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The web forum is the coelacanth of the Internet: so old, it's been there from the beginning, swimming in the waters as it has for decades.

Before there were social networks, there were web forums. Before there were blogs, there were web forums. Before there was a World Wide Web, there were forums – text-based ones. And even as the spotlight has shifted to newer and flashier ways of connecting, web forums swim on, powering online conversations, day in and day out.

Despite their ancient roots, forums are a tool businesses shouldn't ignore. Some of them create forums of their own as places where customers and users can gather to talk to one another and the companies. And if a business doesn't have a forum, its owners might have to tangle with someone else's.

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How do we define "forum?"

Web forums organize conversations around topics. Unlike blogs – on which an author gets the ball rolling by writing a post – forums are communal spaces. Someone starts a discussion and others join in. To contribute, users have to sign up and create an identity – once they're involved, they can post hundreds or thousands of times.

But forums have also spawned similar websites, most notably review sites, where customers gather to share their feelings about products and services. These sites are typically a bit more structured than the wide-open conversational format of forums, but they still pose a challenge for business owners who can be faced with unfavorable chatter. And increasingly, Facebook Pages – which have become an all-purpose platform for small business – are taking on some of the characteristics of forums.

Why would they matter for business?

Forums are especially popular as community hubs: places where customers and aficionados gather to trade stories and swap tips. (The roiling, bargain-hunting forum is one prominent example.)

If a company's products have a following, they can draw this conversation to their own site. Forums are especially popular with companies that have a high ratio of customers to support staff, such as software firms, because their egalitarian format encourages users to connect directly with each other, rather than going through the company.

For instance, Toronto-based FreshBooks, makers of online bookkeeping software, uses forums as a place where its community of users and developers can talk to each other – sharing tips and advice – and give feedback to the company. Instead of needing to answer every query on a one-on-one basis – which would be a tall order – the company's representatives need merely join in the conversation, answering and intervening where it's helpful.

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Pluses and minuses

You could argue that everything on the Internet is a forum of some variety. But web forums have some distinct properties: the rules of engagement that govern a blog, for instance, don't always apply here.

Forums attract a community. Other forms of online interaction are geared toward casual contact – the passing, anonymous comment; the drop-and-go response. But forums reward people who stick around. They often track the number of contributions a user has made, rewarding frequent users with seniority. And forums tend to be carefully moderated by community members, who keep each other in check.

As a consequence, working with a web forum – either your own, or someone else's – requires a completely different approach than with other media. You're not just stepping into a conversation, you're stepping onto a patch of virtual turf that other people hold dear.

But there are two sides of this coin: Since forums set a high bar for involvement and don't exactly welcome casual users, they can suffer from a "failure to launch," in which they never achieve critical mass, and sit mostly unused. And if a thriving user forum is a great advertisement for a company's vitality and customer-base, then an empty forum, echoing with the sound of crickets, is something nobody wants to see.

In the weeks to come, we'll look at how small businesses can harness their own forums to build a community where once there were just customers – and gingerly wade into other peoples' forums, when the time comes to do damage control.

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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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