The best commercial forum software

Choosing the right forum software for your business is straightforward when you have the right resources. Whether it’s enabling your employees to turn their expertise into content or to host discussions between customers, forum software helps user-generated content build community.

Users prefer forum software for self-service

When forum software is part of your customer support strategy, you’re taking a modern omnichannel approach to customer service.

According to the Zendesk Benchmark report, 76% of customers prefer self-service to email or phone.

Customers spend less time digging and more time finding the answers they need if relevant information is accessible. Displaying useful and relevant information means customers are spending less time digging and more time finding the answers they need. The right forum software fields questions and reducing strain on support agents while leveraging their expertise.

Self-service is an effective and scalable way to triage customer concerns before escalating to other support channels. Sometimes, calling is the best option, especially in times of stress or when a concern needs to be addressed immediately. For other people, reaching customer support on their preferred messaging channel is where it’s at. But before customers get to the point of needing to speak to a person, laying the groundwork for easy resolutions takes some strain off agents.

Employee know-how is a valuable internal resource: Support agents are experts in your products, software, and services. What they know can and should be the basis for an ever-growing body of articles, whether for internal use only or for your end-user. The right forum software facilitates this. Common issues and answers can be easily surfaced, for example. Developers, too, can be a huge benefit in new ways to your company and customers by adding their voice to your new knowledge center. You might even solicit contributions from users.

A brief history of forum software:

  • Open source software, like phpBB. Released in 2000, phpBB is a free forum software written in PHP, a coding language.
  • vBulletin was a similar open source message board software, similarly written in phpBB. Its threaded conversations defined the online conversational landscape before social networks. To do advanced customization of a vBulletin forum, knowledge of coding language is necessary.
  • Guide, which can be part of a broader, omnichannel support strategy, can be integrated with artificial intelligence bots like Answer Bot, making it possible to use Guide in conversational support channels.
  • Software like Guide also supports WordPress plugins with its Knowledge Base Plugin.

Online forums have a storied past. Early players like phpBB and vBulletin might be familiar to seasoned internet users, once popular among people with niche interests, with communities growing around things like technology, films, games — and in some cases, products and brands. Now, as internet habits change, it’s common for the message boards to be used for to triage customer support as well as commercial community building.

Internal knowledge base vs. open source knowledge base

There is a series of key questions: Do you want your forum software to be used internally? Are you looking to turn your employee-expertise into something accessible to customers? Or are you looking to foster a discussion between customers and employees alike?

An internal knowledge base creates a home for your staff’s expertise

An internal knowledge base uses employee know-how as an ongoing source of education and assistance within your company. As opposed to a customer-facing support strategy, empowering your agents with quick access to answers, created by their own colleagues, cuts down on repetitive questions and improves response time and efficiency with customers.

Cécile, a customer advocate and product specialist at messaging platform Smooch, uses an internal knowledge base to help customers all the time, saying, “For me it’s like a reference when I’m looking for something and I have doubts—it’s my first reflex to search through the Guide. I know I’m going to find answers.”

Support agents can spend up to 20% of their time looking up answers to questions. They reap great benefits when they are empowered by a well-designed internal knowledge base. This year’s Zendesk Customer Experience Trends report, advocating for a comprehensive omnichannel solution for support teams, highlights the trend that high performing teams invest more in self-service with 4.5 more help center articles. Maintaining a solid knowledge base and continuously improving it over time see 23% lower resolution times than low performing teams.

An open source knowledge base creates community between you and your customers

An open source knowledge base houses community input and content, allowing developers and support agents to share content and knowledge with customers.

Help centers built are often the first stop for customers looking to solve a problem. While drawing on knowledge from a range of employees’ expertise breaks down internal silos, making this same knowledge available to customers cuts down on the time they spend interacting with support — especially if their problem can be resolved with self-service. Everyone in an organization can contribute to the creation of a knowledge base. Cécile, who regularly contributed to Smooch’s knowledge base with her own expertise, also relies on explanations written by developers.

“The developers succeeded in explaining how the products work, writing about the capabilities in a simple way,” says Cécile “Customers can understand it and use it in the easiest way possible.” Keeping customers part of the discussion allows for constructive feedback to land before the eyes of employees who can affect change.

The best forum software to leverage your knowledge base

Forum software has come a long way since the vBulletin message boards that populated the Web 2.0 landscape. The commercial use of forums dates back to the late ’90s, when companies experimented with user-generated content to bolster their marketing efforts. The Blair Witch Project filmmakers, for instance, used message boards to connect with fans and expand the in-film universe. User-generated content became an important, albeit experimental, marketing tool.

Today online communities are built into platforms like Reddit, Stack Exchange, and Quora, while traditional social networks and messaging platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Messenger, Slack, and Instagram use user-friendly features native to web forums and message boards, like threaded conversations, harking back to the days of phpBB boards.The common thread between these platforms is that they are open source communities that empower ordinary people to leverage their knowledge and ideas in a conversational, community-building way.

Ideally, the best community-building forum for your existing enterprise software should be an easy plugin. Support, for example, enables integrations that make it easier to aggregate agent know-how and streamline FAQs. Rather than resorting to a third party, working a simple plugin into your existing software means the experience will be seamless for end users as well as agents.

The forum software you use to power your knowledge base—employees and customers alike—should be secure and easy to deploy. Whether you're looking to develop your horror fantasy universe, or just help customers better understand your product Guide (which can be integrated into Support), forum software can help your company build an online community around your product and service. This community can feed into your omnichannel support strategy by catering to your customer’s self-serve needs.

Learn more about providing great customer self-service with Zendesk Guide.