How to Create a Successful Forum: Tips for Creating your First!
For a long time, the internet has provided us with options, some which we love and some which we hate. We can surf the intenet using tools such as search engines, web-rings, free-for-all links pages and other ways of getting from A to B. Some of us wander aimlessly while some of us have a specific purpose in our travels. The internet has provided us a great way to communicate with one another, and often to communicate with the world. Some individuals have personal home pages, and is there yet a person alive who doesn't have Myspace or Facebook?
More and more the internet is being used for communication as much as it is used to share information.
Forums are a way that we do both at the same time!
The best news is that Google has expanded their Google Groups to include not only Usenet, but other forums on the world wide web. Google now treats your forum uniquely in how it spiders your site and returns the information to the person searching the web! This is excellent news if you are hoping to receive high traffic volume to your site.
Why a Forum?
I would like to recap from a previous hub of my own:
By their nature, forums create unique content on a regular basis. In the best case scenario, content is added several times a day, more frequently than most other types of site you can create. Your content is as unique as your individual members.
The challenge, of course, is that you can only control your content to a certain degree. Spam can be a problem (we will discuss this later) and occasionally members won't be "on board" with your attempts to boost your Google Page Rank. You will occasionally see one word posts, or even posts that simply include a smily face of some kind.
A forum can be a huge hassle. It is one of the most time-consuming types of sites that you can run in the beginning. But it is very much worth the effort put into the creation of the site. Eventually, you will find that with a good staff, your forum will run itself without needing you at all! And if you are looking to monetize your site, this is a very good thing!
First Things First
It is worth my while to reiterate: Choose a subject of interest to you!
A few months ago I was becoming desperate to make some money. My husband was out of work and I thought "if I could just come up with 'the' idea!" I brainstormed. And I brainstormed some more. I called friends and asked them what they thought would be a popular topic. I researched to find out what forums, blogs and websites existed within certain topics. I found that of course, if it was popular already, there was already a forum or blog for that subject. I became discouraged, and I gave up.
I backed off for a while, until I finally began to realize that I couldn't seem to find a site that suited my need to talk with other Christian women about subjects relating to marriage (specifically Christian marriage), pregnancy and parenting. I wanted a place that was specifically for us but I couldn't find it. I had found my topic!
Want to be Successful? This is Important!
If you want to be successful, this next piece of advice is very, very important. If you don't take this to heart, you are very very likely to fail.
Seek out a niche market. You want to create a forum that is entirely unique. You don't want to have to compete with hundreds of other forums, or even tens of other forums. You want to be one of no more than five forums in your language, if possible. You want to make it easy for Google and other search engines to effectively index you, and you want to be on the first page in Google. You will find it takes much more time to accomplish this if your site's topic is too broad and general. You need to identify your audience. This is your niche market.
For example, let's say that I wanted to create a forum about crafts. I like crafts, so I'm on track to create a forum that works for me. But crafts is a very broad subject. There are literally hundreds of forums available about crafts. Most general forums also have a crafts board or two. So I need to narrow my interest down.
I am interested in crafts in general, but specifically I'm interested in needle crafts such as knitting, crocheting, cross stitch, embroidery, needlepoint and quilting. I have narrowed my subject down a bit now. I could open a successful needlework forum. I would have a fair bit of competition, but if I know what I'm doing I could make it into the top two or three pages on Google. But I want more than that. I want to get to the first page.
I've noticed that I am fairly good at experimenting with knit and crochet patterns. I have even created a pattern or two of my own. So I have something to share with knitting and crocheting. I am also good enough at it and have a camera to create a video tutorial or two. So the logical choice for me would be to create a forum for knitting and crocheting. Because of its current popularity, I might throw quilting into the mix as well.
This is good enough to get me started. It will probably take about six months to a year to get to the first two pages of Google, but with this niche I should be able to make it. I also have the potential to develop a relatively large forum, which might be my definition of success, depending on the the topic of the forum I'm working on.
Our next step, therefore, is to define "successful."
What does "Success" Look Like?
Believe it or not, "success" looks different to every individual who is defining it. For example, I will consider my Sims 2 forum a success when we reach a total of roughly 250 members. I am not expecting much because the niche in which the forum is created is very incredible specific (Sims 2 Stories, specifically Legacy Challenge Stories). Using my Christian Women's forum (still in development) as an example, I will be successful when that forum reaches 500 members and 10,000 posts. For some, success is defined as when they reach the status of "big board" (which varies depending on who's definition you use).
You need to define your own criteria for "success." Many forum owners wish to have a board that exceeds 1000 members. Considering activity rates, this is a good goal for most markets.
Choosing a Forum Software
There are many who will argue with me about this, but I feel that when you are first starting out, you should always work with an open-source software. I understand the argument that if you are expecting success you shouldn't worry about the cost of purchasing a license, but I argue that a simple, free program is enough to get you through until you begin to develop a solid member base.
I use Simple Machines Forums. The new SMF is very powerful and is also incredibly secure. It doesn't possess all of the functionality of, for example, the Big Daddy (vBulletin) but it works well enough for my purposes and there are a good many user-created modifications that sufficiently affect the workings of the software that I am satisfied with my choice. I don't need vBulletin and I no longer like Invision (to each his own!).
You have many options available to you. You might want to have a look at Forum Matrix for help with comparing the various softwares, both free and licensed. I have provided below links to some of the most popular free and open-source programs for your convenience.
Free and Open Source Forum Software
Organizing Your Forum
The organization of your forum is one of the three most important criteria that determine whether or not a visitor will choose to become a member and it is one of the simpliest things you can do for your forum. It can, however, be intellectually difficult to properly organize a young forum (things change as you get more members on your site!).
For a new forum, I recommend using no more than three categories for discussion in addition to your "information center" and your "off topic area." When I am browsing for forums I am interested in joining, it is imperative that forums have these two areas. I want to know what your rules are, more information and news about the forum, as well as having somewhere to discuss off-topic items with other members.
So, to reiterate, consider your forum topic and decide upon no more than three categories relevant to your topic. Using my previous example of a needlework forum, I might use the following categories:
This is very simple and it will ultimately help to streamline your forum.
Remember when you go into your administrative control panel to create your categories to add your information center and your off-topic area (you can call them anything you like, you don't need to use my examples!).
The boards of your forum are where the activity is going to take place. It is on these boards that your members will post their topics and have discussions. It is here that your content will be created. Therefore, it is very, very important for you to choose carefully no more than seven board topics. They do not need to be distributed evenly throughout the categories, but I recommend having at least two boards per category!
Again using my needlework example, I might choose to have the following structure, where the underlined words are the categories and the italicized words are the boards.
Quilt Top Patterns
As you can see, this left me with a total of six different board topics in six different categories. It is organized enough to help visitors and members easily find the information they are seeking or to find the correct board to make their post. Moreover, it isn't overwhelming.
The reason I stress this is that if you look around the internet, you are going to undoubtedly find dozens of forums that are simply too "busy." I don't mean that they are over-active, I mean that there are so many boards and categories that you can't decide where you should make your first post. You might even feel threatened, as I have on several occasions, or be tempted to continually cross-post your information in case you put it in the wrong place. Your goal is clear organization to make it easier for your members to decide where to go.
You can always change this later and expand!
Zeros are Ugly
Every forum software I have ever worked with lists the number of posts and the number of threads in each board. Zeros are ugly to your visitors, and they are incredibly intimidating. Nobody (sometimes including the forum creator!) wants to be the first to make a post in an empty board. You can't be sure that you have the right idea, that you understand the nature of the board (or sometimes even the forum) and it can be a very frightening prospect to be the first person to make that post.
So it is up to you, as the forum owner, to make those first posts. Fill in all the zeros first. Make sure that there are none left before you even begin to advertise your board. If you wish to view my Christian Women's forum you will see that I have carefully posted at least one topic in every single board for this purpose. In some cases, I have even responded to my own posts!
Ready for Visitors: Now What?
If you have done everything above, you're ready for your first visitors. In fact, if you've done everything above, Google has probably already spidered your site and has you indexed based on the information on your site. The next step is to start adding content.
Given that the first few posts that you made just to get rid of those zeros weren't "real" content, it's time to buckle down. If you're a hub pages user, you know what this means: write. You can do it! I have faith in you!
If you have chosen your topic following my instructions, you know enough about your topic and are interested enough in your topic to write some articles about it. Post those articles on your forum so that Google has something to look at it when it sends its bot through your site. Leave the topics open so that new members can reply, and keep posting!
I like to post a weekly discussion topic (when I'm on the ball with my forum). This usually consists of a question or a topic (similar to the Q&A here at hub pages) that allows members to reply to the topic that has been posted. I leave mine open-ended and answer in a separate message, because more messages looks better!
Especially in the early days of your forum, it is important to appreciate your members! Send them personal messages thanking them for their activity (if they are active) or even reward regular posters with tangible items (such as a gift certificate to Michaels, for example!) that they can use in the real world (and which apply to your site's theme). Your members create the content that brings more visitors to your site, and your visitors are the ones who keep your site going by clicking on your ads!
I hope that this guide has helped you somewhat! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave me a comment and I will be sure to answer any questions you may have!