It's becoming a standard piece of advice for small tech companies to set up what I call the Web triumvirate:
The reason for the website is obvious: it serves as your online presence for your product offering.
The reasons for a blog are many -- among them: more content means better search engine results; discussing your product with customers and the public in a conversational voice leads to deeper engagement; and a blog gives you a means to announce useful information that does not rise to the level of a press release.
The reason for the support discussion forums is to help with technical issues. Customers experiencing issues or having questions can present them on the technical support forums. Other customers or company representatives come by and answer questions or help troubleshoot issues. Other customers may also offer tips for how best to use the products.
Growing Use of Customer Support Forums
The idea of using public support forums has been around for years, but is increasingly becoming a standard part of the online presence package. Businesses large and small now offer them. Often the discussion forums are the most vibrant, human and active parts of a company's Web presence.
In their book Groundswell, Forrester analysts Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff write extensively about customer support forums. But as they point out, customer support forums do not replace the need for customer support staff. In fact, you must staff your support forums properly if you don't want customers to become completely aggravated. (See this post by Museum 2.0 for a good summary of key Groundswell points about discussion forums.)
I think it's instructive to look at two different support forums for some quick "best practices":
Support Forums for XYZ Product (anonymous to protect the guilty) -- when you go to the company's website, you are urged to visit the support discussion forums. Every effort is made to make it difficult to call or email support because they keep redirecting you to the support forums from every screen. Questions in the forums go unanswered for weeks and months -- and sometimes never get answered -- while the user's frustrations boil over.
Occasionally you get lucky and a company employee happens by and gives a response. However, usually it is members of the community who answer questions. Their level of knowledge is all over the place.
As one person said to me, "80% of XYZ's community members are full of c**p and give flat out wrong answers." Even more disturbing, the tone of responses by community members sometimes borders on abusive. As my same source says: "You seem to have 3 choices: you don't get your questions answered; or you get wrong answers; or you get wrong answers and are reamed out for not knowing the answer by someone who doesn't know the answer, either." Talk about abusing your customers!!!
Contrast the XYZ Product forums with those of Dell. When you go to the Dell product forums you are directed to a forum specifically for that product. Questions are answered quickly. Dell employees have a visible and active presence in the site. Even more user friendly is the little green "solved!" check mark designation that is placed next to each discussion thread where the question has been answered (see screenshot above).
Dell received special recognition for its handling of support forums by the authors of Groundswell.
Your business, being smaller, may not be able to afford all the staff resources and technology of a Dell. You also may not need all of that due to the smaller scale of your business. For instance, a small company or startup may start out with an open source or inexpensive forum software such as VBulletin (see a matrix of forum software here).
3 Best Practices Tips for Discussion Forums
My point is to consider what it is like for your customers to get support from you. Support discussion forums can be helpful things, and I recommend them for technology startups and small businesses in particular. Just make sure that:
(1) you have employees manning the support forums regularly to answer questions;
(2) employees are visible and set the tone with community members -- abusive community behavior needs to be nipped in the bud and a good example set by company employees;
(3) you give contact alternatives for those who have a low tolerance for support forums: a phone number, live chat or email support. Or all of the above.