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|Starting a Web Community|
Care and Feeding of a New Forum
Kind of intimidating looking in this forum and seeing under ten, posts, eh? But this is exactly the challenge faced by many webmasters. Many of us have been there - the BB software is installed, the template or skin is designed... the forums have been set up... and there you sit, with the thread and post counters at "0". It's enough to creep you out... ;)
I know we've got some experienced folks here... What have you done to get conversation flowing and attract new members?
I once had a teacher who said, "The first five languages are the toughest." (He spoke a dozen or so.) Forum operators typically find that the first few thousand posts are the toughest - once you are at that level, you probably have something going, even if it's not quite enough to launch your forum to the six or seven digit level.
What comes first? Do you jump in as yourself, the host? Do you adopt other nicks, or get your buddies to post? When you have a flicker of flame and wisp of smoke, so to speak, how do you fan it into a real fire?
I am a mod on a forum that deals with Jobseekers Advice, I think that I was one of the first to join up. It is now a busy forum and that is directly related to content of the main site, the guy who owns the site has put in a lot of work and has quality content that draws in the traffic.
I work as a Mod on an Intranet Forum for an organisation of over 150,000. We started a new Discussion group about two years ago - it quickly became very popular because we tried to ensure that every post was answered as quickly as possible - even if it was a 'holding response'.
I found the very same when I first posted here - I got 10 or so responses when I came back the same day, and so have never looked back :)
This way users can feel the forum is really 'live' - so if you expect to get world wide traffic it'll need to be modded 24/7! (luckily ours is all UK, 9-5)
I think the suggestions of encouraging long community based threads and discussions is also important - whether they be a 'hot topic' debate or a discussion about smelly feet ;). Simple Q&A is the bread and butter, but longer conversational articles add depth. Also a bit of humor and fun takes away the anonimity and adds personality to the place.
So how can you turn a forum / web community into revenue?
Most can't support membership fees (minus WebmasterWorld and a few others)
And the pages tend to look "busy" so I can't imagine a high CTR for adsense or banners
I've had great success with AdSense on forums.
If the site is solely forum based, like WW, then really subscription is the only way to go though.
If the site is community based but with actual content then affilliate marketing is always good (especially with product reviews on site).
|I work as a Mod on an Intranet Forum for an organisation of over 150,000. |
I was going to mention Intranet in my first reply to this topic. If you are launching a forum for a large company, building that forum on the company Intranet and getting company employees involved is a definite advantage. During that BETA stage, you can work out all of the bugs, build up the community and get some activity going (back to the numbers game).
You want to make sure that you lay down the ground rules at the very beginning of its inception. This way those employees will know what you are looking for and will post valuable information that will help seed the forums.
Wow, great thread!
I somewhat wondered my self, how people started a forum (as I had once tried it and had been stuck to a 0 members for atleast 3 months), but with the amount of pro's in this thread, and the amount of advice which is in here, I've bookmarked it so if I ever decide to start a forum, I'll come right here!
Itīs really hard do start a forum. I decided to start a Tech Forum in my country (Portugal) and the trick is really having good Moderators, and plenty of time, because you (the Admin) must give the example, and post a lot, or the forum will die, because not even the "owner" posts.
The funny thing is that dozens of people register (and the forum is totally open, you donīt need to register), but donīt post.
|I don't think there's anything wrong with having a empty forum on your site. Depending on who you are trying to impress most visitors won't care. You can't start with a forum being full and sometimes it takes a long time to get going. |
True, it does. But look at it this way: you're on a long drive to see relatives and you see two restaurants across the street from one another. You don't know anything about either one. One has an empty parking lot and the other is full. Where are you going to eat?
No one likes to post in an empty forum. Why would they? They can quickly assume that no one will read their message and no one will respond. An empty forum is a good way of shouting out loud "We have no one using this web site!"
Seeding a forum is important, it's like leaving empty spots on the shelf in a grocery (a trick that's proven successful for decades). People don't like to be the first. It makes us feel like there must be something wrong with a forum if no one is using it.
However, it's best to seed it with real people (like your friends) otherwise you'll end up spending all of your time pushing fake threads that don't develop their own momentum rather than promoting the use of your forum.
A new forum can be hard to get people to post at unless they know its new. On top of it, unless they have a question theres nothing to discuss.
Start by seeding your forum with your own account and make up a few extra accounts. Make sure when you're talking to yourself you dont have the same email or writing style. Looks funny ;)
Get your buddies to post, if you have any that is. If you don't its all up to you. :)
If you have your site setup SEO style with a few nice seeded posts you can be on your way to great traffic.
|Anyone know any good examples of 'industry forums'? |
My interests lie in CRM, a marketing niche, and there are 4-5 forums, all with serious financial backing. I haven't looked too deeply at the ownership but this niche (could apply to many professional niches) gets the following main participant groups:
- job seekers
Most of the forums are attached to a main site, e.g. newsletter option, article archive, paid research reports etc. Having stickiness beyond the forum also helps.
|What have you done to get conversation flowing and attract new members? |
The most important thing is to make sure you pick the right forum software to use, that meets your needs and goals, and thoroughly test it as best you can before promoting your forum.
I've had that happen to me *twice*. I had purchased expensive (but great! or so I thought) software, tested it for six months by myself and with a few friends as I built it, and then ran it for a couple years with a steadily growing membership. Then, I had the opportunity to gain up to 2000 users (after another forum went down), and the software essentially failed once heavier usage started coming in. So, poof!, opportunity missed.
Next, I tried another program. Tested it before buying it. Worked fine. Was able to do a lot of the customization I had longed for, that the previous package had lacked. Started gaining members, then I discovered how instable it was. If the computer crashed, the forum software would not always bring up all my customized features. You'd have to go in and *manually* reset the forum software--not remotely, but physically on the machine. So, I took those unstable forums down.
At this point, I don't have any significant forums. I am writing my own forum system, and am building into it everything I want, and it should end up being something I will not have to hand-hold to keep running.
Anyway, I feel I have a lot of experience in building forums and, in addition to my own forums, I have been a poster and a moderator on other forums.
Once you get your software straightened out, the first thing to do on a new forum is to post a welcome message from the web host. I keep my personal and host accounts separate. I do host management as the host and my posting under my personal account.
You can have pseudo-users to start things off, but I would not recommend more than one or two. And, keep them throughout the life of the forum, if you can. They can always jump in when things get slow.
I have found that things work out best when you require that people register in order to participate in the forums. I typically don't even let them read the forums unless they register. Alternatively, you can let them browse under a guest account, but request they sign a guestbook before even doing that.
When starting, make sure you have other useful content. Back in the BBS days, this was easier. Electronic newsletters, press releases and even some mailing lists would give you permission to post their messages in a forum. It saved them time and bandwidth, as well as expanded their readership to people who might otherwise not subscribe, but would read it in a forum. So, that gave you some content to attract users.
Nowadays, that's not so frequently the case, and it's more difficult to get that content. But, the concept remains the same: provide as much a treasure trove of content as you can, so that people will feel they are benefitting even if the forums are empty of conversation.
The other thing I have always done is to require the use of real names. No "darkknight72" or stuff like that, but "John Z. Smith". If they register as "John" or "widgetman" or whatever, that registration gets tossed. I know that's not a popular thing these days, but I think if you're building a community, you ought to have some idea who it is you're really talking too. Plus, I think that people posting under their real name exercise more caution in what they say than they do as "badboy93".
If you want to do contests, have separate contests for your posters and your moderators. A prize to the moderator who attracts the most new users to his/her forum, or the forum site in general. A prize to the poster who attracts the most replies to his/her topic. Etc. But, only to get things moving.
If you want to do something on a regular basis, make sure you continue to hold separate contests for posters and moderators. Your moderators are an important part of your forums, and you don't want to leave them out. And, you want to reward them for the work they do, and not just lump them in the same contest with other posters.
And, speaking of moderators, build them up first. The types of people that tend to like being moderators are ones that have forum experience and don't mind initiating discussions, or even posting on a regular basis without fretting over a lack of replies. So, attract them first, and then let them help work on attracting users.
To encourage posting, you could have a contest where the nth poster in a forum wins a prize. Require that they post a new topic, and maybe set some rules such as their topic must elicit x number of replies, and/or that their post must be of a certain length. Quality is hard to judge. It's easier to measure by length (x words minimum) and/or the number of replies.
Those are the things that come to mind right now.
Start with a party!
At first find a handful of folks engaged in your topic. Involve them, build a core of the community. Start disussing online with them, in a closed part of the forum. Develop the publics forum structure together with them. Estabish them as mods.
Then prepare the opening party. Choose carefully day and time (availability of people online). Invite friends: "We'll gonna have a party online at ..." you will find appropriate wording. You may start a whispering campaign, too.
Prepare a welcome screen saying: "This forum opens at <time>. Come and join the party!" - When opening your forum, clearly indicate a "Here's the party!" - thread. All mods must be there. Welcome everybody. Ensure smalltalk aso.
Proceeding like this I was able to start a forum from scratch with enough weight to attract more users almost immediately. Now, 6 months after start, it's about to become No. 2 in that area of interest. 30 k posts since opening, about 7 k views daily and growing, good SE rankings for a lot of KWs.
One handicap: This works only if you know a few of the important folks of the topic.
"So how can you turn a forum / web community into revenue?"
I saw this happen recently. The forum started as an educational resource and allowed questions and posting of user "examples." Once there was sufficient traffic the founders all created marketable tools that all the users needed to continue with their new found skill. Each founder has created his/her own individual website which appear to be fed traffic via the forum.
The only problem I have with this is that these forums sometimes get free links because they are considered a "resource." So each member with an ecommerce site gets free advertising via this link. Someone with just an ecommerce site can't get the same link without paying for advertising first.
And yes, this has happened to me!
One of the reasons I don't create a forum is because I'm worried that I won't have the traffic and I think an empty forum would look bad. My "content" at this time is my product. Also, my ecommerce site is secondary to my full time day job. My competitors generally do not work outside the home.
I will be watching this forum for suggestions about how to build community. Any suggestions for using this approach in the ecommerce world?
"No one likes to post in an empty forum. Why would they? They can quickly assume that no one will read their message and no one will respond. An empty forum is a good way of shouting out loud "We have no one using this web site!" "
This was the reason I stopped using a "Guest Book" in the early days of my ecommerce site. There were so few messages and I thought it reflected bad on my site. I could have created fake entries but decided it was better to just get rid of this feature.
I have started more than a few community sites some very well, some that the "community" side never caught on.
1) The topic needs to have focused and active community. Passionate people post.
2) Jump in there and start posting. Post links to articles, news, etc. Post things that people would like to respond to. Create a sense of urgency.
3) Hold on. Especially with new sites, it might take years to build a proper community through traffic and even if you have a ton of traffic, that does not mean they will post. I find that about 5-10% of people who visit post. Most just look and might look for years.
4) Make it easy. Make registration as easy as you can. You want people to register so don't make them jump through hoops. Also, offer incentives to register beyond post, like polls and newsletters and other things.
5) Build traffic. It is a numbers game, so to get the 1% of visitors to register and the 20% of them to post, is hard. I read here they you need at least 300 members to get a good board going. I would say it is more like 300-500 ACTIVE members.
6) Start simple. Start with one board, get it going and build more. Don't start with 100 topic boards as it becomes too much.
|Make registration as easy as you can. |
I've found that not requiring registration in the early weeks/months is a good way to get people to jump in and post. Eventually, you'll get abusers who use others' nicknames, or who post as multiple names in the same thread, and you'll have to force registration. Usually, though, you will have achieved critical mass by then.
I had never even thought of paying to drive traffic to a forum up. We manage a few successful forums. One thing I have always employed is regular presence as admin to the boards. I always respond to posts from newcomers, if only to say hello. I often find questions to ask them, so they feel they are invited to talk back at me. I have a group of 'all-purpose' posts which I put up as new threads about every three months, acknowledging I ran them a while ago - things like for a collectors' forum "What has been your most recent addition" and so on. I post new topics myself whenever the boards get slow. We tell people about the lurkers, and have 'newbie' forums where they can get started without feeling as though they stick out like a sore thumb. Once I used nicks...but as somebody commented regular users of a board tend to have long memories - so I never did it again.
Good luck with getting your boards going. It's hard work, but well worth it when you see a solid community developing.
I think it's important to visualize precisely "what you want out of the forum" and precisely "what the markets want".
Then cater to the markets first... AdSense and other banner ads... doesn't do this - you're catering to yourself first and forgetting the market.
It's also important "not to advertise too early" e.g. things like AdWords and other paid for advertisements.
The success of any forum is based on the initial "core community" frequent posters and then developing some of these into "moderators".
You tend not to get either (although not impossible) from PPC as these are almost only once only.
A forum is useless unless your moderators take the workload off of you, and this doesn't just mean being there is answer questions, or chit chat but add provocative thread starters.
An eye opener... an exceptional mod isn't necessarily the most knowledgeable in subject matter, or the most active posters... it's the one that spawns posts and/or start threads that spawns 100's of posts and side topics (off topic new threads)... you capture one of two of these early on your forum success is guaranteed! :)
I think it is also very important to "set yourself apart" and very early on, and stick with it. No matter where I go in web related circles WebmasterWorld is discussed.
Brett set the stage here, the mods control that stage and whether other forums agree with that stage (style of moderating) or not - WebmasterWorld sets the bar and raises the bar and few (or none) can keep pace.
Revenue... innovation! Subscription without recognition is a hard sell, banner ads (IMHO) is a 90's thing...
But there are many ways to generate revenue and believe it or not your "community" defines this - you can't do it without them nor in advance of them.
You make some good points, fathom. In the early days (or weeks, months, years...;)) of a forum, revenue generation has to go on the back burner. Charging for subs to an empty forum is a stretch, and cluttering up your layout with ads to take advantage of a few page views is a turnoff.
I recently started a 'work world' kind of forum, it at the moment, concentrates on Office Sex, and I just hope it becomes successful.
I've got the technology that allows me to add unlimited boards, topics etc etc, so even if this idea fails, I can just start again with a fresh board subject.
People have been posting, so maybe it will be okay.
It's nice when you can create an interesting community, often the rewards are greater than the obvious financial ones. I think forums are a great idea to drive traffic, and people obviously like to talk online whether live or otherwise.
You hit the nail on the head, Christopher - starting a forum is really about non-monetary rewards. If it's wildly successful, maybe there will be a financial reward down the road. But almost by definition forums are a labor of love in the early period - lots of work for little traffic and no money. But even in those early days you can enjoy the interaction between members, and see the community grow into its own unique entity.
A couple of years ago, I and two other internet-knowledgeable people made the mistake of starting a forum site. The story is too long and sad to tell here, but suffice it to say that for the first 6 to 8 months, everything was wonderful & we got more & more visitors every day.
Then ... someone posted a graphic of a spinning purple toilet, which another user found offensive and complained to me. Although I did not find it terribly offensive myself, I could see where this particular user would, because the graphic was posted in response to something he had said. So, since he asked, I removed the graphic. Then people started saying on other websites that the webmasters at our place were interfering with their freedom of speech ... as you can imagine, our site died a slow, painful death. It was a beautiful, highly functional site, and we even had a nonprofit license for the wonderful Gossamer forum software.
My advice? Don't overestimate the intelligence of your intended audience. I did, and I will not make that mistake again.
Sorry for the rant.
"Hell is other people" Jean-paul somebody.
As long as the offending object is removed, and the person is removed from posting, I think the chances of a popular forum dying is very remote indeed.
Did you keep your users informed of the idiot that placed the toilet? Then they would know it wasn't your fault.
Webmaster world is highly popular, and I've seen and been involved with many big scale arguments which weren't pretty lol, but this forum is still going strong.
I think with todays technology, something could be designed to prevent graphics being placed by forum members. If anyone did that on my forum, their feet wouldn't touch the ground, and in my next press release I'd make the situation publicly known!
Don't panic so much. It ain't worth the stress.
|As long as the offending object is removed, and the person is removed from posting, I think the chances of a popular forum dying is very remote indeed. |
Nevertheless, it happened. Our audience wasn't as intelligent as we had hoped. We never banned the person who posted the toilet pic, or anyone else for that matter. Other people did ask what had happened & I explained it in the open forum ... without mentioning names.
|Don't panic so much. It ain't worth the stress. |
I guess it hurt my feelings worse than I thought ... I only post at other people's forums now. ;-)
> interfering with their freedom of speech ...
I think it's mportant to be honest with users from the start: There is no such thing as freedom of speach in a forum. It's a private place - my home, and you are welcom e to join, but you have to play my my rules, in my home. If you do, fine, if not you have to leave. It's that simple. If you want freedom of speach make your own forum :)
Ah, are forums like famous people - public property?
or are they really private places. I would suggest by allowing entry (posting) you are like opening the doors of a shop, and inviting people in.
By starting a forum you are letting people openly post, although posts can be 'controlled' to a certain extent, forum owners etc still have to give right of way to users.
What would happen if that right of way was withdrawn -
would there be a forum left to post on.
Probably the best way to approach the "freedom of posting" thing early in the life of a forum is to be VERY up front about what's allowed and what isn't, and then VERY consistent about following your own rules.
If you are open, fair, and consistent, you'll get relatively few people complaining. I'll admit, though, that some people feel they have a right to say whatever they please, wherever and whenever they want. That includes YOUR forum. I have little doubt that these same people are the ones who sit behind you in the movie theater and talk continuously, and who conduct loud, self-important cell phone conversations in elegant restaurants. ;)
That's really funny lol. I like that.
The most important point would be to carefully choose the theme of your forum. When most people say a forum, they usually mean an entire large big forum with many subject areas and threads.
I always thought a forum was a single subject ie Search Engine Marketing etc.
If your site is on Search Engine stuff, then have a SE forum only. But there seem to be single subject sites that want a massive general forum that covers everything. I'm not too keen on those ones, and they could confuse visitors perhaps me thinks.
|I would suggest by allowing entry (posting) you are like opening the doors of a shop, and inviting people in. |
That's fine, but you're still not allowed to walk in to the shop and say whatever you want. The legal precedent most often cited in the U.S. is someone shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater when there's no fire. That's against the law. There is no freedom of speech in private spaces -- homes, businesses, message boards. :)
When people start using Free Speech as an argument to protect their right to hurl abuse in an unrestricted manner, there has to be something wrong.
Free Speech is about respect to the speaker. But it isn't there to protect those speakers who carry on in a disrespectful manner - it's difficult to claim a speaker deserves respect whilst simultaneously abusing others.
Free Speech means everyone has the right to be heard. It does not mean everyone has the right to be listened to.
People who start flame wars or insult others can be politely pointed in the direction of the TOS which says: "insulting other members will not be tolerated" and have their posts deleted.
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