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Handy tools to set up Web forums Add to ...

There’s no shortage of tools a small business can use to encourage customers to interact online, from a well-maintained blog to a carefully-tended social media presence. But running a Web forum – a discussion board of the variety that have populated the Internet since time immemorial – can help where other implements fall short.

If your business has a large community of users but a small staff, a Web forum lets customers connect directly with one another. Where employees do the heavy lifting on a company blog, writing copy to spark conversations, forums let the customer community take centre stage, giving them a venue to swap tips, register complaints and discuss their experiences.

Forums predate blogs and other forms of social media; one byproduct of their connectivity is that there are dozens and dozens of different pieces of forum software, mostly offering some variation on the same service. If you’re interested in setting up a forum for your business, here’s where to begin:

Hosted or local

Web forums come in two flavours, hosted or local. As with other kinds of software, hosted forums don’t live on your server, but rather on the server of a company, in exchange for a monthly fee; no installation is required. (Hosted software isn’t exactly a new idea but, suddenly, it’s become the norm. Nowadays, we just say it’s “in the cloud.”)

The usual tradeoffs apply: Hosted forums, like Zoho Discussions provide ready-to-go, turnkey service, while forums you can install on your own website, like the ubiquitous phpBB offer virtually unlimited customizability and no recurring costs beyond what you’d pay professionals to update it.

Flat or threaded

The kind of forum software you choose will have an effect on the kind of discussions that play out on the site.

One piece of terminology you’ll encounter is “flat” or “threaded” conversations. Flat forums are simply constructed: Once a user starts a conversation, others’ additions follow in chronological order, one after the other.

Threaded forums, however, let users respond to each message individually, meaning that the conversation can branch off repeatedly into individual “threads” of conversation. (The popular forums at Reddit a paid piece of flat-forum software that’s a popular workhorse, will have a community of users that you’ll be able to consult should you have questions. Picking a well-worn piece of software will also make it easier to find Web developers who are familiar with it in the future.

Consider alternative formats

Forum software isn’t the only route for encouraging customers to connect directly with each other. The truly adventurous can set up a wiki through Wikia.com [www.wikia.com]/note>, and MediaWiki, the software that powers Wikipedia, can be downloaded for free – though wikis require so much user engagement, business applications are few and far between.

A more practical implement comes from a company called AnswerBase [www.answerbase.com]/note>, which offers a platform for creating your own Q&A site. A latter-day reinvention of the web-forum concept, Q&A sites organize conversations around questions: Some users ask, other users answer, and the community votes on which Q&A’s are the most interesting and useful.

Sites like Quora [www.quora.com]/note> use this format for general-interest conversations; AnswerBase is a hosted service that applies a similar concept to private websites.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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