25 February 2007

Discussion on Challenges of Web Community Building

In 2006, I started a web community at ANF forum, and my experience so far hasn't been palatable. I have sat and watched no one register for such a long time, and then suddenly I noticed hundreds of registrations. This gladdened me exceedingly, but imagine my despair when I checked and discovered they're all spam messages. [UPDATE - Feb 2011: I have now taken down this forum]

I suspected many webmasters like me were experiencing similar disheartening events. So I decided to search the web to find out what others were saying. Of all I discovered, the most interesting is a discussion among webmasters sharing their experiences on a webmaster world forum I stumbled in to (see it here). I have compiled the most interesting parts for your enlightenment. Note this was an ongoing discussion when I stumbled onto it. Enjoy!

The Administrator, rogerd, noted:
Kind of intimidating looking in this forum and seeing under ten, posts, eh? But this is exactly the challenge faced by many webmasters. Many of us have been there - the BB software is installed, the template or skin is designed... the forums have been set up... and there you sit, with the thread and post counters at "0". It's enough to creep you out... ;) I know we've got some experienced folks here... What have you done to get conversation flowing and attract new members?

I once had a teacher who said, "The first five languages are the toughest." (He spoke a dozen or so.) Forum operators typically find that the first few thousand posts are the toughest - once you are at that level, you probably have something going, even if it's not quite enough to launch your forum to the six or seven digit level.

What comes first? Do you jump in as yourself, the host? Do you adopt other nicks, or get your buddies to post? When you have a flicker of flame and wisp of smoke, so to speak, how do you fan it into a real fire?
A forum visitor, moltar, replies:
I do not have any experience of my own, but I have seen other sites offer a reward (money, goods, services, etc...) for the first user to reach X number of quality posts. I am starting my first community and wondering if such techique will work?
rogerd goes:
Interesting idea, moltar - I think the tough part will be quality control. I've seen plenty of forum members post incessantly just to get their post count up or get to the next membership level. Adding rewards to the mix would bring out the worst in some members, and would no doubt mean some heavy-duty policing of the posts. How would the forum admin determine quality, and track that number? Or are you thinking of a peer rating system?
moltar replies:
Have very clear TOS and every message that follows the TOS is considered quality. I guess, "thank you", "me too" and such messages would count as quality... Not sure myself :)
rogerd continues:
Sounds a bit risky to me... quality is a real judgment call. We have members here that could answer a question with one word and make me feel like I'd gained important knowledge. But it would certainly be difficult to control the members who were trying to boost their count with relatively low content replies. I do think a post counter is a modest motivator, and can be enhanced by levels and privileges (avatars, additional profile fields), although even there you may have to watch out for excessive posters.
Another forum visitor, Marcia, contributes:
Roger, this can probably be broken down into a few different issues, each almost worthy of discussion on their own: >>What comes first?

That can depend. Is it a stand-alone community site or part of one that's larger in scope?

How will the visitors get there in the first place?

Is it a newly launched site no one knows about yet or one that already has a certain amount of traffic, both one time and return visitors?

>>Do you jump in as yourself, the host?

No choice! The host has to meet and greet, extending the hand of welcome and setting the initial direction and tone.

>>Do you adopt other nicks, or get your buddies to post?

That's partly related to the first questions I asked, Rog, whether or not it's an unknown new site - and whether there's been any previus networking amongst the target audience. Are there some buddies to invite over for the launch to help get it rolling, or is it a lone ranger endeavor?

>>When you have a flicker of flame and wisp of smoke, so to speak, how do you fan it into a real fire?

Once a bit of posting starts, and assuming there's a bit of traffic, how do you get the lurkers to come out of lurking and start posting?
Yet another visitor, mifi601, joins in:
I just started a new forum myself (one is running successfully). I do go in there every other day with a different nick, just to seed it. the whole site is not really live yet and I sometimes wonder whether I should have waited with installing or linking to the forum until my pagecount is somewhat reasonable. but

I figured once I start to look for links and there's already a 'history' of threads, it will be easier to reach critical mass.

It worked the first time around. the smoke into fire?

It happened by itself, someone went and started making really bad posts about me, my website and the forum. first it was nightmare and then people came forward in my support. from then only upwards :)
ken_b adds his voice:
The multi-nick thing can really backfire. A board might well survive it, but my experience is that posters have long memories when it comes to this kind of thing. Better to find some trusted cohorts to share the load with right in the beginning. An active board is going to need more than one mod anyhow so why not start out with them helping to seed the place.

If you can't round up a few folks to help out in the beginning, maybe you need to step back and ask if your timing is right for the project.
martinibuster too:
How will the visitors get there in the first place? Is it a newly launched site no one knows about yet or one that already has a certain amount of traffic, both one time and return visitors?

Feeding the beast...

Step One
I have a forum about a certain hobby that is attached to a website with respectable traffic. I've been feeding it with my own questions and answers, careful to use good keyword phrases.

My forum is now ranking in the top five for certain keyword phrases, nice.

Pay for Play
Now that it has an okay amount of content I am now feeding it visitors through AdWords. AdWords is cheap. Some of the traffic is converting into posters who are posting priceless questions.

Back to Step One
These questions will now be indexed, and because they are organic (not artificial questions like mine), I suspect that they will ring a bell with other search engine surfers and attract more visitors through the natural serps.

I expect the posts to eventually reach Critical Mass, at which point content will begin to generate itself...
mifi601, again:
martinibuster - what do you consider 'cheap'? and which search terms do you target? how much are you spending per month and how many posts is it creating?
Then, ScottM:
Controversy. Seriously, if you can start with a controversial subject, people will chime in.

I will usually goad 3 of my buddies to begin a subject and draw it out. After a little while lurkers start posting and it builds out from there.

Another tip is to start the forum so that anyone can post without any registration needed at all. Anyone. While spam is always a problem, on a new forum it's almost nill and can be handled very easily.

There always seems to be a point of critical mass where the forum takes a life of its' own. At that point, you've got other problems and they are usually good problems.
figment88 then comes in:
I'm just starting my first forum, but I think the RSS feed in PHPBB is a great way to get going. I pull in news from 4 on topic sites and then comment on some of the pieces using different nicks.
pageoneresults contributes:
I think one of the very first things you should look at is the viability of a forum. I've seen sites that have forums and know from experience that they would never garner any real traffic just because of the subject matter. I've been involved with a multitude of forums over the years. I've personally managed two larger forums in my tenure. One of those two went from 200 visitors a day to over 6,000 a day within 90 days after I got my hands on it! ;)

Forums are very high maintenance. An Admin or a Mod need to be on hand 24/7/365 to guide the forum to success. Immediate responses are a big plus when attracting new members.

Industry will be the determining factor on whether or not a forum is even feesible. Seeding the forums is very important at infancy. Without those numbers (and it is a numbers game), attracting a membership is going to be difficult.
trillianjedi chimes in:
Good quality content on the main website, giving people subject matter on which they are likely to want to talk about (good content writing plays a key part). Start good, interesting and detailed threads.

Good moderators are a must. People also enjoy the promotion and get more actively involved. Pick your mods very carefully. You want the people that can actually write. And can spell.

It's not that complicated, but it takes good creative writing to kick-start. You can't just throw it up and cross your fingers. If you can't write good articles that spark interest, then forget it - it's not for you.

Personally, I've only built forums around sites that are doing something that either no-one has done before, or doing it in a slightly novel or unique way. I launched a new one two days ago on that prefix (70 members joined so far - I love this game when everything works out).

When you're over the "hump" (which I define as 1,000 members, or usually around 3-5,000 posts) then you can pretty much leave it alone, with the odd moderator promotion when you spot someone you want to stick around and has added value to the community.

I wouldn't even build in the forum until the site has sparked a little interest and is indexed reasonably well in the search engines.

Nothing looks worse for a website than an empty forum.
Webwork steps in:
Anyone know any good examples of 'industry forums'? Forums that have attracted an active membership from people within any particular industry? This might be akin to business/social networking. I would distinguish this from personal interest forums. You could call WW an industry forum if you wanted to interpret that broadly. Either post them up here - I guess without a direct link but a reference that will help me find it/them - or PM me.

I'm exploring the creation of certain industry focused forums/portals, which will have a B2B and B2C design. As some of you know I have managed to reg certain domains that I hope will nicely support industry targeting.
ken_b adds again:
I have a forum about a certain hobby that is attached to a website with respectable traffic.

What is a "respectable traffic" number?

I assume that a site that has "respectable traffic" numbers would have a better chance at establishing a viable forum.

But I wonder what that number might be.

Does it take 500 visitors per day, 5,000, 50,000?

How dependant is it on how why people come to your site?
hdpt00 says:
When I first join a forum I usually throw out some little question to see how fast it gets answered. The quality of the response and the response time are a huge factor in whether I stay an active poster or move on. In the infancy I would set it up so whenever someone makes a post a notification gets sent to your email and have a program checking your email so you can respond instantly. As an example, when I first joined this forum, I posted at night and woke up to about 10 emails stating there were responses. Even better, almost all the responses are of high quality and helped me out. I'm still here and even enjoy lurking if I can't always contribute myself.
freeflight2 adds his voice:
Moltar: There's nothing worse you can do than to offer your visitors money or any other services for contributing to your community. I did that once (community with 400k members) and it made some moderators quit because they expected more to get and some other members got upset because they didn;t get anything etc... don't do it.
pleeker says:
Great discussion! Have to agree with

I think one of the very first things you should look at is the viability of a forum.
Nothing looks worse for a website than an empty forum.

Truer words have never been spoken. Better not to have a forum at all than to have one that sits there unused like a white elephant.

I know we've got some experienced folks here... What have you done to get conversation flowing and attract new members?

On one site where I have a forum, we wrote a little javascript snippet that goes on the main home page of the site. It shows the five Subjects that have the most recent comments, and of course each links straight to the discussion. This has been a great tool to get new people into the Forum and posting.

On another site where part of the home page is a blog-like announcement area (no comments), we occasionally post about interesting discussions happening in the Forum to get people to visit. It's not unlike the WebmasterWorld home page, but we don't have a constant stream of featured threads like there is here. Just occasionally. And whenever we do feature a new thread on the home page announcements, it always adds to the registered users total and the quantity and quality of posts.
automotivetouchup says:
I have a website that gets tons of "I need free advice" emails all the time. I have been thinking about adding a forum to my site to convert all these messages into SE traffic, and slow down some of these emails.
I that a good Idea that my customers will benifit? or more trouble then neccessary?
(very trade specific)
adfree replies:
Vanity! Epinions' first success was based on users showing off, being rewarded by the others, thus earning yet more exposure, returning favors, some cheating, most trying to help building a quality content momentum...the whole thing took off dynamically and filled the site quite nicely.

If you can, study the Epinions history (not sure if theire is something written or if you would have to break into the members), it had a lot to do with playing the Vanity game.
SuzyUK says:
>>Do you jump in as yourself, the host? While this one may seem one of the most intuitive, I also feel it can be the most offputting (to noobs). I see some new forums where the host is obviously trying very hard, and I do feel for them. But surely even with this approach there is a "right/wrong way" of going about it?

For instance, how do you address an empty room? - apart from taking lessons from a Radio DJ...

In watching Forums springing up all over the place, I think this is the most difficult approach, but it obviously depends on how specific your forum is, so back to square one ~ and no help whatsoever.. it's not an easy choice
mifi601 replies:
I definitely would avoid going in as the mod or admin. but seeding with different nicks I really do believe in and you can get something interesting going even with sites that have less than 500/d traffic. all depends on the community

the forum that I have running for more than a year sees around 5 posts per day, but we are talking about an island that has 2000 souls, so I would consider it successful.
Then, JeremyL:
Let's face it, no one posts on a forum that is empty. I am assuming since you are starting a forum that more then likely you are knowledgable on the subject matter it covers. If this site is attached to a content site, then use the forums to do feedback threads on your content with links from the content going to whichever thread. But still that won't be enough. So the first thing you should do is create say 25 fake members. Then just start having conversations with yourself on a daily basis. You being the expert on the forums can contribute some great content to these threads along with your alter egos and before long you will have a few hundred posts. Once people come and see information they like they are likely to return.

Of course one you have some real members chiming in you can cut back until the fake ones are gone.
<study the Epinions history
Epinions paid cash for reviews. If you can raise $16M on 8 Powerpoint slides, I highly recommend this route :)

Couple things from my experience:
- Stay away from multiple nicks - sets a terrible example, and can eventually undermine the integrity of your forum

- Reward your superusers - 95% of your content will be generated by 5% of your users. Reward them by tagging their ID's on the site, responding to their suggestions / feedback first, public recognition (through an epinions like web of trust, or top posters list, etc.), featuring their posts, etc.

- Follow the news and launch threads accordingly - stuff happens every day that people want to discuss - if they don't see a discussion in progress on your site, they will find one elsewhere

- Seed your site with content. Whether you do it through your friends network, or through incentives, you have to do it. We did something a little unique - we actually barnstormed to universities and traded t-shirts for offline comments (works for our particular type of forum) written on clipboards. In exchange for 10 reviews, each kid got a t-shirt (which helped our branding). We generated 16,000 posts this way. We then entered all the comments into the database. Extremely time consuming, but it put us on the map.

- Make it easy to post. Make sure your site is fast, site is up, registration fields all fit on one screen, etc. Do little things like let people enter the post before prompting them for registration info, as opposed to prompting them prior to their post.

- Feature reviewers / posts on your home page. Contributes to the vanity effect mentioned earlier.

- Bring on posters as mods as soon as possible.

- Beg for links. Forums are typically not a commercial threat to other Webmasters, and agressive link development can work.

- Constant email / notification. Notify a user if their post is featured. Notify a user if their suggestion has been accepted. Notify users about new threads of interest to them. Let your users communicate with each other (a la sticky mail). Put feedback and postcard options all over your site. The more correspondence sent to, from, and between users, the more people are invested in the site.

- Have some kind of points / recognition system, with the appropriate fraud enforcement system in place. These things are an absolute pain in the butt to administer, but really do incent content.

- Build your site for SEO :) Thread titles in anchor text. Avoid dynamic urls. Thread titles in urls. All that other good stuff. Check all the things Brett does.
Mikkel Svendsen says:
Anyone know any good examples of 'industry forums'? I have just recently released a new forum for a Antivirus company. Very successfull, I must say, but we also had some advantages:

1) After some research we found that there was not one single dedicated forum for antivirus and personal security issues - at least not any prominent one.

2) The company already had a well visited and well positioned website and an active user base (90% trials) of +6 million

The goal of the forum is (off course) to sell more antivirus products. (I could lie and claim we want to "serve the web", but the fact is we just want to make more money and gain more relevant organic listings :)). However we made sure not to push this too hard to begin with. In fact, you won't find any advertising for the products at all in the forums - yet, if ever.

We made sure to optimize the system perfectly. It took some time to work out the perfect optimization strategy and do the neccesary programming (it had to be done in .NET) but we decided not to release the forum before we felt it was perfect.

Once the forum was up we send out an email to a small sample of the most loyal users (long term paying customers) inviting them to the forum. Also, we instructed our support team to check into the forum every day and answer any questions they could.

After one month we had a couple of hundred posts in approx 100 threads. About the same time we got picked up by Google and was chocked to see the results! :

1) The trafic from search engines improved by 500-1000 (even more now) visitors a day - including (relevant) keywords we never thought of (and that our competitors apparently did not think of either). In one week we got over 1000 se-referrals a day for a single virus variant that I did not realize so many people was searching for (historic keyword data never show this) - out ranking ALL our competitors.

2) We gained more registered users and more quality posts

3) This month the sales of the products sold to people that found the site (forum + the other parts of the optimized site) has doubled and we still have no advertising of the product and only approx 500 posts.

Next step will be to send an email to the rest of the active user group (+6 mill) which off course we are very excited to see the results from. (sticky me, if you want to know how it turns out).

It is definately not the last time I recomend a client to spend the time and money to build a B2C forum :)

I agree that impersonating forum posters by using multiple nicks is not a good idea. One of the forum admin communities recently started a "Launch Team" that sends a group of its members to a new community to help get the ball rolling; this seems like a better option. Tying in discussions with pre-existing site content works fine, as does highlighting quality discussions to a mailing list, or elsewhere on a site. Email notification (turned ON by default) has also been successful on my site. I've found that non-dynamic URLs are crucial for spidering too, but can be difficult, especially if you're hacking up the URL structure of established forum software, rather than rolling your own.

Some out-of-the-box forum software offers an affiliate-type program for current members to recruit new ones. Never tried it, but I suppose it could work. The vbulletin community has various hacks for integrating chat bots into message forums as regular posters. I've seen this generate a lot of initial excitement -- many people don't even realize they're conversing with a bot.

Part of the challenge is also getting newly-registered members to make their first post. I use a dynamic announcement system for this -- if any board page detects a new member with 0 posts, it will display a message at the top of the page encouraging them to make their first post. I also send new members an automatic "sticky" message to encourage the same.

Seeding the forums is very important at infancy.

Ok, interesting point. I've recently started a couple of forums on my web sites and I am a newbie in this field. Seeding does not feel like a completely honest thing to do, but maybe it can be justified if e.g. valueable questions are asked which regular users tend to overlook.

Nothing looks worse for a website than an empty forum.

I'm not sure that I agree. Today, many web sites run forums as an avenue for user support and user to user feedback. In this way, the forum is an open and public communication, different from the private user to company communication which can be hidden from other users. In my mind running a public support forum is a sign of honesty and credibility, even if it has quite few posts. A good example of this are web hosting companies. I would never use a web host which does not have an open forum where users can complain or praise.

(BTW, this forum is an excellent idea.)
I don't think there's anything wrong with having a empty forum on your site. Depending on who you are trying to impress most visitors won't care. You can't start with a forum being full and sometimes it takes a long time to get going. If you reply with something intelligent each time you get a post then you will soon find a small group of loyal users who will post more and more.

Make some of your early posters moderators (as long as they are reasonably knowledgable) and they will have an interest in making your forum successful and will enjoy doing it.

I wouldn't seed the forum with multiple users. If you add moderators at a later date they will see your IPs are the same if they look and it will undermine your credibility (which is very important on a forum).

Have email notification on by default but let users know they can turn it off. It really helps get people replying.

Forums take a lot of time once they get busy and can cause a lot of problems when people get pissed off (as happens fairly regularly on a large forum). In terms of time vs income my main forum doesn't pay anywhere near my non-forum sites in terms of how much effort I put in. Most of the hits you get on a forum are the same small number of people visiting again and again and therefore don't accurately reflect true popularity.

I look at my forums as a back up against my other sites which might be vulnerable to search engine changes. The forum should always get a feed of active users from links on other sites and is not too reliant on search engines.
Go2 and CPNMM :- It's up to the webmaster to inject some content into it.

I see websites all the time where the webmaster has setup a forum engine, with about 20 categories, and it's absolutely empty.

Nothing looks worse than that.

The better approach is to start off with only a couple of categories within which you can fill the content yourself. Start some interesting threads. Write.

There is absolutely no excuse for an empty forum.

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