums are useful because they incorporate the experiences of other customers and enable you to build an open repository of past queries and support issues.
- Product enthusiast forums – These kinds of forums are essentially an extension of support boards. They act as a place where customers and product enthusiasts can discuss product features and experiences, rather than simply seek remedies for issues. EA game forums, which are centered on specific games like The Sims and FIFA, are good examples.
- General discussion communities – General discussion forums may incorporate the two types of discussion boards above, with specific categories or sub-boards for them. But they also act as a space for broader discussions on a topic or set of topics. BodyBuilding.com hosts one of the most popular general forums associated directly with an ecommerce brand.
Being clear about the kind of forum you want to build will help you formulate a detailed, action-oriented strategy while minimizing wasted resources.
9 Benefits of Building a Community Around Your Ecommerce Brand
1. Provides Space for Display Advertising
Over the last several years, online retailers have had to adapt to surging prices for cost-per-click and banner ads. A mix of variables, including increased competition and sophisticated digital ad strategies from large retailers, has led to a situation in which platforms like Google Ads are delivering ever-smaller returns.
Forums can help remedy this issue. You control all advertising space on your forum, and this allows you to advertise practically for free to both new and existing customers. Options for advertising include in-content ads, banner ads, dedicated forums for new products, and email digests.
Crucially, you can also use forums to test engagement and clicks on your paid ad campaigns before launching them on third-party ad platforms.
2. Generates Search Engine Traffic
When they’re managed in the right way, forums can become traffic-generating machines. In one study, 72% of brands that run online communities reported an increase in organic traffic.
As your forum grows, user-generated content will start to rank in search engines and attract new visitors. A portion of these visitors will click on ads from your store or sign up to join your community and engage in discussions, where they will be exposed to your brand on a continuous basis.
When forum moderators facilitate discussion by providing members with incentives, limiting abusive and negative activity, and contributing to topics themselves, content generation will happen naturally.
3. Offers Opportunities to Collect Customer Data
Your forum offers opportunities to collect both qualitative and quantitative data from your members.
Most platforms have in-depth analytics dashboards which provide helpful data-backed insights about customer demographics, psychographics, online behavior, product preferences, and more. In many cases, this kind of data can’t be gathered by tracking activity on other pages of your ecommerce site like product listings.
Forums also make the collection of qualitative data much easier. Most forum platforms have features for adding polls and surveys to posts, which can be useful if you require responses to a specific question. As you build engagement with your community, you can also ask for more general feedback about product issues, suggested features, customer service experience, and so on.
4. Allows for Greater Brand Transparency
Brand transparency, which refers to an organization’s level of openness, honesty, and willingness to state and pursue its values, is highly valued by consumers. In one study, 94% of participants said they would stay loyal to a transparent brand. In addition, 75% of that number agreed that they would pay more for products and services from a transparent brand.
Having a forum allows you to display the human face of your brand. Forum topics can be added to reflect the values you stand for, especially in relation to social initiatives. And customers can interact directly with members of your team in a more personal, informal capacity.
5. Reduces Support Costs
By offering a space for customers to share product experiences and tips, you reduce the burden on your customer support team.
Some ecommerce retailers use forums exclusively to provide customer support and build a searchable repository of past queries.
While this is a perfectly acceptable route to take, it’s important to remember that it’s not an either-or scenario. Many general forums include subsections for customer support. Alternatively, some brands choose to run two separate forums – one for support and one for topic discussion.
In either case, support costs are reduced. Often, members will reply to queries. And customers can also search for existing replies to similar questions.
6. Increases Customer Retention and Brand Loyalty
Online communities leverage a fundamental human instinct – the desire to be part of a group. In a study by The Governance Lab of New York University, 77% of respondents described online communities as their most important groups. In another study, a majority of forum users reported feeling empowered as a result of participation.
Forum involvement requires investments of time and knowledge from customers and thereby increases engagement and loyalty, especially when these investments are rewarded. Forums also give customers opportunities to feel heard, seen, and valued, all feelings that will ultimately be associated with your brand.
7. Cultivates Brand Advocates and Referrals
Retailers can use forums to nurture brand advocates and encourage past customers to drive referrals.
By rewarding community members with discounts, prizes, early-bird specials, advance notifications of product releases, and so on, you are increasing trust and engagement directly. This has the effect of cementing relationships with past buyers, who are much more likely to promote your online store and products to friends as a result.
Given the general decline of loyalty programs in a retail setting, forums provide a venue for you to connect with and reward customers in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way.
8. Improves the Overall Customer Experience
Many buyers will want to discuss your products, share advice, and troubleshoot problems after completing checkout. By allowing them to do this on your forum, you add another dimension to the overall customer experience.
A typical ecommerce customer journey ends after the purchase stage. Purchasers often receive follow-up marketing emails but little else. When you encourage people to join your forum, however, you continue to build a relationship with them into the future.
Creating extra positive experiences for shoppers significantly increases the likelihood that they will form a positive impression of your brand, make repeat purchases, and refer others.
9. Expands Your Value Proposition and Drives a Positive ROI
Your “value proposition” is the total package of benefits that you extend to customers (including but not limited to your unique selling points). Prospective buyers will usually opt for ecommerce retailers that offer the best propositions.
Having a forum expands the package of benefits you offer to customers, bolstering your overall value proposition. By giving customers privileges along with a space to discuss and share thoughts and ideas with other like-minded people, you lift your brand above your competition.
Forums also deliver a proven ROI, with one study showing a 4,530% return on the average amount invested in each member.
Cast Study: EA (Electronic Arts)
Electronic Arts has multiple forums dedicated to its most popular game titles. Fans can join to discuss strategy, game updates, bug fixes, and so on.
Case Study: The eBay Community
The eBay Community discussion board provides a space for buyers and sellers to share tips and advice. A subforum is dedicated to technical and support issues.
Case Study: Spotify Community
The Spotify Community forum is a broad discussion space where members can ask for assistance, discuss music and podcasts, and suggest new features.
Case Study: BodyBuilding.com Forums
The BodyBuilding.com forum is the web’s largest discussion space dedicated to bodybuilding.
Case Study: Evernote Community
The Evernote forum, which has over half a million posts, has dedicated categories where members can discuss the best ways to use the app, request features, and preview upcoming changes.
How to Get Started With Your Online Community
Here are some resources from PeerBoard about setting up and managing an online community:
- How to Build an Online Community: a PeerBoard Guide to Community Building
- Best Shopify Forum & Community Apps: Top 9 Picks
- 10 Forum Software to Create an Online Community (Traditional vs. Modern)
- B2B Community Building: 10 Tips for Success
Investing in building a forum will deliver a proven return on investment (ROI). From the perspective of boosting ecommerce sales and revenues, it is one of the most pragmatic and cost-effective decisions you can make as a retailer.
Even better, modern solutions and integrations streamline the process of launching a forum and significantly reduce wasted resources. Most providers price their services using a straightforward monthly subscription model.
PeerBoard’s community-building platform, for example, can be used to create a discussion space in a matter of minutes, without the need for any technical or development knowledge. PeerBoard also offers a direct Shopify integration and a feature-rich, “forever free” plan.
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