Has the time of the Internet forum come and gone, or are there still viable uses for it today?
In this post we’ll explore whether online forums are still relevant today. With the advancements the global internet community has made in recent years, are forums still necessary, or even useful at all?
Many content management systems, the likes of WordPress, Joomla and Drupal, for example, provide support to directly embed a user-contributed bulletin board into websites. Perhaps there's a case to assume that the traditional thread-based online forum no longer has such a dominant reign over communit-centric online spaces as they did before. And with popular breakout sites like Reddit and Quora, also following a similar format to the traditional bulletin board, it's possible that viable use cases for such software has long-dwindled.
Your website’s end users, like all humans, prefer familiar, simple interfaces which they know how to use. Every bulletin board, due to their independent nature, has its own unique setup and layout, which actually serves to deter users, more often than not.
Avoiding the use of a forum, and employing alternatives such as social commenting, is a much better solution that is both socially integrated, and familiar.
Is the forum still relevant today?
In today’s world, one of the best use cases for online forums is as a means of providing support to your customers. In reality this only applies to technical products and services, because non-digital products are unlikely to arouse online suspicion from customers who have purchased or engaged with them offline.
A simple example would be a new item of flatpack furniture you recently purchased from Ikea. When experiencing challenges installing your new bed frame, kitchen unit, or closet draws, users are less likely to seek out help via the internet. Since the product isn’t digital and exists in the real world, buyers are much more likely to seek help via the store, or by making direct contact (think telephone) with the furniture store.
That leaves forums with a relatively small window of effective use, in today’s modern internet age.
In many ways, social media has taken the space of the once-loved online bulletin board.
In fact, studies report that most users prefer to find information on-site, from an official source, such as articles, know-hows, tutorials, or a knowledge base.
We have arrived at a point where social integration has become a key component of most websites, with many blogs now providing social commenting using tools like Disqus and Facebook comments. Not only does this make communication easier for users, but it further compels them to leave comments and ignite discussion due to the lack of requirement for registration.
Having to deliver your personal details to various independent discussion boards or blogs is simply not an attractive proposition, today. Users want to be able to comment instantly, and rely on the security of their means of interaction — using their preexisting Facebook or Google account, for instance.
Social integration for online discussion on websites also contributes to improved Google ranking and cost-effective promotion techniques.
Forums aren't wanted
Forums are not wanted. They induce clutter, often attract spam, and are a difficulty to maintain. Perhaps more importantly though, users simply don’t like them. There is often a small amount of resentment felt by a user upon having to surrender registration details for yet another website, and especially if the purpose is solely to ask a potentially (very) simple question.
The motivation to deploy a forum should really be if there is a need for one. It’s also important to consider who really needs the forum. Because of the dominance of social media sites and collective forum/discussion sites such as Reddit, Quora and Facebook, internet users no longer seek forums out of habit… they instead resort to social media to probe for answers from the larger global community for their questions.
The forum should be needed by your own website or business, or else it probably isn’t worth the time. If a discussion board best suits your requirements as a means of interacting with your customers or clientele, it becomes a need of your business, and therefore makes sense to introduce.
Do I hear spam?
Forum spam is a problem. It’s always been a problem. And it’s still a problem, even with the most popular of third-party captcha integration. As advanced as the web has become, spam continues to be a battle faced by virtually every website administrator, and there is no greater attraction than a bulletin board.
There are definitely options to reduce and mitigate the amount of spam a forum receives, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a forum that has not experienced irritation at some point.
Whether it’s worth the effort to maintain is a question that can only be determined by the nature and size of the forum and its level of success.
The other negatives
- Bulky forum software is a nuisance to maintain; don’t reinvent the wheel when other solutions are available
- Internet users take to social networks first because of larger user base which cannot be competed against, other than in a tight niche
- Maintaining interest in a forum is hard; expect challenges retaining repeat posters
- Forums are largely no longer necessary; use social media on your website instead, which will make it easier to retain posters
- It often takes users longer to receive a response on community-driven forums than on social networks
So, in conclusion, it would appear that the internet forum has passed its prime that once was. Perhaps five to ten years ago, they were a necessity for most user-based websites, allowing the community to contribute to relevant discussions effectively. Today, however, it would seem that much of the provisions online forums previously made are being provided by alternative community-based websites such as Reddit and Quora, and social networks like Facebook Groups and Twitter. In today’s age, we’re able to get answers to our queries and musings of practically any subject matter, without the need to find a relevant discussion forum and wait for an answer.
This is not necessarily a bad thing — in many ways it’s positive. It allows our thoughts and questions to be shared with larger user bases, and avoids the hassle of maintaining and using discussion forums. The forum has passed its prime time boom, long replaced by superior alternatives.
There may still be some, select uses for online discussion boards, such as to offer customer support on a community scale, but our thoughts are that the world of independent forums and bulletin boards are becoming somewhat a thing of the past.
Will independent discussion boards regain the popularity they once had? It seems unlikely. With websites and apps moving toward a more integrated, seamless experience for end users, it seems a far-fetched thought that forums will again become ‘a thing’ in the future.