Public forums are great for self-service support (users supporting users), but there’s some caveats. I’ll detail some of those below. It’s worth adding that some helpdesks like zendesk (the most recent time we’ve used it) have public Q&A; sections, which I think are a good middle ground between forums & helpdesks.
Pros & cons for forums
Before becoming useful, forums need to reach a certain level of momentum. Getting that momentum is often the biggest problem forums face. Posting lots of content won’t necessarily build momentum quickly enough to attract users. Forums are very much like a vegetable garden, in that months of effort can bear fruit, but not without lots of time spent beating away pests & pruning forums constantly. As a small team, finding out what works best for your company is going to pay dividends. Forums, like anything, can prove to be a distraction from your core product. For a tech-centric product like say web hosting, wordpress theme developers, or some software product, forums can prove great & beneficial. For other types of industries, your mileage may vary. Tread wisely.
The Benefits of a Forum
Great way to build a community.
Often inexpensive to manage from a software standpoint.
It’s wonderful to have self-supporting users, potentially freeing up your time to work on your product & business
The Negatives of a Forum
Building momentum is hard, & can be very tedious & expensive from a manpower (or womanpower, woo!) standpoint, especially upfront.
Forums require lots of pruning, updating & user management. When dealing with social interactions, suddenly having to remove the wrong person from a forum might damage your reputation or momentum.
You’ll need to prune quickly to prevent spam, people posting affiliate links & trying to steal your clientbase almost constantly
Like anything, they can be a distraction from your product
There’s many forums out there, and we haven’t had time to audit them all in the recent years. Punbb, phpbb, vbulletin, vanilla, discourse & some others are the newer ones.