Canadian software company improves on the Internet forum

It seems simple enough in concept. To create and curate a great Internet support system for a product you need two things: great integration with your product (particularly if it’s a software offering) and a simple layout (to keep users from running for the door).

When Cambridge Mass.-based marketing software maker HubSpot tired of its existing forum solution, a clunky and overcomplicated chunk of code, HubSpot executives began weighing their options. They could take the software the forums were built on, become experts in refining it and stripping away the excess and push the code, creating numerous headaches for both its customers and its internal tech team, or they could shop it out.

“Basically, we spent a long time evaluating forum solutions and the reason we chose Vanilla was just simplicity,” said Rick Burnes, product manager for HubSpot. “All these existing forum solutions have layered so much crap into their forums that it’s become unusable or too complicated for every customer. We wanted something that was basic but that was extensible to add deep features that we wanted.”

Burnes said that HubSpot has a thriving user community, and that by utilizing Vanilla Forums on a software-as-a-service basis, HubSpot could better engage its audience. By creating a comfortable place for users to ask questions, and in the ideal situation, answer them, Burnes said, the forums can take time and money out of managing support and put it back into building the business.

“We just get a lot more leverage from a robust forum,” he said. “They usually come to us (with support questions) anyways but it allows them to ask the community.” But customers like it too since it reduces the amount of time they have to wait for an answer. “They’re happy because they get their question answered quicker and we’re happy because other customers have answered it, so we didn’t have to spend time and resources answering the question.”

Montreal-based Vanilla Forums Inc. found success by taking a problem — that forums are too complicated for the average user — and fixing it. The company was started on that principle, to build better and simpler forums, and evolved into a service that tailors forums to the look and feel of companies and products, allowing seamless integration with software makers’ offerings.

Vanilla Forums’ vice-president of sales and marketing, Greg Marlin, said the success can be best attributed to the fact that “it’s a realignment in the way business will be conducted.” Marlin said that every company is having to change the way they support products, particularly in the software market, where Vanilla Forums has put the most focus. “Facebook is becoming the Internet. It’s becoming where business is being done,” he said. “There is a fundamental realignment in the way the Internet is structured and a lot of that is social.”

But Vanilla Forums doesn’t just offer its solution à la carte. The value for businesses like HubSpot is in how Vanilla tailors the product to the brand, keeping the solution extremely easy to use. It works by keeping branding consistent, but also by offering a one-stop shop for the whole community outside of normal social networking. “If you have a customer community or a discussion community about your product, or your brand, or your industry, or all of the above, that’s something different than you get on Facebook. There’s value in offering something different,” he said.

Vanilla also offers the ability to use single-sign-in. This means that users don’t have to log in to a separate system to access the forums, which reduces the chances they’ll just give up after they try to launch them. One login, consistent design; these are what Vanilla feels are the strengths that have allowed its product to gain momentum. According to Burnes, however, those are just the mandatory minimums for doing business.

He said that the true value of Vanilla, is the simplicity. While those features allow Vanilla to maintain that simplictity, he insists that the value comes from the fact that it’s easy to use, better than anything else out there and saves money. “Everybody thinks forums are old-school and they’re not an innovation, but it’s not true in this case, because Vanilla has changed them for the needs of businesses,” he said. “Every business is going to want a community and every business needs a forum. Every business can get the same kind of leverage out of their community of customers that we can.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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