The ABC of building a successful forum
A is for... Authority
Your forum has to build a name for itself as the best place to go to for discussions about the particular niche.
* This means you and your team have to drive debate and discussion, usually by creating new topics the whole time. Get each team member to start one or two threads each day, and then go make interesting posts in the other threads to get those off the ground. Don't be afraid of bringing back interesting threads that aren't on Page 1 anymore and so are being ignored; bring it back with an interesting post aimed at pushing the discussion in that thread further and deeper. Each new thread means members staying on the forums just that little bit longer, making a few more posts, having a few more interesting things to read and say... basically, getting into the habit of spending time and being active on your site
* This also means getting top spots in search engines. Do that by getting links to your forum. Aim to add at least 1 new backlink every day; this means sending out lots of emails suggesting related websites link to you or to a thread about their subject. If I had a forum about fishkeeping, I might hunt down a thread about Koi fish and send an email to a website aout Koi fish suggesting they could link to that discussion. Many webmasters will ask themselves 'what's in it for me?' - you could perhaps suggest they sign up, stick a link to their own website in their signature, and post in that thread - even if you don't get the link back, you've still added a new expert to your community, which helps with our target to become the Authority in the niche anyway! And if he likes your site, a link will eventually come... you'll see!
* There are other ways of getting links; if you run a website about music, getting an interview with a band will get bloggers and people on other forums linking to you when they talk about that interview. Remember: Content is King. Getting a reputation as a site that features lots of interviews (or other examples of attention from big names in the industry) will also boost your Authority
* In some cases it's easier to become the Authority in your niche if you focus of a fairly narrow niche only. It could be easier for you to get big by (easily) becoming the #1 board for Classical Music discussion, than being the place people think of to come to to talk about classical music if your boards are about all kinds of music. You can expand into a bigger niche when you're bigger and ready to take a shot at becoming the Authority for a bigger niche.
B is for... Ballast Removal
The design and layout of your forums is very important. It can make all the difference whether a visitor leaves immediately, signs up - then leaves, signs up, says hello, then leaves, or sins up and makes ten posts every day, becoming an established member and recommending your forum wherever he goes. The rule of thumb here is Keep It Simple
* A lot of dead boards out there made the easily-made mistake of starting out with too many subforums. It's easy to see a lot of established boards with a forum for each specific thing the community could ever want to talk about. What you don't realise is that all those forums weren't there at the start. You should have AT MOST ten forums on a new board; don't be afraid to lump similar topics of discussion together; for example a fish forum should only start off with very broad forums, maybe one for 'tropical fish', another for 'freshwater fish'. Resist the temptation to have, from the start, a forum about Koi fish, one about Carp, and another dozen for every species you can think about. It's effort to move from one forum to another, so your members won't do it much; you'll get much more activity and participation if you have five interesting threads next to each other in one forum, rather than five threads in five different forums.
* Once a forum grows so big that you feel interesting threads get pushed to page 2 (and thus ignored) too fast for most members to see it, that's when your boards will benefit from splitting a forum into two smaller ones. You might feel it's finally time to give Koi fish their own forum if the existing forum has a lot of talk about Koi fish; or you might want to take discussion about Aquariums elsewhere. Only create a new forum if you need to make an existing forum slightly less active, and if you're sure enough people will talk about the subject of the new forum. That's how those huge boards came to have so many forums; splitting the big ones into two smaller ones.
* A lot of forums have beautiful, intricate skins. But this has many downsides. For starters, each page loads slower. This means it takes longer for each member to read threads, make a new post, move between forums, etc... if it's slower, then they can't do it as much! More than that, they're more likely to lose patience and leave. In many cases it's better to have a simple, snappy and uncomplicated design - look at how popular Google became compared to Yahoo... even though for many years they shared exactly the same results!
* Ballast doesn't just mean excessive graphics, wide borders between posts, etc. Ballast also includes jargon that make your site inaccessible to people new to your site, or new to boards in general. To you it seems obvious what the difference between boards, forums, threads, posts etc are. But what about someone that's never seen a forum before? So if you can, edit your language files to remove any jargon. Rename things to match concepts the user is already familiar with... for example, a new user using a Windows computer might come to your site and see a link to User CP or My Controls... without really knowing what those are. But rename it to Control Panel and suddenly his mind makes the link with Control Panels in Windows - obvious! Same deal with 'Archive' or 'Lo-FI' links... rename it 'Streamlined Version'! Go on a hunt for any jargon you can swap for normal, everyday words, and make sure you explain the rest of them in a Newbie Guide of some sort
* Another example of ballast to get rid of is features nobody uses. Do your users really need to know how many times a forum has been Viewed? How often do they use the vCard feature of invision boards? Does it really matter to a new user to know what Member Number everyone is? It just adds to the confusion. If it doesn't get used enough to warrant being there in front of a new user, adding to the confusion - get rid of it. Be ruthless. You want visitors to want to sign up, and existing members to post a lot. Focus on these goals.
C is for... Community
At the end of the day, what brings people back to a forum isn't just the level of banter or the desire to learn more about the topic of discussion. The major factor that will keep a member coming back every day for a year or two is the feeling that he/she belongs to the community here. You therefore have to get members to feel as integrated into the community as possible.
* This means helping them establish an identity in the community. If it's obvious they're trying to be funny, tell them that they are! Likewise, if someone clearly considers themselves quite the Professor in these parts, don't hesitate to tell them when they make a good point. A member with an identity is no longer an anonymous outsider; it's a member that feels a part of your community, whether it's the know-it-all, the joker, the troll that likes to step on toes... The feeling of being a somebody in a community is one they'll find hard to let go of, and will help to keep them coming back.
* A monthly forum 'award ceremony' can be a quick and easy way of doing this for up to ten members at a time - 'Best Joke' 'Best Debater' etc...
* Developing your forum's community spirit also means encouraging your members to get to know each other better, to make friends, basically! You're unlikely to abandon a forum if it's a community you're an active part of and have people you consider to be friends in. Get them to post pictures of themselves, to describe where they live, to talk about their other hobbies, etc. You can't force people to make friends.... but you can certainly encourage it!