The problem with online forums is that most people do not treat them like forums for discussion. Instead, they treat them as a free way to get somebody else to do their work/thinking for them. For every hundred people who ask a question, there is maybe one person who has both the knowledge and inclination to answer a question, which leads to rather one-sided discussion. You know the kind of thing: “can anyone advise how to do such and such?”; “we are doing this project, can anybody send me documents of similar project they did?”; and “please send me any work you have done so I can give you no credit and pretend to my boss that I did it in order to secure a pay rise”. One suspects that the Romans would not have had much of an empire if the discussions at the Roman Forum had been so lackluster.
One-sided conversations tend to be the problem if people are expected to take time answering questions out of sheer generosity. If, however, the person answering the questions is being paid to do so, you can expect there to be a lot more answers. Why pay someone to answer questions? One good reason would be to strengthen the relationship between a vendor and its customers. For “strengthen the relationship” you may also substitute the words “reduce the risk that the customer will look – and pay – for advice from elsewhere”. Which must be exactly the thinking behind Subex’s latest venture: an online forum for its users.
Subex has announced they will launch their user forum in March. Doubtless the forum will be a cost-effective way of dealing with queries about how to use their software, reducing some of the burden of dealing with telephone inquiries. But it is also a great way of persuading customers to turn to Subex for any other advice they may need, even if it does not relate to software they have already purchased. Any software business knows that whilst revenues for software might be high and relatively predictable, you can really boost margins by adding some consulting sales on top. Of course, customers are wary of getting advice from people with a reason to recommend more software as the solution to every problem. But Subex can guess that for every hundred questions they answer, one will evolve into a consulting sale. If the money goes to Subex, and not to another firm, then the forum will be a smart way to augment their business. My money says you can anticipate that other vendors will soon follow Subex’s lead by setting up their own forums.