You may have heard that having a web community is a great way to increase sales, customer loyalty and word of mouth for your web business. In fact a web community itself, if large enough and targeting an affluent demographic (or one that advertisers like to target), has the potential to bring in revenue. Commonly people use a web forum as the centre point for a web community. However building a popular forum is no easy task and requires patience and dedication.
Over the years I’ve built many forum communities, from my most successful with over 2000 members at MTGParadise Forums to the not as successful YoungActivist Forums which struggled to get out the gate (not helped by my own lack of contribution after I finished building the site). To help you better understand what it takes to build a successful forum I will outline some of the lessons I have learnt over the years.
Perhaps the least important variable, but certainly a vital aspect, is the forum software you choose. I came to settle on Invision Board as my favourite forum of choice. Over the years I became very familiar with Invison Board functions so it would take a lot for me to switch to different forum software. Unfortunately the team at Invision recently stopped offering a fully functional free version and the most current free version has limitations on numbers of users. I’m a strong supporter of Invision so I still recommend using the free service and then paying to upgrade once your board is large enough to warrant it. Chances are with your forum being that popular means you can justify the fee anyway.
The other top quality free forum out there is phpBB which is the open source offering. I haven’t used this myself but with Invision no longer being free I can see this being the main player for all small business forums. I see this forum everywhere so I think you can take that as a strong endorsement.
Another popular choice, especially for large corporates that can afford the fee is vBulletin. This seems to the professional forum of choice for those with the moolah. I only played with this forum many years ago when they had a limited use free version (in fact it was the first forum I ever installed). It’s definitely a top forum with a great design, but you pay for it.
As I said which forum software you choose is not too important. You are going to have to learn to use at least one, so choose the one that satisfies your criteria and then get playing. If the idea of installing forum software is daunting to you then I suggest you look at the installation services most forum businesses offer. You can pay a small fee and one of the staff or community members will install the software for you. There are also remotely hosted forums where you don’t install any software at all on your server but instead use one hosted by the forum company. Note this often either costs money or is advertiser supported so you might have some icky banners or other ads streamed across your forum. I recommend you host the forum on your own server because you get control, ownership and better search engine benefits.
Regardless of which forum software you choose the hardest part of building a community is getting members, and members that stick around. Obviously your forum should be targeted to your business niche or target market if it’s not a business site. My MTGParadise Forum was all about trading and talking Magic. The forum at Yaz! is devoted to trading and community for Australian university students.
Picking the niche area you target is vital for success, and the individual forums you create for your community must clearly represent the purpose of your community. However this is where some lessons can be learnt. At first when you start building categories and individual forums you might get carried away with all the interesting forums you can create. You dream of your users lapping it up and talking away about every little area of interest you can come up with. This is the first major mistake you can make. You end up creating way too many forums that have no topics in them. Even if you do manage to bring some quality visitors to your site, they hit your forum and see an empty place and then move on. No one feels compelled to join an empty forum.
But you may ask then, how can you go from having an empty forum to one filled with topics when no one wants to get things started? It’s a catch 22 isn’t it! The number one concept to remember is that people bring in people. If visitors see topics and posts and discussions they are interested in they are more likely to contribute. It’s hardest early on when you first launch but there are some tricks you can do. Here are the key pointers I’ve learnt to get passed this early stage of a ghost-town forum.
1. Think minimalist when building categories and forums.
Look to about four forums maximum to start with, even less if possible. If you find yourself coming up with many different forum subjects, try and group them together under one forum. Then in that forum you can create individual topic posts to cater to each area. That way you are creating conversation starters and making the place look a little busier. As the forums grow and you have enough individual entries to start breaking down forums you can justify creating new ones. You can then move the existing topics into the appropriate categories and the forum doesn’t start off empty. Take a look at this topic at MTGParadise.com where one of the new owners, my mate ssteven, has just recently broken down one forum into two.
2. As the owner you must keep contributing.
This might seem obvious, but it’s hard to keep motivated when week after week you create new topics and try to stimulate conversation and you seem to be talking to yourself. Personally I get the most excited when I first build the forum, thinking of all the great topics that can be discussed. Unfortunately once everything is done it does take some effort to keep writing fresh content. The only rule I can give is stick to it. Get into a routine of making a few posts everyday.
Now expanding on this concept…
3. Create some fake personalities.
This may seem a little dishonest, but a little trick you can use to stimulate conversation is to create a few different member accounts each with their own personality. Basically you create some fictional members and get posting. You can even have full forum conversations between your characters (just don’t go insane!). Only you know which characters are fake, to everyone else it appears as if your forum is getting popular.
I had a friend take this idea so seriously that he kept profile notes on each character such as age, sex, personality type, occupation etc so whenever he made posts he made sure to get into character first. It’s like forum acting.
This method again takes dedication because you need to keep logging in with each character and making new posts. However it can be MUCH more effective than if it was just you making all the posts as your own identity. It looks sad when the webmaster is chatting away to no one, but not quite as sad when Jim, Katie, Chris and Jane are having conversations even if they really are all the webmaster.
4. Publish content.
If you want unique content you may have to pay for it and consider hiring columnists. With MTGParadise we had such a good community that many of our members were happy to write articles and reports for free. They enjoyed writing and seeing their article published. It’s not easy to generate free unique articles this way especially early on before you have a community running, so it might be necessary to throw around a little cash and buy some articles.
If you can find content relevant to your market and distribute it to your community you have a good way to stimulate conversation and make your forum look a little busier.
5. Recruit your mates and spread the word.
This is harder than you’d think. If you are like me, most of my closest friends are too busy or not really the forum community types so they won’t help out much. Generally though you should have a few friends that are interested in the topic of your forum and they might help out with a post every now and then. Don’t put to much pressure on them and be thankful for anything they contribute. You don’t want to get carried away trying to get your forum off the ground that you lose your friends because you constantly pester them to make posts or join up.
As a general rule, don’t be shy, tell everyone you know about your forum. But only do it once in a polite manner. Say you are inviting them to check out something you have created and that you want their valuable opinion before you officially launch. This “sneak peek” will make your friends and family feel special because you are demonstrating that you value their opinion so they will be more inclined to check out your site.
You can put a note in your signature file in your email about your new community, make a few posts at newsgroups that focus on your target market and hit some other complimentary (not competitor) forums to advertise your new forum. Remember always be courteous, follow rules and don’t come across too desperate whenever you promote your forum. All this will come across negatively and harm your chances of members signing up.
The most important tip I can give you to grow your community is to not give up. Even though YoungActivist.com is sitting out there all alone with no members and very old content I still value the site. While I didn’t achieve the success I wanted off the bat, I haven’t given up and hope that one day can I can get the site growing again.
Sometime after months, maybe even years of making new posts, adding content and spreading the word, you will find that your forum has grown to have a few hundred members, a handful of devoted regulars and no longer requires daily injections of posts from you. You reach a critical mass and your community moves forward without too much intervention from you. This is the holy grail of forum building because your members became the best advertising tool you could ever have. Word of mouth helps the site to continue to grow and attract new members. You can start creating new forums with confidence that they won’t be empty for long. Best of all, you now have an audience that you can either leverage around your own products or services or start to derive revenue from through advertising, premium services or subscriptions etc etc.