Discussion forums encourage customer participation, getting customers and prospects to stay longer which means more interaction with your brand. They drive repeat visits too. Some customers become “regulars” on your forums — which should, hopefully, lead to you being top-of-mind more often when they are in the market for products that you sell. In other words, discussion forums make your site sticky. Not a bad thing!
Woot.com is a great example of an ecommerce site that encourages participation with forums. They consistently get dozens of comments per day; frequently it’s even hundreds. Their weekly contest is brilliant: they get customers to Photoshop images to a particular theme (which changes week by week) and then post their creations to the forums. Viewing the submissions is a lot of fun.
Online forums also generate wonderful search engine fodder. If the forum is architected correctly, each forum posting will become a separate page that ends up in Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask, etc. And each of those pages will have been engineered to rank well (the HTML, the URLs, the anchor text of the back links, etc.).
We set up a forum for Van Dykes Furniture Restorers for their core customers (furniture restorers) to collaborate, share tips, ask and answer questions, etc. This user-contributed content is written in the language of the customers. For example, if a post is written about “gluing wood to metal” and that’s the language that furniture restorers are using, rather than the product-focused industry lingo that the supplier is using, then that’s new search engine visibility that hasn’t been captured before by the online catalog. Multiply that effect out by the hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of forum posts and you’ve got the beginnings of a Long Tail search optimization strategy.