Building a successful forum

I promised a while back that I would write a post about building a successful forum community. My experience has come through building the world’s most active and successful BMW Z4 forum (title sounds too grand! LOL!). I came at this completely blind and have made some good decisions as well as some bad ones, so I thought I would share them with you so hopefully you can learn from my experience.

Research

Do your research. This is possibly the single most important thing you can do, and can be vital to the success or failure of your forum.

Find out what forums are already out there, if they are successful or not, and if you think you can grab a share of the market. For example, if I wanted to make a forum to share knowledge about cheap offers then I would see that hotukdeals.com already has that marker sewn up good and proper. It would take a brave person to go up against them.

However, if your niche market is slightly different then there is often room for several forums. Make a list of al the forums you can find for your niche, as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

Be different

If you want people to join your forum it is vital that you offer something different to the other established forums. There has to be some reason for people to join your forum, especially in the beginning when it is bare.

Being different can mean lots of things. It can be creating a niche within a niche, for example. There are lots of BMW forums, but not so many for the Z4 in particular, thus it is a niche within a niche.

Sometimes you will spot faults with forums. Often they are poorly moderated and people are made to feel like school children. Your forum could be different in that respect. If people see a well moderated forum it creates a good atmosphere and more people will join.

The team

You cannot run a forum alone. If you think your forum is going to be small enough to manage alone then I would say stop now, there is no point having a forum that small, it will stagnate. Forums need to be busy thriving places where people can ask questions and get rapid responses. Building a team is vital to this.

Not too many

Try to resist the temptation to recruit everyone who is helpful onto your team. The last thing you want is more team members than forum members. I would recommend 3 to start with, then add a couple more as the forum grows.

Cover the globe

Try to make sure you cover the different time zones with your team. This way you will have maximum coverage at all times of the day and night in case things get out of hand or spammers hit your forum.

A forum is not a democracy

This one was the biggest surprise to me and you would do very well to learn from my mistakes before setting up a forum.

In the first instance I set up the forum to be a nice environment, where people felt respected and were not treated as children. The mistake I made was to try and involve everyone in building the community. I posted questions “should we have A or should we have B?”. The problem with this is the opinions were so split on almost everything that all I ended up doing was alienating the people whose opinion we didn’t follow.

If I had just decided to implement something without asking then 9 times out of 10 I would get a positive response. By trying to run it as a democracy it actually made things worse. This does not mean don’t ask peoples opinion, but think twice before opening up these questions to the community as a whole.

Spam

It is vital that you protect your forum from spammers. You can’t make 100% sure they don’t get through but put as many things in place as possible. Nothing puts people off a forum like one that is covered in spam.
Make sure your forum software is up to date, as this will prevent your forum being hacked as well as lessening the chance of spamming. If you do get spammed make sure you have sufficient moderators available to remove it as soon as possible, then block the offenders email and IP address.

Advertising

Get your advertising in from the start, or at least get banners in place, even if they advertise your own forum. In my experience if people see it from the start they don’t stress about it. If you leave it for 6 months then add advertising people think there is some evil conspiracy going on and you have sold out to the devil. Even if you make nothing from it at first, it saves the aggravation of adding it later.

Delegate

If you have a good team of enthusiastic people, use them (in a good way). On the Z4 forum I have one guy who took an interest in helping out with running the monthly photo competition. Nowadays he runs it all the time, saving me time which I can devote to other things.

Backups

When people join a forum they are investing their time and knowledge. Although you cannot put a price on it, it is vital you respect it. This knowledge builds up over time and people trust you to protect it. This means protecting their private information and also to ensure the data is safe in the event of hardware failure.

All of this means have a backup strategy that is water tight. Go over every eventuality in your head and have it covered from all angles. I have backups, backups of the backups, and one more for good measure, every night, all in different locations.

Participate

This probably shouldn’t be right down the bottom of the list as it is one of the most important parts of building a successful forum.

It is especially important at the beginning, when you are trying to build the post count and get people coming back. When people post a question, make sure you acknowledge them. In the beginning on my forum I would see a question and if I didn’t know the answer I would go and hunt for it on Google or other sites and get back to them with what I found. This worked really well for getting some good feeling. Pretty soon more people joined in and I had to do it less, but it worked well in the beginning.

As forum admin people do pay attention to how much you participate. It is seen that you care about the community if you are taking part, and that good feeling is appreciated by the members.

Cover your back

As soon as you get chance, write a terms and conditions, a disclaimer (opinions on this forum are that of the poster, not the owner, etc…) and the house rules. This will give you something to refer to if people step out of line, as well as covering you (a little) in the event of someone having legal issue with what they read on your forum.

Enjoy it!

This is actually very important. There is a LOT of work that goes into building and maintaining a thriving forum. Anything you get back from advertising is likely not to cover your costs (unless you are very lucky) so money should not be the motivating factor. If you can cover your costs and you get a sense of satisfaction out of what you have created (as I do) then you have done well.

If anyone has any questions or would like any advice on setting a forum up of their own, please ask 😀

8 replies
  1. Rarst
    Rarst says:

    I always found weird how plenty of people consider forums democracy by default. They don’t go and teach bloggers how to blog but it’s perfectly okay for them to loudly voice their opinion about how forums should work.

    I was frequenting some very different forums (I usually get bored with forum after a year) and everywhere there is always group of democracy proclaimers who drive everyone nuts with their demands.

    Reply
  2. Lyndi
    Lyndi says:

    ‘A forum is not a democracy’ – this sums it all up for me. Many forums have fallen by the wayside because of the cliques that form on the forums. These cliques then tend to take over everything and sometimes manage to spoil the whole experience for everyone else.

    In my opinion the owner and the mods should rule with an iron fist. If someone breaks the rules they should be promptly removed. If this does not happen the majority suffers because of the actions of a few. If this type of situation is left unchecked, the forum will eventually die.

    I wish I had a Z4, it sounds as if you have one of the few worthwhile forums these days.

    Reply
  3. Jim
    Jim says:

    Interesting that you both homed in on that section, I did think it was an interesting point and could have possibly elaborated a little more. Forum psychology is an interesting thing and takes some thought to manage it well.

    I know what you mean about cliques, I have seen that happen on a lot of forums too and it is something I keep an eye on. An important thing to keep in mind in that situation is to try and avoid having a member of a “clique” in the team, that tends to make people feel bullied.

    Like I say, I am learning as I go along. I have come a long way in the past year and a bit, but I by no means have all the answers.

    If there is interest in this topic I may elaborate on some other areas of “forum life” at a later date.

    Thanks for the comments!

    Reply
  4. Jim
    Jim says:

    @Matt: Sorry, your comment hit the spam filter. I have had a lot on recently and haven’t been on top of checking. Thanks for the comment, and for adding the RSS, it’s good to know people are reading 😀

    Reply
  5. Piggynap
    Piggynap says:

    Good tip about trying to differentiate yourself from all the other forums out there – there are probably lots of untapped niches within markets, like ‘for beginners’ or ‘for women’. Did you find people found your forum by themselves, e.g through search, or did you advertise it at first?

    It looks like the main thing is to have good admin and create conversations so people come back – it must be a lot of hard work, and that’s after all the technical stuff that goes into making it useable, so well done on your Z4 forum!

    Reply
  6. Jim
    Jim says:

    @Piggynap : Thanks for the comment. You are spot on with the un-tapped niches out there, there definitely are a lot. The trick is to get it up and running fast and drive it forward with as much enthusiasm as you can muster.

    I have another forum in mind that will be launched in the next month or two… I will document it along the way and you can see how it goes. This one will be completely from scratch and we will have to build it without an existing community looking for a place to stay. It should be interesting, as well as a challenge.

    The question about where people come from is an interesting one, and one you covered on your work blog a while ago. Basically people who have a Z4 and want to find a forum will search for “z4 forum” (with or without quotes). In this respect the domain is PERFECT. A little SEO mixed in there and we are number one on Google. That leads to 3 or 4 new signups every day.

    Reply

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