"Crowd-sourcing" service and support. Setting up an online forum is an easy way to outsource some of your customer service and support to the "crowd" -- or to your community of customers and admirers. "If someone has a question about a piece of software, hardware or a phone, there is a great chance that someone else has had that question as well," Messick says. It allows a business to speak to many customers as once by answering that question online in a way that other customers can find it. In fact, some forum software solutions help you optimize search terms to make it easy customers to find exactly the question they are looking to answer through search engines. Letting customers help each other can help you cut support and service costs by reducing the amount of e-mail or trouble tickets your staff needs to respond to.
Consumer research. An online forum can also be a place where customers can provide feedback on your products or services and generate new ideas. Members of the community can post an idea and gain critical mass around the ideas. "A lot of companies don't have a lot of funds to do focus groups," Messick says. "From a business standpoint, the benefits [of online communities] can include marketing, product marketing and development, and Rr&D."
Social "CRM." Online forums or communities can also act as "the hotel lobby," Messick says. "It's a public space that the company owns where customer can talk to one another. If they have a question, they can talk to the concierge or, if it escalates, they can go to the manager. The beauty is that it's still owned by the hotelier." In other words, it's not an uncontrolled conversation happening on Twitter. It's a supervised discussion in which the company plays a role. Messick calls this "social CRM" -- a form of customer relationship management fostered by communication with customers through social networking. Instead of dealing with merely data, you are now able to gain insight into your customers from conversations and relationships. "The fact of the matter is that your customer lives in this world and they expect you to be there, too," Messick says.