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“We’ve printed cards we’ll hand out at shows and races that promote the online forum on one side and the MySpace page on the other,” Holmquist says. “We’ll also use answers from our customer service staff and content from our FAQs to create posts to prime the pump.”
Holmquist adds that for retailers of products about which people are passionate, customers will begin adding material quickly. “It’s primarily a matter of getting them there,” he says.
Monitoring the crowd
Once customers are there and posting, e-retailers must monitor forums to make sure questions are answered, delete inappropriate content, and harvest insights into what customers like and dislike about the company, its offerings and its web presence.
There are five staff members at Fabric.com monitoring and participating in the forum. They come from the marketing, merchandising and customer service departments. Some were selected because of their extensive sewing experience, enabling them to best relate to forum members and their needs, Eady says.
Members routinely answer other members’ questions, a fundamental of all online forums. It’s up to the e-retailer to watch for posts that members cannot answer, or posts for which it wants to chime in. It is also common on forums for members to monitor posts for inappropriate material. After a time, members feel a sense of ownership of a forum and want to protect it, Eady says.
Bodybuilding.com has two people dedicated to its online forum, one full-time and one part-time. It also has 20 forum members who work as volunteer moderators. Many forum members are so enthusiastic that the post of volunteer moderator is a coveted spot, and DeLuca says he routinely gets e-mail requests from members who want to play that role.
To become a moderator, a Bodybuilding.com forum member has to have been a member for at least a year, have posted at least 10,000 times-posts range in size and can be brief comments or responses-and have a good reputation in the community. DeLuca rewards volunteer moderators with discounts at the e-commerce store.
Moderators have the authority to delete posts and ban users. But the forum system backs up all entries and tracks what all moderators do. If a moderator makes a mistake or a call the e-retailer disagrees with, posts can be restored and members reinstated.
Members must provide a valid e-mail address linked to a user name to become a member of the Bodybuilding.com forum. To ban a member, Bodybuilding.com staff or volunteer moderators remove the user name from the forum system and ban that e-mail address. Bodybuilding.com also tracks the IP addresses of those banned to prevent them from re-registering under a different e-mail address.
Fabric.com follows a similar protocol for removing abusive forum members, but Eady says there have been few problems. “We don’t really interfere; we haven’t had to,” she says. “People who sew are a pretty tame crowd.”
Tame or lively, forum members can be a boon to e-retailers in several ways. These include insights into products carried, increases in site traffic, improvements in customer service and improvements in natural search results.
For example, in a couple of cases customers reacted strongly to new products at Bodybuilding.com, saying they could be abused by teen bodybuilders. “The manufacturers’ guidelines said nothing about that, but forum members felt strongly,” DeLuca says. “They said we should put a warning on them and say very specifically what the product is really intended for. And that’s what we did.”
Enthusiasts often link to forum threads, which can boost traffic and search engine rankings. “We’ve been getting people who post a link on Digg.com to an interesting thread,” DeLuca says. “This gets us not just more traffic to the forum and the store but more registered users who post more content, filled with keywords and inbound links for the search engines to crawl.”
Ultimately, online forums are first and foremost a tool to engender powerful customer loyalty, retailers say. “The implementation of Web 2.0 tactics, creating a solid community, sets you apart from your competition and keeps your customers coming back,” Eady says. “Our goal is to be first in their mind. If they have a question about a fabric or an issue to be resolved or a sewing tip to share, we want them to feel Fabric.com is not just a great place to buy a product but a destination where they can find a like-minded community.”