Forums vs Social Networks

SocialEngine - Community Software

If you’re considering whether to build a forum or social network, this article should be helpful to you. The mediums through which people interact with one another online is constantly changing. If you take a step back and think about all of the different ways you have communicated with the people in your life in the past week, it’s staggering.

Here are just a few of the ways I’ve engaged with friends, family and co-workers in the last few hours:

  • Email

  • Twitter

  • Facebook

  • Voxer

  • Text

  • Instagram

  • Quora

  • LinkedIn

  • Path

  • Phone (old school I know)

With a wide and overwhelming variety of ways to get in touch, how do you know which is best for your company and / or customers? Most brands turn to two specific methods, forums and social networks, to address the range of queries they receive. A single, easy-to-find place for discussions, troubleshooting and relationship building is also key. How do you know whether you will better benefit from a forum or a social network?


Simply put, forums are evolved bulletin boards. They are designed for threaded discussions about specific subjects and sub-subjects.
Stand Forum Template

The nature of a forum is built around:

  • transactions – a customer or user has a question or concern they want immediately addressed
  • one time log-in – the user with the question or concern tends to visit only once, leaving when their need is addressed or ignore
Forums take a more hands-off approach to customer needs with minimal interaction from the company itself. Yes, someone from your team will need to administer and occasionally ban those who aren’t playing nice, but for the most part it’s a laissez faire mindset. If your objective is to crowdsource a list of frequently asked questions, answered by your own users, a forum might be a good choice. A forum provides an online place where users help one another. At the same time, forums provide a great deal of value in obtaining insights about customer experience. You can use forums to uncover recurring pain points, get product feedback, and choose topics to address in future blog posts.
I think Jeremiah Owyang  puts it best:

“Forums are like social mixers, where everyone is at equal level, milling about and discussing with others. These many communication tools allow anyone to start a topic and anyone to respond to one. Members are often at equal level, and content is usually segmented by topic. (rather than by people).”

Social Networks

One of the best reasons to join or even create a social network is because doing so nurtures a customized experience. When you personalize an online community around your company, you build lasting connections with others. A social network allows you to stay up to date on the people in your life, power users, repeat offenders, and target customers. Better put, social networks are centered around people whereas forums are centered around topics.

In your typical social network, people are held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships; friendship, colleagues, family members, classmates, etc. These connections are built on a one-by-one basis. Generally speaking, there is a larger sense of commitment to social networks than forums because the subject matter is centered around people and their personal connections.

Forums vs Social Networks

A forum might be a good choice for a company with many technical queries. Take for example a company like Comcast. The cable giant has over 405 million pages populated on their own online forum, the majority of which are focused on providing targeted assistance with one of their products or services.
Comcast Forums
Let’s say you’re experiencing a problem with your Comcast internet. You have millions of pages full of information and resources to help troubleshoot your issue without having to call customer service (and most likely be put on hold) only to receive the same information. Chances are good that someone else has experienced the same problem and the forum contains an article detailing steps to take to remedy the situation.
A social network is always more optimal for a company whose users are mobile and want a clean interface with which to interact with others. A great example of this is what Warby Parker is building on Pinterest and Instagram. The New York based eyewear company has a fantastic digital presence and is constantly takes full advantage of promoting their frames on these visual networks. In January they organized a Warby Parker Instagram Photo Walk. People registered, met up with one another and snapped pictures, including a branded hashtag about the event. This is the kind of content you don’t see populated on a forum. The event was a massive hit and created a lot of buzz for Warby Parker.  More importantly, it galvanized the relationships formed on many of their social networking sites by providing an opportunity for people to meet in real life.
Warby Parker Instagram

So which one best for you?

It’s really up to you and you overall objectives. If you’re looking for a great customer service tool where people can log on and find information quickly, forums might be the best way to go. However, if you’re looking at creating lasting relationships and want to meet people who share similar interests, a social network is the answer.

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