Eileen P. Parzek, SOHO It Goes! Contributing Writer, Smallbiztechnology.com
Typically, people visit a web site because they are looking for something, find it in search, or hear about the site through another venue, and then maybe bookmark it to return. You can leave it to chance – or you can invest the time and energy into building a community around your web site. One of the best ways to do this is to offer your visitors a discussion forum.
If you have the right kind of site for a discussion forum, and the time to devote to growing a community, the benefits can be plentiful. Also known as “bulletin boards” or “threaded message boards,” a forum gives people a good reason to come back repeatedly, to discuss their common interests. A forum creates a repository of useful information for your visitors to return to, gives your site credibility, and facilitates relationships between you and your customers, and them with each other. >From a site owner’s perspective, forums require some personal information to join and post, and this gives you a way to communicate with your visitors and prospective customers.
Forum discussions are called “threads” and they are saved in chronological order. They are also searchable, so that your visitors can come back and search for answers to things they want to know. Over time, if you have an active community, your site will become a valuable resource on whatever topic(s) it has evolved around.
Each member has a profile, which can be detailed or basic, and you decide as the administrator whether you want to let people post anonymously. In addition, many forum applications include other types of features for the members who create profiles, such as polls, and ways that your members can communicate privately with each other.
SHOULD YOU HAVE A FORUM?
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Before you decide to have a forum, think about the type of site you have, who your visitors are, and what kind of communication and information needs they might have. Organizations and association web sites are a natural fit for a forum, but only IF the members are computer-savvy and apt to communicate online. Another well suited type of site is that which revolves around a particular pre-existing community, especially one which has not previously had a global forum to discuss common issues. An example of this would be if you created a site for parents of children with a particular illness – chances are excellent that these parents would flock to the idea of having a community where they could discuss their issues.
Another opportunity for building a community would be around a particular product or service. If you sell a product which needs support, let your customers start to help each other by exchanging ideas and tips on how to use the product. Forums are popular on hardware and software web sites, and become the first line of support for many customers before they even call for technical support. Over time, it is a good bet someone has had a problem already, and has posted it on the forum, and a moderator (usually someone from the company) has replied with the solution.
If you are unsure about the feasibility of building a community amongst your visitors, and whether they would welcome the idea, just ask them! Set up a short survey, and email everyone about your plan – post a link to the survey on the web site to capture new visitors – and see what they say about the idea.
HOW TO GET A FORUM FOR YOUR SITE
There are actually an astonishing number of very robust forums available online for free. Some developers don’t provide a lot of support for the code, just instructions and (no surprise) a forum with other users discussing it. Not every free forum will have the entire list of features you may want, and you definitely want to pick the right forum before you start building the community because it is too much trouble to switch applications later. Of course, there are a significant number of forums available for a licensing fee, too, and these sometimes have better features, support, and documentation. The “open source” community has a number of bulletin boards which are widely supported by other developers. The best way to find one is to frequent some forums, create a profile for yourself, and see how they work, and then investigate the ones that you would like to mimic.
Setting up a forum can range from easy (for someone with a technical background), to a major pain. At the very least, it is wise to have someone lined up who is familiar with the language of the particular forum you choose, and able to install it to your site. Once it is installed, you or they will need to customize the forum to match your site’s look and feel, set up major topic areas, configure permissions and other administrator preferences, and so on. This is something you can usually ask a web developer to do for you, if you are not comfortable doing it yourself.
AFTER YOUR FORUM IS LIVE
For all of the rewards of a discussion forum, the site owner should be aware they are going to need to do a tremendous amount of work to build the community. First, you will have to kick off your forum with good topics. You will also need to invite people to the forums, and stir the pot, engaging them in conversations which center around your topics. Very often people will visit a forum to show their own expertise and grow their business, and you should always encourage this, even if it is from your competitors. Remember, YOUR site that will become more valuable, and attractive to new visitors, because of their participation.
You will need to continuously promote, invite, and seed the forum with topics, until it takes on a life of its own. This could take many months, but it can also be a LOT of fun if you love your subject matter, are devoted to growing a community, and remember what the benefits are.
The other side of the effort is that after your forums start to grow, you will need to moderate. This means that you need to stay attuned at all times to the conversations that are going on, be available by email, and ready to lay down the law on people who violate your forums rules. Inappropriate messages and spamming are the main violations, and you need to be ready and quick about removing and condemning that sort of activity. One successful forum moderator I know leaves the person’s message header intact, and changes the subject line to *public flogging* so that it not only disappears, but the entire community knows she spanked another one. This sends a message to the community that certain behavior and subjects will not be tolerated.
Do not worry though, once your forum gets up to speed, you probably will have the ability to assign co-moderators, if you have that feature in your forum. This means that you assign permissions to moderate a specific topic area to a trusted and knowledgeable member of your community. In exchange, they have “expert” status in that particular topic, and are responsible for seeding that part of the forum with topics, which gains them credibility.
Though it is true that the web is littered with silent, defunct forums, the potential for community building with a forum is still tremendous if you have a unique subject or spin to put on a community, choose the right forum application, and have the time to invest in launching it. Once your community is established and vibrant, you will find you have an involved and enthusiastic audience who trusts and relies on you for information. From there, the possibilities are endless.