In Toronto, a city with not enough real estate but too much real estate business, a lot of attention gets paid to the business of building. The attention comes not just from potential condo buyers, but from people who are interested in the subject: architecture buffs, construction enthusiasts, engaged city-dwellers and the like.
They congregate on web forums. One in particular, called Urban Toronto [www.urbantoronto.ca]/note> hosts a community of about 6,000 active members, in hundreds of independent discussion threads, creating about 70,000 page views a day. The discussion ranges from learned to, well, impassioned.
A few years ago, a formerly prominent developer told me that he was aware of these forums but didn't care what people there thought because – as fans – "they don't have any money."
Yet today, the forum, which has grown from simply a fan group to a resource for buyers, with a database of development projects, attracts the attention of developers, who appear both as sponsors and forum members, wading into the discussion to perform customer outreach.
Web forums are full of promise and peril for small businesses that intersect with their subject matter. Some businesses engage in outside forums; others bring the conversation in-house and host their own forums. (This can be a way of both increasing brand engagement and connecting users with each other as a means of customer support.)
Either way, the long-running nature of forum conversations means tangling with the same question that forum moderators must tangle with: How does a business manage a discussion that's already in progress?
Let users drive the agenda
For both forum moderators and participants, minimalism is of the essence. Unlike blogs, where the host creates a post that ideally sparks a discussion, forum users begin conversations on a topic at will, starting a thread that continues until the topic is played out – a process that can take years. While forum owners and subjects must intervene where need be, the goal is to stay out of the way as much as possible.
"There are a small number of rules, and they're all meant to provide a space where there's civil discourse," says Craig James White, one of the moderators at Urban Toronto.
Chief among them: Users are encouraged to make posts that contain actual substance, not just one-word agreements or retorts. Civility is required, and so is a degree of clarity in language.
"We go after people who give us text-speak," Mr. White says.
Keep conversations about the topic at hand, not other users
Since forums foster long-running conversations between long-standing members, rather than casual exchanges between anonymous users who have popped by a blog, character conflict is a fact of life. Reining in personality discussions and ad hominem attacks is one of a forum operator's most onerous tasks.
A flat-out ban is one approach, though as Mr. White notes, long-standing forum members can figure out how to slip subtle jibes past the censor's pen.
Another tactic that's been employed in successful online communities is to create a separate conversation just for the discussion of community issues. That way, if the conversation threatens to get derailed into a meta-discussion about the group dynamics, moderators can get the thread back on track by referring all such talk to a separate location.
Remember the value of a timely intervention
The fact that users go to forums to speak directly with one another means that responses from business owners can come as a welcome surprise. At Urban Toronto, developers occasionally pop in to provide construction updates on their projects, clarify points in often-roiling conversations and even troubleshoot customer problems; typically, they keep their engagement to a minimum, staying out of the debate by sticking to the facts and asking for offline follow-up, if need be.
The same is true for businesses that host their own forums. FreshBooks, a Canadian online-billing company, uses forums to solicit feedback and feature suggestions on its products.
Stuart MacDonald, its chief marketing officer, says that letting customers know that they've been heard can reap rewards. This is especially true in instances where a suggestion has taken months to bear fruit; FreshBooks developers have returned to the forums to let original user sknow their point was taken.
"Send them an e-mail to tell them," he suggests. "People are blown away."
Don't ignore the fans
The fact that not everybody on a web forum is a paying customer can make it hard to justify spending time on them. But remember that not only do forums affect search-engine results in the long run, their members can turn up in the real world, too.
Urban Toronto's vociferous members, for instance, have been known to show up at community meetings, voicing their concerns about a development to elected officials; forum reactions can be a bellwether for the way a product is received in broader communities.
And remember: Today's fan could turn into tomorrow's buyer.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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