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|The ABC of building a successful forum|
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!
Great Post Bradley,
I hope alot of forum members view this thread and learn from your wisdom.
There are many people out there that start a forum with the hopes that it becomes the next big thing but without specialization and focusing on a niche as you rightfully said they will end up with a deserted island (tom hanks talking to the volleyball kinda thing lol)
I also second your idea of having an expert(s) post in your forum, that helped my forum out alot.
Let me add one further point that I think is crucial..having an interseting site to accompany the forum is key.
Also, stay away from adding live chat to your forum, whats the point of it really? No chat room can beat msn's and even if they do use yours you'll only end up having members spending their time there (using your precious resources with no added benefit to the content of your site)
thanks for the praise petra; an important benefit of having an accompanying site is that people tend to click adverts on websites more than they do on message boards.
Boards can be a great source of the content you need for that website, too; if you use some form of CMS (content management system) like Joomla (a.k.a Mambo) or Drupal, you can give good posters accounts that allow them to post news/new content; you can also invite people on the forums to submit content that you then review and put up on the website; also, interesting threads on your forums can throw up a lot of facts and ideas for content if you're the only writer for your website. These tactics are used by sites like The Admin Zone and Sitepoint
However, many boards choose not to have a site on top of their forums. It's harder to get people to come back to participate in a community an make it more friendly, if they have to go through a website to get to the boards, instead of landing straight on the board index when they type in the site's address. Adding a portal to my rock forums has slightly boosted revenue, but makes it harder for visitors to find the boards, and makes them less likely to return. I may well remove the portal in the coming months, and wait til I have a larger community
Basically, deciding whether to sit a website on top of your forums can be resolved down to the ABC factors.
- It will help you become an Authority
- It will, however, add Bloat
- If you can keep it up to date with good, fresh content, then it can create topics for discussion in your Community - however, it often results in less of a Community spirit.
Different boards value A, B or C differently. For example, WebMasterWorld doesn't have great Community spirit, but is most definitely an Authority. Hence it could afford to risk C to gain more A with a proper website
Great post Bradley.
One thing I would add to this, which is a common thing I see all the time, is:-
D... is for Description
* Describe your forums accurately, but use the opportunity to create your sales pitch and to explain to users why they want to enter that "space".
Here's an example of a poor description (and how many times do you see this):-
|Shiny Red Widgets |
Posts about Shiny Red Widgets
This is a complete waste of bytes (the title already provides the low level description) as much as a waste of opportunity for the forum owner.
A good description:-
|Shiny Red Widgets |
One of the biggest problems red widget owners experience today is a lack of lustre. We look at industry news and member discussion about polishing techniques.
Thanks Phil! Great post and something I printed out for next months focus.
Trillianjedi: Best description I've ever heard on widgets...really makes me want to get one and practice polishing it :)
Great post. What is the feeling on XML? IMO it's one of those features that adds little value to most forums. I have a forum where 30% of the pages indexed in G are XML so I'm adding nofollow tags. Having a thread indexed in the SERPs plus a copy of that thread in XML can't be helpful.
All I can say is wow, this was a good read and I will be trying to do all ABC (+D) on my new forum.
Trouble is getting people to post I dont have a team but I have tried signing up in some other names to spark some debates but still no one posts, can be tough going at the start. Ive linked the forum in with the website so that people read a page then I have a link to the forum topic on that page.
Chin up must keep trying!
I need to do more "C" :)
[edited by: rogerd at 8:31 pm (utc) on Sep. 27, 2005]
[edit reason] TOS [/edit]
Great post Brad!
Great post, thank you for all your time..
Great post Phil!
E is for Energy
You'll need it it in bundles to get a forum off the ground, then you'll need more to keep it running, and hopefully other peoples when it becomes a success ;)
K is for Kisses
I want to give you all some.
Great post! I launched a forum site earlier this year and after research here and in a few other places, it's tips like those above that have helped my forum grow in its niche.
F is for Follow the Leader
Even though my board is not in the same niche as many other popular forums (like this one), one thing that has helped is to follow what successful forums have done. Figure out what makes them successful and learn from it. You can get great ideas on community by just reflecting on what you like from the forums you visit the most.
M is for moderators (and admins).
There are men and women here - mods and admins - who honestly make me a better man and who make this place work. Some of the most well balanced people I know help run this place.
Yes, I know, as a "better man" I'm a work in progress . . ;-P
G is for Guoqi.
that is my name, did you ever hear of it? :p
H is for hosting.
Good, reliable & cheap hosting. Super database server with capacity for future when the site getting bigger & bigger.
ps - Proactive Security
Keep your board up to date. Don't let it become a haven for spammers in profiles, post, or sigs. Learn to install mods to prevent these beforehand rather than deleting them afterward. Keep abreast of phpbb/Vb/whatever security issues.
H and I are also for Honesty and Integrity.
Are you running a forum because you need some Ad-Clicks, or did you start it, because you like the topic and you are an Authority for it :-)? I think many forums right now are just set up as a marketing spin off to get more traffic. As soon as users smell that, they leave...
In regards to [B] I had set up PhpBB and was so happy with the setup...when I spoke ot one of my peers in the field, they were thrilled at the idea but really they had no clue how to surf the discussion board...she would not use the forum because she was intimidated...I was floored!
But that goes to show you that it should be simple...
QUESTION: When building an online community (i.e sharing resources, links, etc,) how would you go about that without adding too much bulk?
And do you know of a discussion board script that would be much simpler than phpBB?
To play devil's advocate here...
A is for Astroturf?
How far can you get in creating a community by having insiders load it up with content? Clearly you need to provide something to start with, but pretty soon you're going to need real users to take control. Otherwise it's just publishing, not community.
And don't forget:
V is for Viral
Search engine positioning is all well and good, but my hunch is that a robust community will bring in its most active new participants by word of mouth. Alas, despite claims to the contrary no one has figured out how to create word of mouth by artificial means (see "Astroturf" above).
A mistake a lot of boards are increasingly doing these days is to cloak referrals to a board's index page rather than the actual thread.
For example, if I check my logs and see x number of visits from a board, instead of pointing to the actual thread, it just points directly to the index page.
This is a mistake as links from forums tend to be on-topic and so makes for another good way to bring in new members with an interest in your subject, or indeed stimulate recip links.
If our board has the option, do yourself a favour, switch it off.
One thing I would add is the letter [b]E[b] for e-mailing! E-mailing is according to my experience one of the best tools you can use to keep signed up members coming back for more!
Send out a weekly newsletter with an editorial and a summary of all the weeks post! Make the e-mail personal and it will deffinitely keeps members coming back!
Make sure that you have the option "Do you want an email notification of replies?" ticked by default! This will defo get your members coming back!
Good luck guys!
Thanks for this helpful topic. Actually, I 'd like to create a forum about swedish - actually scandinavian in general - modern art. Biggest difficulty is to separate each topic so that there's no redundancy among the developed themes. People use to write in the same time about furniture, lights or architecture brillantely mixed in a single answer. Actually, I don't know how to manage with this.
I just launched a forum and found Brad's post to be spot on. It ain't easy getting one off the ground.
And it is very important to focus on a niche.
[edited by: rogerd at 2:58 pm (utc) on Sep. 29, 2005]
[edit reason] no specifics, please [/edit]
Bradley that post is gravy!
I have a forum for more than 3 years and it is accelerating, after one year in operation I had 400 members now I have 9300 members after 3 years. It spin off itself and I didnt need to do anything special.
The number of active users is always limited thought, most people just read or try to find out something.
But with 2-500 users who read and write everyday it will become a success.
In phpBB there is an option of "notify me when an answer is posted"
Is it possible to make this the default option?
If yes, How? which files should I go and what should I do?
Thanks for the help.
How long do you think it should ideally take to install a phpBB forum?
Is there any other open source scripts for forums which is as good as phpB or perhaps better?
Awesome post! Would people recommend vbulletin for a comprehensive forum?
Also if the amount of searches according to overture for say 'dolphin forum' were low, is this a bad sign for the demand for such a forum or that it may have difficulties in getting it off the ground/getting traffic?
In my limited experience most SE traffic will come to your forums based on keywords in your posts rather than searching for 'forums'. Searching for 'dolphin forums', however, can give you an idea of the competition you will have, which is an equally important factor.
K is for "Know the Baseline"
At some point, a user on your forum will push you the baseline. Get your legal and administrative situation sorted out before something goes pear-shaped, not after the fact.
If you're storing and processing personal information: know the ins and outs of your data protection laws. If you're sending newsletters: know your marketing and unsolicited correpondence laws.
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