TL;DR: 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 Blog 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.”
Forums help build community, which can keep visitors coming back to your website again and again.
What Is a Forum?
More than likely you have participated in a forum at some point. It is a form of message board where users can interact with one another via posts and replies. There are numerous platforms that can be used to build an online forum. Forums go way back in the online world. It 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.
Advantages of adding a forum
Way for your readers to interact with one another.
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 adding a forum
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 as people seek answers on the topic your forum covers.
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.
ProBlogger Job Board
ProBlogger is a website for bloggers. In addition to offering a blog filled with useful tips, they’ve added a job board.
The board is essentially a forum. Those who need to hire a blogger post potential jobs and job seekers can read the posts and private message the potential employers. The forum is set up to make a profit. Those who are looking for an employee can pay a small fee to post their jobs. However, the boards are free to job seekers. This is a model similar to what some of the resume sites offer, such as Monster.com.
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. You can also upgrade to a premium membership for $8.08/month, which will give you some additional features the free accounts can’t access.
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)
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.
By now, you probably see the advantages of starting an online forum, particularly if you have some already active members and a good number of them. However, there are some specific steps you should take if you want to have a truly successful forum.
Step # 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.
Our reviews here at WHSR 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 private server?
If you are happy with your current web hosting company and would prefer not to move, you may want to utilize these uptime monitoring tools to make sure your hosting is the best it can be and your site is not having downtime. Once you’ve narrowed down your selection of hosting companies, or have decided to stay with your current host, 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. Also get details on the costs involved in upgrading should your forum become popular.
Step # 2: Set Up
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 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 100s 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 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.
Step # 3: Making 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.
Step # 4: Choosing Topics
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.
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.
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.”
Step # 5: Getting Help
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
Step # 6: Banning Troublemakers
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.
How to Manage and Promote Your Forum
Once you have your forum, rules, and moderators in place, it’s time to get the word out that your forum is available for discussion. There are a number of ways you can accomplish this:
Let your mailing list know. You should have already been building a strong mailing list, so now is the time to pull those people into your forum.
Contact those who’ve commented regularly on your blog or social media profiles and let them know.
Schedule regular social media posts about the forum and a link to it.
Invite experts to “speak” in a thread and then let people know so they can come ask questions. This is particularly useful if the person is an influencer on social media and you can tweet or + about the event.
Invite family and friends to participate and get the conversation going. The more content you have, the more people will be attracted to your forum.
Use smart SEO strategies that will allow your forum to rank well in search engines. This way, when browsers are searching for the topic your forum covers, you’ll pull up in their search results.
Participate in other online forums and share a link to yours. Be careful here, though. First, you must obey the TOS for the other forums. Second, don’t go to your direct competitor and post on their forum with a link back to yours. Instead, find related topics and post a link only when it makes sense.
Network with professional groups and pass out cards with your forum address on them.
Guest blog on sites that are certain to reach your target audience. This will also help establish you, and thus your forums, as an expert resource.
Remember that the best way to reach your target demographic is to hang out where they do. This means in real life as well as online.
Social Media Today states that forums are the new blogs. While I don’t completely agree with this because there will always be 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.
Article by Lori Soard
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.