Community: Turning your forum into a portal

By Ted S · Jul 31, 2004 ·
  1. Ted S
    So you have a forum, well established, the biggest in the industry or just hitting your hundred thousandth post, the precise numbers don't matter, your forum is successful and that's what counts, right? Wrong. For many sites a forum is the entire basis of the network, there is no introductory page, no articles, photos, nothing but a forum and a few nice addon modules. While this may seem sufficient, after all, your forum is growing by 125% a year, in many ways it is not.

    Starting from a growth or internal standpoint a forum is a very good idea but also a very limited one. Imagine for a second that you are a web surfer looking for information on photography. Offline you are an avid amateur photographer and lately you've been looking to step up your hobby by optimizing your nice, new camera. As you surf the google results, you find an interesting page with people discussing cameras, this is good. A few pages into the thread and a discussion about your own camera comes up with some tips, this page looks great! Then before your eyes the post turns a corner and just stops, the conversation fizzles out, there is little mention of camera settings and after another page of chatter there is nothing more at all. Now what you do not know is that on this site there are hundreds of posts about this camera, but really to you that is unimportant. Even if you decided to register for the forum, you would probably avoid searching the archives for information and instead open up a new thread about the camera looking for information. In short, you are doing exactly what is opposite of the intention of a forum, you aren't utilizing the available wealth of information.

    What may surprise you is that users like this, who come to a site and leave after not finding the right answers or who make new posts when old ones explain the question, are extremely prevalent on the web. On the average forum the majority of users are not just involved in a niche, they are avid followers of the niche, or they are very already computer based and find a forum understandable. This means that while you may be growing by 125% a year, your site is really only catering to a small percentage, say 10-15% of the users in your niche area. As proof of this, look at the number of guests you maintain at any given time. Ignore the spiders and users who forgot to login, chances are you still would find that between 40-60% of your users viewing the board at any time are guests. This figure becomes even more astounding when you consider that a guest is probably only looking at one or two pages and rarely exceeds the 15 minute session timeouts that most forums default to. So while you may have 200 users on, if you have 200 guests steadily visiting over the course of an hour it may actually be more like 800 guests and certainly at least 400 or more.

    The cause of this problem is quiet evident, only some people register for a forum and even less actively use it. This makes sense, it is an interactive community which must be joined and often requires registration which takes time; a user may merely be looking for information and not want to spend the time signing up, or enduring the effort of becoming "a part" of this system. The solution is equally clear but often harder to reach – instead of limiting yourself to 10-15% of the market, open your site up to as much of it as you can reach.

    Before I address how to do this it is important to also look at this problem from a business perspective. For the most part, forums, especially large forums accept advertising as a primary means of revenue and while many forum owners don't expect to make a profit, breaking even is required and making a little extra is certainly a plus. Yet it is well known that forums are one of the poorest converting types of sites on the Internet, mainly because much of the traffic is repeat traffic and thus is not interested in clicking a banner or buying a product most of the time. Web savvy businesses certainly know about the statistics, so when a forum approaches them and talks about an ad campaign, they know they can push their weight around and negotiate a far lower campaign price because the forum is simply worth less money. But this doesn't have to be the case, a forum site that is part of something larger, part of a network, can transcend the forum bias and welcome in many more advertisers at a much higher rate. This becomes even more apparent if you try to market your site offline at a convention or directly to targeted businesses. Any advertising representative is going to ask you about your site and when they learn it is a forum and a forum only, the initial assumption is that your site is a hobby and not a professional business. If however you say that you are from such and such site network the company is far more likely to be interested; after all, a network has many sections and attracts a wide variety of viewers, so while your forum may be your biggest traffic generator, it is not the focal point of the site in marketing terms and thus you can skip past the forum bias. One note of caution before you market your site as a portal, even as a network your forum is still worth less money and should reflect this in your media kit, for many sites "forum sponsors" or "sticky posts" provides a unique way to profit from forums but in any case, adjust your prices by 25% or more to compensate for your forum's repeat viewers and probably lowered conversion rate.

    Once you have decided to make the jump from a forum to a portal or network you have a great deal of decisions ahead of you. Most of the major forum programs, especially commercial software like vbulletin (www.vbulletin.com) offer cheap or free modules to integrate Content Management Systems (CMS) into your forum using your existing database. For many, these systems are adequate for expanding a site's range and I certainly do not disagree with this approach. I do however recommend that instead of using the stock layout with your custom header and colors, you work to transform the user templates of your CMS portal into something much more custom and unique than the default layout. This will allow your site to retain a branded, authentic feel and is not hard to accomplish. If you are however willing to take a deeper plunge, you can find or build a much more powerful CMS portal that utilizes your forum as a feature and not the code core, this will generally mean more flexibility, more options but at a higher time or financial cost. With your portal software in place the next decision is what utilities to integrate with it. Again most of the software will try and modularize your portal as it was part of your forum showing your last posts, a user's avatar, a login box, forum statistics, buddy lists and so on. These stock features often serve their purpose but as with the software templates, removing some of the features from your forum to make way for features from other sections of your portal will help you better monetize your site and present a less generic feel for your visitors and potential advertisers. The final decision in this phase of integration is picking what sections to add to your portal. You can add an unlimited number of areas from photogalleries using PhotoPost, a commercial product that interfaces with most forums directly (www.photopost.com), or coppermine, a free gallery script with less direct integration but many of the same features and more in some cases (http://coppermine.sourceforge.net). You can add articles using built in modules like vBarticles (www.vbulletin.org addon for vbulletin users), or CMS software like Moveable Type (www.moveabletype.org), or perhaps a Classified script, live weather, a search engine, auctions, news feeds, a store and on and on. The possibilities are pretty much endless, simply look at a popular ezine or news portal for ideas and with a few exceptions, if they have it on their portal, you can have it on yours, often for free. The goal of your software is to give you the options and features needed to separate your forum from the rest and make it broad enough to attract more visitors and more users as a portal.

    With your software ready to go there remains a vital decision left which will greatly effect the entire direction of your portal – the location. For many sites adding a portal means making a new homepage, www.theforum.xyz no longer goes to a forum, it goes to a welcome page, a gateway page. This is the idea of the portal, to serve as a gateway but how you integrate it is entirely up to you. As I see if you can either take the new homepage url option, which will mean every new visitor to your site goes through the portal and old visitors either use the portal to access the forum or bookmark it directly, or you can make the portal load from a new site. The first option is sufficient for many sites, it increases the viewing of your portal and makes search engine optimization and backlinks a non-issue. The draw back however is that a lot of users will not like having to go through your portal to get to the same forum that they've been using for years. For this reason, many sites, especially larger ones with long term users, may find themselves better suited adding their portal under a new name or moving their forums to a subdomain to help keep things straight. This of course means rebuilding a lot of links, starting from zero on backlinks and generally having a harder time getting traffic, however, the traffic may be better quality, better targeted and more interested in the new sections you have to offer. A final word of advice on setting up your portal its self, integrate the layout you use from the portal homepage onto your forum pages. Merely linking to a section "portal" or even "home" is rarely enough, users who are use to your site don't notice these links and certainly don't follow them. If however users coming to your site Monday morning find a new header with flash rollovers "Home, Forums, Articles, Photo Gallery, Weather, Games" they are far more likely to take action and view a page, especially if you can go for even deeper integration placing sidebars or previews of your latest articles or other features.

    Creating a portal out of a forum does not mean dropping your forum, lowering the priority or in any way adversely effecting your life line. Expanding your site from a forum to a portal is merely a means of growing up and growing out. Some sites are meant to be forums only, advertising isn't a concern and users either come for the forum or they don't, it doesn't matter. However, for the majority of forum owners who are looking to expand their traffic, membership and market reach growing out is an important step in the process as it leads not only to higher statistics but to better profit returns, a better business image and a foothold into a position which works out far better than a forum alone could have done. Just remember, if you are going to make a portal, make it the best portal you can, don't stop half way or stick with the default results, everyone will see right through it and the results won't be worth the effort.

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