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Ok, maybe that’s not really true. But at least I caught your attention, didn’t I?

Honestly, it’s not really that far from the truth though. Today forums have become a big part of my everyday life. As you have seen previously on Playing With Wire, we love Open Source-software. In the Open Source-world, forums are equivalent to what phone-support is in the commercial-software world.

When you work as a system administrator, it frequently happens that you run into problems. The software doesn’t start after an update, you receive an error that you cannot really interpret in an error-log, or any other problem that you cannot solve. The thing that comes to your rescue is the forums.

My favorite Linux-distribution is Gentoo Linux, and one of the many reasons why I love it is because of their support forum. This forum has an impressive quick reply-time. Some of my posts got replied to within minutes, and this all for the total expense of $0.

So why am I writing this post? How does this relate to a startup? Well, it’s quite simple – we like forums. Web-based forums can help several users with the same problem. Rather than having to answer every question multiple times, one thread can give the answer to tons of users. In addition this, users can also contribute by helping other users. Somehow it’s the human nature to help other people because of the simple reason that we feel good about it (this is not a political statement in any way, trust me).

I must however acknowledge that forums will never completely replace phone or e-mail support, since in some certain situations, it’s simply more efficient/convenient to use phones or e-mail. My point is that if your company provides a forum where they deal with support issues, you can save costs as well as help your customers both save money and time (who hasn’t spent hours on hold to get through to a support line?).

Below I’ve listed 4 important things to keep in mind before you add a forum to your site:

  1. Select the right software. They say the best things in life are free, so why pay for something you can get for free? The most widespread forum-softwares out there are Open Source. Look at SourceForge or Freshmeat before you start spending money for software. However, keep in mind that there’re tons of people working on their spare time to bring you that software, so if you’re using their software in your business, please consider donating some money back to their project.
  2. Select a good design. Selecting a good design doesn’t simply mean that it should look good. Of course, this is essential, but it doesn’t matter if it looks good, if it looks completely different than the rest of your site.
  3. Integrate. Over and over again I see companies that have their forums on some external site where you can barely tell if it’s the official forum, or some unofficial forum. Make sure you integrate your forum into your site, make it look like it belongs there, both with graphics and layout.
  4. Answer the questions. This should go without saying. There’s nothing more annoying and frustrating than to visit a forum with little or no activity. A forum with many unanswered questions is worse than no forum at all. If you’re thinking about implementing a forum, make sure you devote the necessary time it takes to run the forum as well.

Since we’re talking about forums in today’s post, today’s link is to (as far as I know), the most well-known forum software out there phpBB. There’s also tons of other good forum-softwares out there, that come embedded in various CMSes, but phpBB is probably the most famous stand-alone forum-software.

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