Online forums are one of the most overlooked aspects of online marketing. When small business owners consider their online presence, they unfortunately overlook ways to directly interact with their customers beyond just social media. In addition to web chat software, which still requires a “live” person, online forums allow you to gauge questions and have a set list of answers ready to go. It’s hands down one of the best kept secrets for small businesses looking to cater to their customers while still being time- and cost-efficient.

Small business owners also need to think outside the box. Forums aren’t just about answering your customers’ questions but about allowing your website to be a valuable space for discussion. This idea worked great for boat blueprint company Glen-L Marine Designs, which saw itself save countless hours in customer Q&A by hosting a forum where boat enthusiasts could engage with one another. An industry veteran, owner Gayle Brantuk also noted she’d sometimes be surprised by how knowledgeable forum members were; she’s been in the business for over 30 yeas and she still manages to learn something new through the forum.

Creating and fostering a successful forum ensures website traffic, promotes you as the authority on a subject and often also allows forum users to answer each other’s questions (which again saves you the hassle of answering it yourself). So what are the best online forum services out there?

Consider Bravenet, which offers free interactive message forums that you can embed into your website within minutes. Bravenet also allows for multiple forums and categories, supports HTML coding within forum messages/posts, quoted replies and allows users to create their own avatars. This easy-to-use system goes beyond expectations offering customized design and page layouts, as well as statistics to help track usage. It also grants the moderator the editorship to edit/delete posts and to control who has access to your forum through IP banning.

One of the most popular online forum services, InvisionFree has earned its stellar reputation through millions of users that have turned to the software to create forum communities. What you get is a customizable forum (if you’re CSS savvy), free support for custom domains, calendar events, spam prevention (and a promise by InvisionFree not to populate your forum with advertising or pop ups). You also get access to a forum that you can index by birthdays, active users, events, messages and statistics.

InvisionFree set the bar high by keeping user needs as their foremost priority; they extend users a personal messenger system, complete user control from a simple control panel and updated forum activity that allows you to keep up-to-speed with the conversation. Most InvisionFree users also appreciate the generous tech support and user feedback available on the internet due to the high volume of users and shared information available as a result.

A strong competitor with InvisonFree, Zetaboards offers many of the same perks but allows for greater creative/design control. Those who don’t have a site but need a forum as a priority can turn to this forum software that also allows you to use a website maker to craft your forum around. Zetaboards also offers completely free internet tech support.

And finally there’s Forumotion, which also allows you to create a free blog alongside a free forum. Forumotion is not quite as popular as these other free forums, but it does allow for unlimited forum use – meaning there’s no cap on messages or users. What makes Forumotion a forum contender is in its ability to host a chat box and a role playing game in addition to the other features that it does offer and share with its competitors.

The major downside with this forum is that their custom skin menu is a bit on the amateur side (even though there are over 7,000 skins to choose from). Aesthetically, it doesn’t offer the professionalism you’d expect with business – although some businesses can and do get away with this for a number of reasons. If you’re still not sure if Forumotion is right for you, I recommend checking out their forum directory, which lists all the users who have forums with them; a quick browse through lets you take a peek at your forum’s peers, after which you can decide if the audience that’s attracted to this forum style is your target audience.