Even before I started running my own online business 5 years ago, I was always participating in forum discussions centered around several different topics—from architecture to college football, and even Magic the Gathering cards.
Within these forums I learned a ton of information, I made a lot of long-lasting virtual friendships, and one particular forum in the architecture industry became a major factor in the growth of my LEED Exam study guide business.
Recently, however, I've been experiencing what it's like from a forum owner's perspective, having created two different forums within the span of a single month:
- The public discussion forum on NicheSiteDuel.com (powered by VanillaForums); and
- The private discussion forum within Breakthrough Blogging (powered by phpBB).
Both forums are alive and well, however managing the forums has definitely been a new experience for me.
Running your own forum can benefit you and your audience in a number of different ways:
- It brings your audience together in a central location where they can interact with each other.
- It increases brand authority, since your website is where all of the discussion is happening.
- It adds additional content to your website.
- It can reduce the number of overall questions directed at you.
- It can be an incredible resource for market research.
- It increases retention rate across your community.
A great forum—one that helps you and more importantly, your community—is an active forum, and I've seen a lot of forums come and go simply because no one was using them anymore.
They became ghost forums.
My forums are brand new, but down the road I don't want any of my forums (and any of yours) to follow the same path, which is why I've asked for advice from a number of experts about how they keep their forum communities engaged and thriving.
Even if you don't have a forum yet, these are great tips for increasing overall engagement and interaction on your website.
Here's are the experts and what they had to say:
Neil Patel—QuickSpout Traffic and Conversion Forum
Neil Patel's Traffic and Conversion Forum on QuickSprout.com is fairly new, but I've never seen this much high-quality content on a public Internet Marketing related forum before.
I asked Neil how he was able to get so much high-quality content and activity so quickly, and here's what he said:
“I am not doing anything specific. I've learned that when you want to genuinely help people out and they know you want to help them without expecting anything in return, they'll gladly reciprocate by helping others out. So far I haven't asked one person to post on the forum nor have I paid anyone to post on it, people just want to help others out because that is the type of community I have built on Quick Sprout. In which we believe in giving first and never asking for anything in return.”
When creating a community, I think approaching it with this kind of ‘giving mentality' is very smart, and the tone can be set in a sticky set of rules like what Neil has in his forum:
Forum rules (copy & pasted from the QuickSpout Forum)
- Please don’t make it one big advertisement.
- All posts MUST stay on the thread or category topic. For example, you wouldn’t want to talk about “SEO” in the “Conversion Optimization” category.
- All threads that are nothing but a ‘test’ or an ‘ad’ will be deleted.
- If you link out randomly to your own site when it’s not relevant, the thread or post will be deleted. If the links are relevant to the thread, that’s fine. Please use your best judgment here.
- Be respectful of other people’s opinions and ideas. It’s okay to disagree and have different opinions, but present your case tactfully. This is a community.
- Please don’t use affiliate links in this forum. When you externally link, do it because you want to help someone, not because you see a quick opportunity to make some cash.
- Try to add value when you post. Don’t just type something along the lines of “What they said.”
- Use proper grammar to the best of your ability. I understand that English may not be everyone’s main language, but make an attempt. You won’t get in trouble for a misplaced comma or for typos, but it would help everyone if you could make sure everyone understands your message.
- No adult material. Be mindful that there may be users who are a lot younger than you.
- “Bumping” threads should be kept to a limit. This means you shouldn’t keep replying to your own thread (without anyone else replying in between) to get it back to the top without waiting at least 3 days. As the forum grows, it can get very spammy with tons of users bumping constantly.
I've actually stopped reading blog posts last week because I've been coming to Neil's forum, and just yesterday I finally created a profile so I can start to participate and contribute to the discussions as well, which are highly relevant to what I'm doing right now.
There's definitely a “let's all help each other” feel to the forum, which is nice and should be the goal for any forum owner.
Steve Kamb—Nerd Fitness Rebellion HQ
Steve is the genius behind NerdFitness.com, a fitness website and community dedicated to helping nerds and average Joes “level up their lives.”
Nerd Fitness also has a huge forum of about 20k members and a ton of daily activity, so I was extremely interested in hearing Steve's advice for how to keep a forum active engaged, especially for one that's so large. Here's what he said:
A few years back we started forums on Nerd Fitness with just a handful of people. I asked people who wanted to test out the software to apply to help me out for a month, trying things out, reorganizing the subforums, troubleshooting etc. Because they knew they were testing it out, they didn't mind there wasn't much happening in there. After a month, we officially launched the forums with a big 4-week contest where people had to post their goals for the month and journal their efforts along the way, and I'd pick a winner to receive a free NF t-shirt.
I kind of equate it to a party. If you have 10 people come to a party 30 minutes apart, they'll see that nobody is there and then leave. However, if you can get five people to show up at the same time, then the next people showing up individually will see how much fun everybody else is having and stick around (reinforcing the decision for the next person to show up to stay, etc.)
Since then, we've had new challenges every 6 weeks, with constantly adapting rules and goals to make the experience better. Once the boards got too big for me to manage myself, I invited a few of our most active and popular members to become moderators and help me run the show. I relinquished a lot of control, and let the mods know “this is your home. let me know what I can do to make it better, what resources, upgrades, software you need, what kind of things we need to be doing, and we'll make it happen.”
What started as me and 30 NF message board posters has since evolved into a 20,000 person message board community with 30 volunteer moderators. Heck I name like half a dozen relationships that have started as a result of these boards!
I love the idea of a challenge or forum-wide event every X weeks or so—something for the entire community to look forward to and participate in. That's something I definitely have to consider, and the idea of getting special people within the forum to become moderators—that almost seems like a win-win situation all around.
Jeremy Frandsen—Internet Business Mastery Academy
Internet Business Mastery was the first business-related podcast that I had ever listened to back in 2008. I found it through a search in iTunes for Internet Business and immediately, I was hooked. When the hosts Jeremy and Jason launched the Internet Business Mastery Academy, I was quick to join and it gave me access to the first private forum I've ever been a part of—and it was definitely a life changer for me.
Although there were relatively less people in the forum than in other forums I've been a part of, the connections I made and the information I learned were priceless. I'm still friends with Jeremy, Jason and a lot of the members who joined around the same time as me, like Mark Mason from Late Night IM and Dan Andrews from The Lifestyle Business Podcast, just to name a few.
Jeremy and Jason have been managing their private forum for over 5 years, so I had to ask them for advice too. Here's what Jeremy said:
“The first thing we did to get our forum started is ask questions inside the forum. We'd usually give our own personal answer to that question to get things going. We also had assignments within our courses that would have people go to the forum and answer questions. We'd also refer to the forum in our emails and any videos we'd send out to all members. As things got going, we'd zero in on the members that are the most active and offer them incentives to moderate and keep the forums hopping. Both these things kept our forums active and alive for YEARS!”
I've noticed a lot of people who have private forums mention or share certain conversations within those forums publicly—which I think is a great idea, not only to give people incentive to keep talking, but to gather more interest and potentially increase awareness for the membership or course. It's almost like a ‘teaser' about what people who aren't a part of that are missing.
MJ DeMarco—The Fastlane Forums
MJ DeMarco is the author of The Millionaire Fastlane and also the featured guest in SPI Podcast Session #18. When he self-published his book, he also created The Fastlane Forum to help his readers connect and it has been active for several years with thousands of members and new topics and conversations happening 24/7.
Here's what MJ said about keeping a forum active:
“The answer is pretty much the same as it is a blog. You have to take a leadership role and participate actively. Contribute. Be highly visible and interactive. Ask engaging questions. The most important thing in starting is to keep the forum small and tightly organized– grow it as growth demands. No one wants to visit a huge forum with 100 categories and no posts in any of them. You can always expand as users grow.
When I started my forum years ago, I contributed to EVERY thread. Yes, EVERY THREAD. Even today, I visit every day and try to contribute something to the conversation. Your audience will appreciate that your forum isn't just some community building tool that you just threw up to enhance your brand, but something that you stand behind. Think of it like building a large apartment complex that you intend on LIVING IN– your readers (residents) will appreciate that you just didn't build it for “making money” or “community building” but to be apart of your life, so much so, that you live there.”
MJ's advice about keeping the forum small and organized is huge. The more categories and sections you include, especially in the beginning, the more of a ghost town it will look, and most likely the less actual conversation you'll see since it'll be a little overwhelming for new members.
James Schramko—Super Fast Business
James Schramko was a name that I kept hearing over and over again in the online business arena for the longest time. Only recently have I discovered his site, Super Fast Business, and we finally had a conversation together just a couple of weeks ago when he asked me to be a guest on his podcast. You can listen to that interview by clicking here.
I only wish we had connected sooner because James is a man with big ideas and he definitely knows what he's talking about, especially when it comes to product creation, marketing, and managing a forum. After some additional chatting after our podcast interview, I soon discovered he had a large, active private forum and he had some amazing tips for me to help for my own.
Here's what James had to say (and thanks for over-delivering here James!):
“According to Peter Drucker The purpose of a businesses is to create and keep a customer. Going back to the reason why someone joined your forum will be insightful as to what you need to do to retain them. They joined because they wanted a result. They felt they would be better off than not joining.
As a forum owner your goal is to continually deliver the result and exceed the expectation. Initially your customer may have thought that they wanted more content but really they probably wanted the result that the content will help them get. Sometimes giving people more content is not the answer—it can actually delay them getting a result. So if it's not just delivering more and more content what is it?
Starting discussions is a great way to involve users. If you have a regular ‘post of the day' or a ‘thought for the week' that will be helpful. Ask a question that creates a discussion and people will be very keen to share their opinion. This shifts the focus from you having to do the content delivery to being a discussion wrangler. Your main role as a forum owner is then to step back and moderate what the members create. User-generated content is now the fuel for getting results for others. You have formed a culture / tribe.
Establish clear rules and boundaries so that people can work within a framework that is clear. Once they know the rules it's easy to play the game and people post more without having two worry about doing the wrong thing. (Fear of doing the wrong thing will cause lurking). It takes a lot of maturity to run a form because you have to make decisions like a parent or a boss.
Have a look at the most active members. Figure out what it is that draws them to your community and why they are so engaged.
Run an actual event for your community members. Each month in most major capital cities members of my community meet at a pub and they don't pay any extra. Post pictures to the forum afterwards. In fact I just returned from one last night was around 25 members and they all know each other. Bring a special guest if you can. The other communal event that is very good is to run an annual member conference/event. This'll be a paid event with some guest speakers but also be made up of people who know each other and this is the most powerful community thing you can do. Just by holding even one pro year you would have a very strong member attention.
Other things that increase engagement upon registration it's very important to have your new member post something immediately. Have a welcome thread and ask them to post and let you know why they joined and what they're hoping to achieve is a result of being a member.
Have your sections laid out intelligently and be prepared to move / trim / delete forums and threads as you figure out the best way to structure the forum. It will change over time.
One of the main reasons people stay engaged and retain their membership is to be part of a community. Your home office can be lonely when you're sitting at home behind a computer without other people to discuss things. Especially if you are not yet achieving the level of result you desire. Even in a very business oriented forum it's worth having a social lounge or coffee area that people can just go and talk about non-related business matters where you can have people posting funny things are things that to help them reflect because this really extends the relationship aspect.
Consider letting members have the use of a forum signature which is the little one of text underneath each post. Members of Fast Web Formula are allowed to put a link to whatever they like. This is their little advertising space encouraging them to post valuable contributions because each time they do, they get a little bit more attention for whatever it is that they are looking to promote (if they want to promote anything). Members stand to profit from the type of customer base who you have will certainly be a long-term member because they get a return on investment.
Strict rules and occasional moderations / deletions are required if you do this however you'll find a lot more content gets posted because it's ‘give take'. Give content, take a signature. Encourage members to put a Google Analytics tracking link in their signature so that they can reconcile a return on their posting investment when they look at their own analytics and conversions.
Do a weekly roundup of the best threads. This is an idea I originally got from Dennis Becker but innovated it to the following: Find a member who has a high attention to detail and is a very active participant. They compile a list and send an email is through once per week of the top discussions. (I pay for this). I go to each thread and open them up in my browser. The I make a video of me summarizing what's happening in the forum this week (Screenflow shows the thread and me on the same screen see attached). I then place that video inside the membership listing the threads underneath. I then email all members the links.
Have a thanks button or a like button of some kind that provides recognition for a quality post. It is very important that people are able to be praised if they do good posts. Have a user title that changes in importance as people post more posts. For example you could have New, Intermediate and Advanced Member user titles.
Find the members who contribute the most to the community and give them special member titles and perhaps even a slightly lower membership rate so that they stay for a long time. Invite in experts who are very good at their field. I still have mine pay a membership but it is a special rate that way it's a draw card for members but also the member will get in there and find they have a ready-made community without having to create their own.
For my smaller community SilverCircle I hold three GoToMeetings on Tuesdays and all members turn up to one or more. I still make a summary video of the highlights each week.
Have a results thread. Have somewhere where people can post the amazing results they have been getting. This helps your member acknowledge how much value that getting from the membership. Is also good indicator for you as to how much value your providing. Can also lead to an easy way to generate testimonials should you wish to add them to your sales page (ask for permission).
Ask. Be sure to ask your members what they'd like to see in the community and continually have something in the future that's exciting. It could be a webinar once per month or a live event coming or just a local meet up.
Turn up. The reason a lot of people join your communities they want access to you and I have turned up to my community almost every day for more than four years in a row. If you do turn up and you are interested, than your members will stick around.”
Gold. Just, pure gold. Thank you James.
I'm extremely happy with the forums I currently manage, but based on the advice from the experts above, I still have a lot of work to do and there's a lot I can do to take it to the next level.
As you can tell, managing a forum is a long-term commitment and definitely more active than passive work for the owner, and I think that's what a lot of people forget when starting one up. Luckily, I know I'm in it for the long-haul, and hopefully the advice in this post will help you in the long-haul as well.
Thanks again to all of the experts who contributed, and if you have any additional comments to add about managing a forum, or even what you feel works and what doesn't work inside forums that you're a part of, please leave a comment below.
Cheers, and all the best to you!