To engineer a successful forum, there are three key questions an administrator needs to ask before building the forum.
- Goal #1. How will you gather a critical mass of members
- Goal #2. What will compel members to provide content
- Goal #3. How will the forum survive pass the first year
In this article we cover goal #1 – how to gather a critical mass of members.
Your forum has to build a name for itself as the authority on a subject. All successful forums have something that sets them apart from the rest. For example, it could be the unique content of the site, an under-served niche demographic they target, or the personality of the site administrator.
If you’re creating a forum, ask yourself, “What will people get out of my forum that they can’t already get somewhere else?”
All successful forums have a purpose. They exist for a specific reason, to accomplish something. To connect people with common interests, or to facilitate conversation on issues related to the site.
One major reason many new forums fail is because there are too many forums on the same topic! Forums will not be successful if their sole purpose is building traffic for the main website.
Choice of forum software
Getting this right is critical. There is a high probability the existing forum posts will be lost by switching to different software later.
Consider search engine optimisation first. Since 85%+ of new traffic to your website will come from the search engines, having your discussion forum posts found by the search engines is essential.
Before you choose a discussion forum software package, make sure that all the posts within the forum can be found and ranked by the search engines. Most discussion forum software hide messages posts in such a way that they simply cannot be crawled by the search engines.
One way to find out if message posts within a specific forum software package are search engine optimised, is to visit a site using that software, copy a recent forum headline and paste it into Google and do a search (surround the search headline with quotes so Google knows exactly what to look for).
If the message headline comes up within the first 50 pages found by Google, you know the forum has been optimally indexed. If the headline doesn’t show, you might want to look for a different forum software package.
Most of the major forum scripts are geared for SEO, but there are ways to improve results further by adding search engine friendly URLs, or in the case of vBulletin, adding vBSEO (a full suite of SEO enhancements).
Dynamic URLs, session ids, etc. used by most forum software can be very detrimental to the forum health from search engine point of view.
Take care when choosing the type of forum and forum script or software that will be used. The forum should be easy to find and easy to use. Some forum scripts and software come with compulsory ads served from the parent company, and lead to a poor user experience.
Focus content and discussion
Users will sign up and post on your board if they find the existing content interesting, and consider it worthwhile to participate. Establish several interesting categories within your forum, without going overboard.
When launching the site you will not have many members, so keep the content focused on a few discussions only to avoid empty rooms. It is far better to have 4 active sections than 15 empty ones.
Don’t be afraid to lump similar topics together. Once a forum grows to a size where threads are pushed to page 2 and 3, then consider splitting a forum into two smaller ones.
Do not have too many off-topic discussion areas. Instead create one or two introductory discussions, where new users can post about themselves and existing users can welcome them.
Know that before making the forum public, it is a good idea to create maybe two or three threads in each forum area, so visitors will have somewhere to post. Many new forum users are too shy to post new threads on their own.
Function over form
Users care more about the content and community than the design. Image heavy sites have a high first impression, but subsequent low usability. Image rich sites take longer for each member to read threads, make a new post, move between forums etc. If the page refresh is slow, users post less and are less inclined to return. Google and Yahoo are not particularly attractive, but very successful search engines which observed the law of efficient page refresh.
Design should not be the focus, instead improve the user experience with clear and easy to use navigation, few fancy buttons and images and making sure everyone understands the functions of the site. There is no substitute for good form design, consistent branding, clear and readable type and ample white space.
Use hacks, add-ons and features sparingly
Many forum scripts have hundreds of freely available add-ons, for example, vBulletin, including social networking add-ons, live chat, shops and arcades.
The trick here is to employ fewer features, but do them well. Avoid making the mistake of adding so many features they become a visual barrier to new users, or slow existing users’ posting. Add too many features too quickly and you do not allow enough time to measure them, or allow your users to adopt them.
A simple, clean layout with features that promote registration, referral and posting are all that is required.
Super easy registration
Almost all forums have some barrier to entry, to screen out trolling and spam. However, a common mistake among forum administrators is making registration complex.
For example, some forums make you agree to rules, answer security questions, validate your identity via email and await moderator approval. While these measures counter spam, if your signup process is long and tedious, many users will give up. Try to achieve a good balance between security and ease of use.
Apart from making registration hassle-free, offer registrants some kind of benefit to join other than permission to post. These could be freebies or downloads.
Set your barriers to entry to be either large or small. Large will net you fewer members, but quality; small will gain you more users but of mixed quality.
Member referral schemes
Many forums fail due to a lack of publicity. Tell your friends to join, and if they find it interesting, they will tell their friends, who will in turn tell their friends etc. This can tie in very well with a referral scheme, whereby users are rewarded for referring other users to the board. Word-of-mouth advertising, in tandem with other forms of advertising e.g. SEO optimization, Google Ads, link trading with other forums, can result in a powerful combination which will draw more and more users to your forums.
Seeding links in other forums
Get people aware about your forum/site for free, simply by joining other forums and having your link in your forum/profile signature. Emailing sites such requests can attract negative publicity, as recipients may perceive you to desperate spammer.
The best technique is to join another forum. Have a link to your site in your signature, and try to make 10 or so posts each week. If you get a great reputation on the forum, people will check out your link. If you are a credible, it is likely people in those forums will join yours.
Useful forum articles
- Forum design
- Building content
- Long term survival