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Paul Hudson
Paul Hudson CEO of Intersperience
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A Funny Thing Happened to the Forum

The forum started life as electronic mailing list, evolved into a bulletin board, was rebranded as a forum then took over the online research world in many peopleís eyes.

Then a funny thing happened to the forum.  It became laden with a huge burden of expectation, with would-be forum-ites demanding cheap, self-perpetuating, plentiful insight from customers.

Is this justified?

What a forum is

  • A way for customers to build up online connections and even friendships leading to a stronger community.
  • A space for reflective discussion about your brand, your competitors and your customersí lives.
  • Cheaper to run than face-to-face research (but more resource intensive than you might think!).
  • A way of involving and engaging large numbers of customers.
  • A quick way to get a snapshot of opinion.
  • A way to generate ideas which can then be tested using research methods.
  • A window into the thoughts of consumers, through which we can start to see the questions we should be asking that we never thought to ask.

What a forum isnít

Quant!

You can often build up a quantitative base of opinion over the course of several forum discussions, especially using a text analytics tool like our new listening tool.  But would you make an important business decision, or encourage a client to, based on a handful of comments gathered together in one single discussion over a couple of days?  Take the time to ask the right questions and run a survey.

Self-perpetuating

You canít just drop a few hundred customers into a virtual box for a few months, and then expect them to have somehow magically created insight about your brand the next time you take the lid off.  Unless you have an extremely engaging brand with a highly motivated set of customers to start with, you will need to intervene, prompt, cajole, scold and ask questions.  Even if you think your customers (or even staff) are that engaged, theyíre probably not.

Guaranteed to answer all your questions

The old proverb says that you can lead a horse to water, but you canít make it drink.  Similarly, even when you formulate great questions to put to your customers in your brand, spanking new forum, you might still find tumbleweed blowing across the thread a few days later.

Some questions just donít engage customers. Or the weather might be nice and theyíre not logging in.  Or they misconstrue the question, wilfully or otherwise.  If you want to make sure that you have a structured discussion, with carefully probed responses from a certain number of customers in a set time-frame, write a carefully planned topic guide and run an online focus group. 

In summary, used correctly and with your expectations pitched according to its strengths, the forum can be a very useful tool in the online research repertoire.

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