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What are the common elements of successful forums

Across a variety of themes what is it that is elemental to a thriving forum

     
4:39 am on Oct 31, 2004 (gmt 0)

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Let's start with some broad categories of forums:

1. Business or professional forum

2. Hobbyist/enthusiast & recreation forum

3. Promotional forum (Coupon, rebate, product review as a front for affiliate, direct sales or AdSense)

4. Relationship building itself as focus of forum(ReligionX singles, gay)

5. Societal forum (Issue oriented: politics)

6. Common bond (shared status)& support (Relationship variant? - single moms, illness or disease; Perhaps geographic community - 'out town'?)

7. Event oriented: Pregnancy, wedding, vacation

Any other broad categores? Not specific (car club would be hobbyist/enthusiast).

What is common to several or all of the above?

For example: All would likely have a very similar standard of acceptable forum decorum.

The distinctions are not too hard to divine: Some would have longstanding members: Professional forums. Others, like weddings, would be time limited. Vacations would be recurring rises and falls in any given members presence.

Here's the real question: Despite the variations in theme, what are the common - perhaps essential - elements of a successful forum across the many variations?

Perhaps a corollary: Did you ever apply the 'theory of your success' on forum A to the creation of forum B, only to watch forum B wither away? Did you assume some commonality that, in fact, failed to attach?

3:48 pm on Oct 31, 2004 (gmt 0)

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With a nights rest allow me to start off.

Is it civility? Not necessarily across all categories, as some forums may thrive on clashing personalities, say politics or hate groups or? But I'm going to guess that rules for and enforcement of civility are essential.

Is it a large membership? Well, yes, but 'first you must get there' and isn't 'getting there' an essential step?

So, isn't the question "What are the essential elements of getting there?" Which elements are common to a thriving forum in all categories: business, hobby, etc.?"

So, allow me to post these questions as part of the thought process, sort of a "before you launch think of these" map.

1. Is having a clearly defined purpose of the forum important? A vision. If the purpose is "for me to make money" what's the chance of that working?

2. Do most successful forums start with some preceding connection of a significant number of people? Say, readers of some informative person's opinions? (What was the groundwork for WebmasterWorld?)

3. An action plan for building critical mass? Step by step, thought out ahead.

4. Vigilance?

5. A sound procedure or policy or set of principals for resolving conflict - publicized - before conflict arises?

6. A support network: Friends, family, others to be there when you are first tilling and fertilizing, and perhaps a different support network when your success is more than you can manage alone?

7. Insurance or an action plan for when the first sabre rattling event occurs? (This is likely one of many 'bar the doors, close the windows' events that could trigger a 'the hell with it all' response. What are other 'oh, the heck with it' events that a forward looking strategy anticipates such that the venture survives? Is being prepared for such events a common thread to thriving forums?)

So, my question remains: What are the common elements of thriving communities? Of the great variety of forums what are the common elements that make them work?

4:19 pm on Oct 31, 2004 (gmt 0)

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The main one I've run across so far, in years of accessing and contributing to many fora across a fairly broad spectrum of "types", is the absolute necessity of a core of "dedicated posters". This is people who are PASSIONATE about whatever is the focus of the individual forum or group of fora if there are interrelated ones.

Without those dedicated folks, you won't have posts to get you jump started, posts to keep you running during the Christmas slump, summer hols, whatever, people to answer questions when mods are away, people to just make the forum "look like home".

How you GET that group is a whole other story.... and it's not one I have down to a fine science either! I have one forum which seems to trot along under its own steam no matter what the situation; I have another that I'm getting ready to close due to NO steam. They both had approximately equal numbers of "the dedicated" to begin with. It may be simply a "natural pattern", I don't know....

3:29 am on Nov 1, 2004 (gmt 0)

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There's a lot of ground to cover there, Webwork - thought-provoking questions!

Let's cover the "vision thing" first: "If the purpose is "for me to make money" what's the chance of that working?"

I'd say "slim to none. Building communities takes some kind of shared purpose, and I'd say most really successful communities developed through the selfless application of time by the founder(s) and probably many volunteers. A community founder who's motivated primarily by profit will probably soon tire of the effort required to start and maintain a community. Also, if the community appears to be too profit-motivated, it will be hard to get volunteer help.

I think a vision IS important - a definition of what the purpose of the community is, what topics may be specifically included or excluded, what kind of environment will be maintained, etc. This vision will almost certainly evolve with time, but it should serve as a guide when decisions must be made.

I've posted a "mission statement" in mod forums to serve as a touchstone. Most corporate mission statements end up being quickly forgotten, but I refer back to the forum mission statement fairly often when discussing issues with mods: how to deal with member issues, whether a topic should be added, etc.

4:08 am on Nov 1, 2004 (gmt 0)

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rogerd, I like the "mission statement" thing. Seems like I always have something like that in the back of my mind; maybe I need to "get it in writing"....
10:45 am on Nov 1, 2004 (gmt 0)

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I have to admit that it seemed a bit hokey at first, but we've accomplished a key part of the mission (becoming the leading forum in our sector). More importantly, I was able to resolve a discussion with some mods by citing it the other day - it clarified things very nicely.
2:17 pm on Nov 1, 2004 (gmt 0)

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Moving on to "Do most successful forums start with some preceding connection of a significant number of people? Say, readers of some informative person's opinions?", I'd say an existing audience is a plus but not essential.

Clearly, a well-recognized guru-type with a widespread following could ramp up a forum or blog community more quickly than an unknown.

I think an equally important determinant of rampup speed is site traffic. Even a well-known industry figure may find starting a forum slow going if the site has few visitors; he/she will be forced to try to promote the forum on other sites. On the other hand, a site that is generating high traffic volume already can promote a new forum to its existing visitors at little or no cost. If the forum looks inviting and has some interesting content, a portion of these site visitors may stick around to browse a bit or even post.

Given the choice, I'd probably take high existing site traffic over a well-known founder, although a combination of high traffic and celebrity members would be the best of all worlds.

4:04 am on Nov 2, 2004 (gmt 0)

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Of course you have to build the traffic, but the core group of posters I think is vital. You have to have enough fresh posts to keep it interesting for lurkers to keep coming back - and eventually turn into posters.
4:48 pm on Nov 29, 2004 (gmt 0)

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A number of parameters combine to make a forum a success, and those parameters probably vary somewhat between different forum types. I'd say the following are important: A passionate core group, first and foremost; barriers to entry, an often overlooked topic; conflict resolution of some sort; a clearly-defined purpose; "fairness"; a critical mass of people willing to post.

The core group is almost always essential and can be counted on to perpetuate the discussion even during slow times. Yet, the core group is rarely a "critical mass" of people. Without the critical mass, you either wind up with a) a slow death as the core group disappears through attrition or b) the core group using the forum as a little club to keep in touch with each other on a personal, often off-topic level (a turn-off to new users). Barriers to entry can vary between big and small: Big will net you fewer, but more highly-interested users, small will gain you many more users but often of dubious quality. Almost all forums these days have *some* barrier to entry, what with all the trolling and spamming that goes on. Conflict resolution is important- will mods quickly "snip" your offending posts a la Webmasterworld, or will things be more laissez faire? Too little moderation and your forum will devolve into an endless sea of flame wars, off-color jokes, off-topic posts, and so on. Too much moderation may stifle your users. I list fairness because it is highly desired and yet difficult to achieve and maintain. More accurately, I should say "the perception of fairness." Forum owners and moderators will be accused of unfairness with regularity, but if the charges stick, you've lost your credibility and perhaps many users as well. It is of critical importance that you are perceived as fair.