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You Can't Open A Newspaper or watch TV without someone mentioning FaceBook, MySpace, LinkedIn or Twitter. This year, social networking is going mainstream. If you've been following my column, you may be getting geared up to take advantage of this trend. Now let's focus on forums.

Forums are online communities centered around the discussion of specific topics. An example is at www.advrider.com. This forum is composed of several topics (ride reports, for example), and those topics are further divided into discussion threads, or just threads for short (Death Valley is just one thread below ride reports). Most forums require that users be registered and issued a user ID or handle. A user will start a thread with a post or question, and usually people will comment on the post. Eventually an online discussion evolves.

PROS AND CONS OF FORUMS

Some forum participants behave in a way they wouldn't offline. Insults are hurled, and intelligence is questioned. Angry emoticons sprout like toadstools after a rainstorm, and the discussion typically devolves into an incoherent babble or a "flame war." Still, forums are useful and entertaining.

So does it make sense for you to host a forum? Perhaps. The main reason to have a forum is that it supplies a reason for people to interact with your site regularly, and buy something now and again.

But also think about why you may not want a forum. Does your target audience already have a popular forum at which to aggregate? Also, if there's not a large and active community posting and reading, it's hard to get anyone to pay attention. Some pretty good forums already cater to just about every demographic. That's not to say that you can't produce a forum that could displace two or three of inferior ones, nor does it preclude the opportunity for you to take advantage of an underserved niche; a quick glance at Google, for example, indicates a glaring absence of three-wheeled-scooter forums.

Administering a forum takes a lot of work. You have to moderate posts to remove inappropriate or illegal language, ban troublemakers, do periodic maintenance of topics and threads, and so on.

Because your forum would operate under a commercial umbrella, you might come under more scrutiny for what's posted. Most forums are single entities that make money off of advertising and nothing else. Your forum would be part of your company Web site. For instance, a ticked-off customer posts a rant about how evil you are and how your service manager belongs in GitMo. If you leave the post, people may read it and cast a disparaging eye. If you remove it and word gets out that you're censoring your forums, a huge backlash may result. Also, you may be sued (regardless of the merit) by vendors that read a post written by someone who takes a spectacularly ill-informed stance on a particular product or service.

Usually you can diffuse these types of situations by posting a well-worded, even-handed response instead of deleting the posts. If you're in the right, most users will back you up. Eventually the negative person will relax or just go away. You also can have your lawyer help you draft terms of usage that spell out the limits of your liability.

While the legal risks may scare you, note that a lot of large e-commerce companies operate forums that contribute significantly to their sales. A good example is the electronics supplier Parts Express (www.partsexpress.com). Here's a company that sells parts to enthusiasts. It also runs a forum where people say what they're doing with those products and ask technical questions that the forum community tries to answer.

Sound familiar? Substitute the word electronics with motorcycles, and you should see that e-commerce and forums can form a positive relationship for your business.

SO HOW DO YOU DO IT?

You've got options. You can go the route of using a hosted (software-as-service) solution such as ProBoards (www.proboards.com) or HyperBoards (www.hyperboards.com).

But I suggest you run your own show. There are several free (or bargain-priced) forum software packages out there. Two of the best forum packages are vBulletin (www.vbulletin.com) and phpBB (www.phpbb.com). The company hosting your site probably provides one of these packages. It just needs to be activated. For details on forum software, check out the forum comparison site ForumMatrix (www.forummatrix.org).

If all of this sounds like too much work, hassle, or risk, buy an established forum that serves your demographic, and roll it into your operations. But consider how the forum population may react. For some reason, forums often see corporate involvement as anathema to free expression.

A less severe step would be to contact an established forum about becoming a major sponsor, benefactor or business partner. In return, you'd get prominent links or product placements on the forum.

Todd Shafer runs online operations at A&S BMW Motorcycles and heads up his own consulting company for e-commerce and marketing (www.radicalpowersports.com). Contact him via editors@dealernews.com.