User forums: suggestions, experiences, guidelines, pitfalls, liabilities, etc.?

Subject: User forums: suggestions, experiences, guidelines, pitfalls, liabilities, etc.?
From: "Elissa K. Miller" <emiller -at- doubleknot -dot- com>
To: "techwrl" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 8 Sep 2014 15:14:48 -0700

A very small but vocal group of customers want my company to provide user
forums so they can be in contact with other users. As "person care a lot
about our users," it's my task to evaluate every aspect of this request.

The benefits seem obvious-people can find answers instead of calling
support, power users can use their vast expertise to help their peers, I can
clearly see issues that trip people up and require better documentation,

On the other hand, I can see potential problems with a forum. It might not
reach critical mass, and an empty forum is a sad thing. There's a vast
skills gap between our most basic users (often administrative staff and
nonprofit volunteers) and our power users, and power users who know the
basic user answers may not deign to go to those areas, while the complex
questions from power users can only be answered by our staff and the issues
may be entirely related to custom integration and not relevant at all to
others. And, senior management is concerned about providing our customers
with a place to say negative things about us. Which I don't even know how to
respond to other than "I appreciate your concern."

Then there's the whole "so now technical communications would include a
blog, documentation, online help, knowledge base and now forums-what's the
mission/strategy/goal for each of them and how do they fit into the larger
plan?" Also, "How much time will I need to spend answering posts in the
forum if customers don't get help from their peers, or if the help is
incorrect, unclear, or incomplete?" And, "I'll have to come up with policies
and guidelines for handling off-topic or hostile posts." Also "Holy crap, I
do not need more work."

I am grateful for any suggestions, guidelines, experience, pros, cons,
pitfalls, liabilities, and any other information you care to share.

I suppose the first step would be to survey all customers to see if they
think that they would use a forum if one existed, to find out their
self-reported skill levels, and to learn whether they think they'd answer
questions that they could answer in addition to posting their own questions.
I expect that whatever answers I get will indicate more interest than there
will actually be if it's launched, but it's a start.

Thank you in advance for any help.

Elissa M.

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