Web-Based Productivity Suite Zoho Launches Forum Tool Zoho Discussions

Web-based productivity suite Zoho is launching a brand new product today called Zoho Discussions. Zoho lets any business, individual or organization create public or private support forums where employees or customers can share comments around a particular discussion topic. We have a special offer for TechCrunch readers; the first 25 readers (who are paid Zoho users) to email techcrunch@zohodiscussions.com will be able to use the product for free for up to 6 months.

I had the opportunity to test out Zoho Discussions and it’s both remarkably easy for anyone to set up and filled with useful features. With the new product you can create a platform for discussion forums, similar to Google Groups. The differentiating factor is that your forums can be customized and branded to adopt the look and feel of your site. Zoho even lets you pick out a domain name that coincides with your site. Plus, Zoho Discussions can be integrated with many of Zoho’s other productivity applications.

Similar to any forum, Zoho Discussion lets users create threads based on a particular topic. In terms of features, Zoho has focused in creating plenty of social tools to make the discussions more interactive and engaging. For example, users can vote on comments within a forum, indicating whether they “Like” a particular comment or forum. Aside from posting in the forums, users can interact in real-time through the built-in chat feature. Within the forum, users can create a profile, follow other users, bookmark particular threads and send private messages to administrators and users.

On the administrator side, you can make announcements, make particular threads more “sticky,” assign different users as moderators, remove inappropriate content and more. Plus, users and moderators can embed images and most types of files into threads as well. Like all of Zoho’s products, Zoho Discussion has a freemium model, with additional features like more storage, number of forums, number of moderators priced at $25 and $75 per month.

Zoho’s Evangelist, Raju Vegesna, told me that Zoho Discussions is designed to fulfill two kinds of purposes. The first is to serve as way for businesses to host a discussion forum to communicate with customers. The second purpose of the product is to be an internal platform for discussion within a business, in which case the product will be private.

This product seems to be representative of Zoho’s strategy to continue to innovate and iterate by launching new products and add-ons to its existing offerings. It’s almost reminiscent of Salesforce.com’s strategy. Over the past two years, Zohos has added support for Sharepoint, mobile, Google and Yahoo IDs and group sharing. Perhaps Zoho knows that it will have to fight a battle to keep users from flocking to Google Apps and soon Microsoft’s Web-based version of Microsoft 2010. But Zoho’s strategy may be sound—the startup has reached 2 million users in just 4 years.