So, you want to start a forum, along with everyone else on the web, but you don't have one red cent to your name? Don't get discouraged - you don't have to be rich to start a successful forum. Sure, having some money to spend definately helps, but with the right idea and enough drive, you can "Create A Successful Forum Without Spending A Dime." Let's go step by step through the forum creation process and look at how you can save money or eliminate costs all together.
First and foremost, you'll need software, and a place to run that software. We already know of the big three players; vBulletin, Invision, and phpBB. vB will run you anywhere from $85 to $160 a pop, Invision will put you in the hole $70, and luckily for you, phpBB is free. But if you're like me and phpBB isn't your thing, you do have other choices. XMB, MyBB, YaBB andwtcBB are all sufficient software, with MyBB probably being one of the best. Again, this is all subjective, and based on your planned forum's needs, you need to research them all and choose what's best for your forum.
With all these choices, it's not necessary to go with vBulletin or Invision, but these are two very good products and you may feel more comfortable using one of the two. If you absolutely have to use vB or Invision, there are ways to avoid paying for a license, and I don't mean illegally. It's possible for you to find someone to sponsor your license. This means they will buy the license, keep it under their name, but allow you to use it. In return, they'll probably ask for a static link, free advertising in return, or other services. Because it's hard to find someone that will do this, you should only do this if you're absolutely bent on using vB or Invision but don't have the funds.
Now that you've chosen your software, you'll need a place to host it. This will be the trickiest part, because it will be very hard to find someone to host your forum for free. This is the only part of the article that I will tell you that you really should get yourself a host for a few bucks a month (and technically, you haven't spent any money on the forum itself). But if you're still completely broke, head to some webmaster forums and ask around, usually someone is nice enough to provide you with a little space and bandwidth, most likely in return for advertising.
If you didn't figure this out by now, not spending any money puts you at a serious disadvantage, and basically at the mercy of others. You're going to have to rely on the charity of others. This is where your own personality and ideas come into play. No one's going to want to help you if they don't like you. Don't be a begger and don't bug people, but don't be so withdrawn that they get the feeling you're just using them for the free service. Be friendly and be excited about your idea, because the better you can convince them you have a solid idea, they'll be more likely to help if they know down the line, your successful forum can help them out in return.
Now, if you have too much pride to ask for handouts, you've only got one option left - free forum hosting. Free forum hosts are usually looked down upon because of the limited capabilities and don't give you much room to create your own identity. Forumer.com is your best choice, but just keep in mind that if you ever want to move your forum to your own host, they won't do it OR they'll charge you (but we're keeping this at a budget of $0, remember?).
Your forum is now set up and ready to go, so how are you going to get people to join if you have no money? The first thing visitors are going to see is your skin, it defines your website before the guests can even read a word. Most of the better skins are going to cost you, but there are still some free resources available. vB and Invision will be a little tougher to find some good free skins, but phpBB probably has the best choice of free skins available. You can find hundreds of them at www.phpBBhacks.com. Scour your software's support community for some free skins and search Google for them as well. You might even be able to get away with finding someone willing to create you a skin for free (getting back to the whole "handouts" thing again). A custom skin isn't necessary, but you should at least change your colors from the default and change the logo.
Finally, the most essential part of a forum is the promotion. Here are some ways you can promote your forum without spending a dime:
- Link Exchanges: Exchange links with other sites in the same genre to help get a few visitors to your site. More importantly, this will help with the search engines (see the Search Engine Optimization forum here for more detail. I'm no SEO expert so I'm in no place to get into it in this article).
- Use Your Connections: Chances are if you're starting a forum with a particular topic, you already know a lot about the topic and the people involved in the field. Whether you personally know these people, or belong to another forum about it, it's important to build contacts. Getting your friends to post will be a lot easier than getting a complete stranger to post. Also bundled in with this is adding your site's link to everything you can - other forum's signatures, away message, newsletters, etc.
- Giveaways: A lot of the times you will see a forum giving away an iPod in return for posting. Most of the time, the owner usually fronts the cost, banking on the fact that the subsequent increase in activity and popularity will be enough to justify spending that money. There are ways you can get this stuff for free, though. Most companies don't mind giving you a product for a contest, because it's good advertising for them. You probably won't have much luck going for that iPod, but smaller companies will jump at the opportunity if you present your forum in the correct light. They need to see that it's a good investement for them too, so when you email them about providing their product, make sure and point out all the positives about your forum so they don't want to miss the opportunity for some free advertising.
- TAZ's Launch Team: The Admin Zone has a great cooperative effort called the Launch Team. The basic idea is to post on other forums in the Launch Team in exchange for them posting on yours. Do a quick search on the forums for Launch Team to learn more.
Doing this all for free isn't easy, but entirely possible. All it takes is a nice little start to get the ball rolling, and once it is, you can turn a profit. Add Google AdSense to your forums to bring in a little cash - and just think to yourself that every little click is pure profit because you didn't spend a dime! As the site gets more and more popular, maybe that free host or bad skin isn't going to cut it anymore; hopefully at that point you'll have created a steady income to improve the site. And besides, if it doesn't get off the ground, the only thing you spent on the forums was your time, making the experience and lesson you learn even more valuable in itself. Good luck with your "investment"!