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How to Start and Run a Forum Website
Updated: 2022-03-23 / Article by: Lori Soard
Create a sense of community on your website by adding a forum. Go through 6 simple steps that detail everything from choosing a platform for your forum to setting up administrative rules.
People tend to fall in the camp of loving online forums or thinking they are a waste of time. According to experts like Daniel Scocco of Daily Writing Tips, adding a forum to your website is a great idea if you have enough traffic to keep it active.
There is no magic number here, but you should wait for 5,000 or more daily unique visitors before launching a forum. Just consider that we had around 10,000 RSS readers on DailyWritingTips when we launched the DWT Forum, and out of those only 400 or so registered for the Forum.
Daniel Scocco, DailyWritingTips
Forums help build community, which can keep visitors coming back to your website again and again.
What is a Forum?
Forum is a form of message board where users can interact with one another via posts and replies. More than likely you have participated in a forum at some point.
Forums go way back in the online world. KOM, a type of Bulletin Board System (BBS), was in use as early as 1979. Forum could be argued that they are the first social media spots online. It was a way for people to interact with one another on like-minded topics. Most forums are based around a specific topic or niche.
There are numerous platforms that can be used to build an online forum.
Advantages of a Forum
From a website owner's point of view, forum is good for the following reasons.
Way for your readers to interact with one another.
Auto content generation and site scale-up.
Simple way to quickly answer reader questions or respond to many readers at one time.
Builds a sense of community among your site visitors.
Can attract new readers.
Disadvantages of a Forum
Drawbacks of adding a forum include:
You need some solid traffic or your forum will remain quiet without any posts.
It's hard work to moderate posts and keep the forum going and interesting.
If your forum becomes popular, your traffic could spike during hot topic discussions and use a lot of bandwidth.
If your forum becomes popular, your visitors will create unique content for your site, which can drive even more traffic and revenue as people seek answers on the topic your forum covers.
How to Create Your Own Forum
Here are the specific steps you should take if you want to create a truly successful forum.
1. Choose a Web Host
The first thing you want to do is evaluate your current web hosting company and look at your other options.
Jerry's Best Web Hosting Selection can help you get a good idea if you're paying a fair price, how fast your server is and if the server can handle the load of a forum if it becomes popular. For example, are there additional options for upgrading to a dedicated server hosting?
Once you've narrowed down your selection of hosting companies, take the time to contact them and explain what your vision is for your online forum and if they will have options to handle the load should your forum have a noticeable uptick in traffic.
If you don’t want to deal with forum apps, hosting, or anything else associated, Nexcess has an interesting offer – WPQuickStart. It’s an all-in-one solution from renowned hosting provider Liquid Web that’s perfect for those interested in running a subscription-based forum.
You get access to hosting, custom WordPress infrastructure, payment processing solutions, member management features, and a reporting system for a fixed monthly fee. Add a forum plugin, and you’re good to go. They’ve taken the headache out of implementation and simply put together the ideal needs-based service.
Once you have your hosting situated, it's time to decide on the type of forum you'd like to set up on your site. There are many different types of software you can utilize, and each has its own particular advantages.
Muut is an interesting solution for setting up an online forum. One of the best things about this software is that you can completely customize it.
Only want discussion without private messaging options? Muut can do that. They offer a free 14-day trial and then you can choose from their free package or a premium plan that starts at $16 month and adds features such as extended branding, custom domain, and a user database. The platform is hosted on Muut servers, which is also an added bonus if you aren't quite ready to upgrade to a VPS.
phpBB is an open source forum. You install the software on your own website and using it is completely free, other than web hosting fees.
Because it is open source, you can find online help from various developers that will help you tweak your forum to be completely customized. The styles database has 100's of packages of styling and images that will help you further customize your forum.
Simple Machines Forum (SMF) is a free software that lets you set up an online community even if you don't have a lot of coding knowledge. It integrates with an SQL database and is streamlined enough that it shouldn't pull extensive resources from your server. Changes can be easily made via the package manager.
This allows you to add features easily and quickly.
vBulletin is one of the few forum software solutions that offers the option both to host on your own site or to use their cloud servers to host your forum. If you aren't very technical, then the cloud (price starts at $15/mo) is probably the easiest solution for you to start with. You can get your forum launched in about 15 minutes and personalize it to suit your tastes and match the overall look of your website.
MyBB is free open source software. You can implement threads, private messaging. Since it is open source , there are many additional plugins and themes to help you customize your community. The admin panel gives you a lot of options for personalization.
Kunena offers another option for a forum and is specifically for those who run their websites on a Joomla platform. Kunena is essentially an extension. It is a free forum and won't require you to write any hacks or bridges to use its features.
bbPress integrates with your WordPress site, giving you the power of forums on a blog platform. It basically merges the best of both worlds. With bbPress, you'll have only one admin area. It's easy to set up and moderate and won't bog down your speeds. You can also create multisite forums and even allow your users to create content for you with this platform. There are a variety of plugins and themes for this forum software.
Vanilla is another solution that allows you to either use it as open source software that you host on your own site, or you can use their cloud-based solution. You can try their cloud-based solution for a month for free to see what you think of the features included. The open source option does provide community support, but no official technical support.
3. Making Forum Rules
Once you get the actual software in place, before you open your forum to users, you'll want to come up with a set of rules to guide behavior on your site.
Most online forums implement rules in the following areas:
Spam and self-promotion
Of course, you'll want to consider your topic and think about what problems are most likely to arise around that topic. It's also a smart idea to study the Terms of Service (TOS) of other forums. Once you have your rules implemented, post them in a top, sticky thread so that new members understand the rules. You may also want to ask them to agree to the TOS when signing up to access the forums.
Choosing topics sounds like an easy task, but you need to look at what topics you want to cover today as well as ones in the future.
Finding a niche is an important element in creating a successful online community. Yackity yack community isn't going to be nearly as successful as amateur golfer tips community. The key is to find an area people want to know more about or are passionate about and build on that concept.
If you look back at the Warrior Forum example listed above in the excellent examples section, you'll see that they have some pretty general categories and then within those general categories the threads are broken down further into specific topics. By choosing general topics, you leave yourself some room for your forum to grow.
If you own a business already, obviously you'll want a niche community related to that business. If you just want to build an online community and are just starting out, then the sky is the limit and you can choose any niche you'd like. Keep in mind that you should probably be an expert or in close contact with an expert on the topic as your members may have questions for the moderators and owners of the site.
For example, if you choose the topic “Business Startup”, within that category, you can add topics/threads, such as “franchises to buy”, “choosing a location”, or “finding investors.”
Questions to Ask:
Who is your audience?
What do they do / know / want?
What emotions are involved when they come to your forum?
Answer those questions and you'll have a better idea of the niche area your community should cover.
SEO Tool to Help
Using SEO tools we can study real world search data and understand market dynamics. For instance, SEM Rush “Topic Research Tool” allows use to generate content ideas based on monthly search volume in a country. Screenshot below shows the different sub-topics under “Hiking” – you can use these sub-topic suggestions to segment your forum.
5. Getting Help from Members
Before you become overwhelmed with posts and moderating comments, you'll want to get some help in place. The best people to invite to moderate your forums are those who are already involved and comment regularly on your blog or contact you for discussion. Simply ask if they would be willing to moderate the forums. You may want to offer some small compensation for doing this task as it can be time consuming.
You'll also want to lay out the responsibilities of the moderators.
Making sure posts meet TOS
Approving posts and new members
Starting discussion topics
Responding to questions
Keeping the conversation going
Banning abusive members
6. Managing Your Forum & Best Practices
Stay in contact with your members
One of the best ways to keep members engaged is to stay in contact. Here are some ideas for ways to keep your members engaged in the community and to draw in new members.
Welcome new members and ask them to introduce themselves.
If you notice a member posting thoughtful, intelligent responses, invite that member to contricute to a feature contribution or have one of your staff write a feature to share.
Recognize birthdays of members by featuring their name and a birthday wish on the official blog. Make your members feel special.
Implement an area where business owners can promote their businesses or areas of knowledge. People love to share or self-promote. Provide an appropriate forum for this and they’ll be more likely to get involved in your site.
Another thing you can do is to create regular events that members who’ve been around awhile will come to expect. They will hopefully explain these events to newbies.
Creating a Safe Zone
Have you ever posted an idea or thought in an online community and had another member outright attack you? Most of us have experienced it over some thought or another.
How did that make you feel?
You probably were aggravated and either argued for a while and then realized it was taking up too much of your time, or you disengaged and left the forum. Either way, when members don't feel safe to share their innermost thoughts and feelings without being attacked, they also are not going to be engaged.
Creating a safe zone within your online community should resemble a family. Are you scared to be yourself with your family and closest friends? Probably not. That is the same feeling members of an online community should experience.
There are a few things you can do to achieve this:
Put firm rules in place (no name calling, no cursing, no racial slurs, etc.).
Appoint community moderators to enforce the rules, keep the peace and get discussions going.
Don't be afraid to change the rules if you notice abuse.
Don't be afraid to remove people from the community or to block them if necessary. It is a good idea to start with a warning and go from there.
Moz recommends creating a sense of community by putting up “boundaries”. Your community may be smaller, but if it is stronger, then that is a positive thing as well. 13.5 million members is only an impressive number if those members regularly visit your site, after all.
Once you've established some boundaries that protect all your members, it is important to remind them of those rules from time to time. If your community is successful, you'll be getting a lot of new members, so these reminders are vital to keep everyone on the same page.
Banning Abusive Members
Speaking of banning abusive members, don't be afraid to ban troublemakers from your forum, both via their registered account and their IP.
If someone comes into your forum and attacks other users, makes racial comments, or otherwise disrupts the flow of give and take, then they can do damage to your site and reputation. While it is unfortunate that some people have to be banned, you sometimes have to do so for the sake of the rest of the community. You have laid out clear rules to use your forum, so don't be afraid to enforce the consequences of those rules. The troublemaker isn't likely to convert into a customer anyway. They may be your competition trying to make you look bad or simply a snarky person.
Examples of Excellent Forums
Probably one of the best ways to learn how to create a successful forum is to study those that are particularly well done and then implement the features that you think would work best for your own site.
Startup Nation is a site that caters to people wanting to start a new business. There are thousands of topics in their online forum from which to choose. Tens of thousands of users discuss different issues. One of the things that works well about this forum is how streamlined and organized it is. Whatever topic you need help with, you can simply go the main page of the forum and find the correct category.
The Warrior Forum is a popular site for those looking for marketing tips.
Warrior Forum is a strong online community and people on there tend to be very helpful to one another. Categories on the forum are clearly laid out with new categories on top. Within each category is a sub forum where the topics are broken down even further. There are millions of threads and posts on this site.
One of the things that Warrior Forum does that keeps people coming back is to have experts offering tips, streaming advice, and answering questions. It's unclear from looking at the forum if these experts are reimbursed for their help, but the tactic is obviously extremely successful given how active the forum is and how many community members there are.
One of the great things about online forums is that you can center the conversation around a very niche topic. PPRuNe is a site that is just basically a forum. They offer conversation for professional pilots. Topics include very specific areas, such as: Rotorheads (for helicopter pilots), Cabin Crew (for flight attendants), ATC Issues, as well as Emergency Response Planning.
Basically, if it is in some way about flight, then there is a topic for it. What is so unique about this site is how focused it is on a specific industry. It's a smart strategy to see what other forums on the same topic are out there and to tweak yours a bit so it is unique.
Something Awful: The Internet Makes You Stupid is a comedy-based site with an active online forum.
There are over 100 million posts on the site and about 7,000 users participating in discussion. The site was started in 1999, so it has an established fan base. The forums have ads in place, but you can join to remove those by paying a $9.95 fee. It is likely the humor that keeps people coming back to this site and that is something you can implement on your own forum no matter the topic. Just remember that humor is subjective. Stay away from topics that might offend a percentage of your site visitors.
College Confidential is another website that is basically one big forum.
The niche for this site is college and soon-to-be college students. One of the things this site is doing particularly well is offering tools to help its target demographic. For example, if you go to College Confidential, you'll find both ways to interact and free resources to help you find a college, seek scholarships, figure out which college fits your needs best, and more.
Social Media Today states that forums are the new blogs in 2015. While I don't completely agree with this because there will always be a demand for great content and information, I do believe that forums can help you gain valuable content from your users while engaging them and giving them the ability to interact with others on the site.
Adding a forum seems to be a smart move, given that you have enough traffic to sustain a conversation.
Lori Soard has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 1996. She has a bachelor's in English Education and a PhD in Journalism. Her articles have appeared in newspapers, magazines, online and she's had several books published. Since 1997, she has worked as a web designer and promoter for authors and small businesses. She even worked for a short time ranking websites for a popular search engine and studying in-depth SEO tactics for a number of clients. She enjoys hearing from her readers.