Guide to a Successful Forum
Anyone who has started a forum will know that it is long and very hard process. If you are setting up for the first time you will find that it is not as easy as you might have first thought. Hopefully this article will help the inexperienced understand what to expect. My aim is to outline all of the important features, in one article, that will contribute to aiding you run a successful and healthy forum.
Charging straight into a project like this is not a good idea, planning and preparation is key. I remember a quote from my high school head teacher:
“Fail to prepare, then prepare to fail”
Keep this in mind throughout reading this guide and the period leading to the birth of your community.
Passion and Knowledge
Having an interest in a subject is not enough for someone to start a forum! I can’t emphasize that enough. To be able to create a successful subject it is really important that you have a passion for the subject, otherwise failure is the only path. Passion is so important because if you don’t life and breathe the subject you will find that your interest in your forum is going to deteriorate as time goes on. This would simply means instant death for your newly born community.
Knowing a bit about a subject is not enough either. The success of a forum lies on your, the admins, shoulders and therefore you need to be confident that you know the subject inside out, otherwise you’re wasting your time. You have to be the sort of person that knows all the little useless facts on the subject, as these useless facts are not useless when creating a forum. Having a forum admin that has a vague knowledge of the forum subject is like having a dictionary that is vague on its definitions, it just doesn’t work!
In my opinion passion and knowledge are the constructional foundations of building a forum.
Looking for a Host
This section of the article is not really exclusive to forums but it will apply to all websites in general.
It goes without saying that you need a good host when creating a forum. I can’t stress enough the importance of actually paying for a host. There are many good free hosts out there, but paid ones are always better. With free hosts the hosting company has no reason to try and provide you with the best service, however because of big competition in the hosting business, paid hosts have every reason to give you the best service.
Before looking for a host you need to do some research, you need to check out similar forums to see how active their boards are, and most important find very new forums on the same subject to see how active they are. If you do this you’ll probably find that you don’t want to go over the top with bandwidth, only pay for what you need, don’t pay for unrealistic amounts. It can always been increased if needs be.
Downtime is another very important factor when deciding on a host. You need to find a host that has the lowest downtime possible. Downtime will kill a forum in its tracks, especially in its early days. Due to the massive number of forums on the internet these days a couple of hours of downtime will mean lose of members to competing boards. I would suggest you don’t pay annually at the beginning. If you believe you have stumbled across a decent host, pay monthly for a while and if you have had no downtime then maybe think about paying annually because it is usually cheaper. On the other hand, if the downtime is massive then just leave them and find another host.
Obviously there are loads of other things you need to look for in a host, for example you need to ensure they offer MY SQL etc. You need to check the requirements of the forum software you’re using against what the host is providing. If you’re not sure then ask, I’m certain that someone here at TAZ will be able to help.
Buying a Domain
Having a good domain is another key feature to a healthy community. When choosing a domain you need to really think about it. The domain should be a true reflection of your forum. So anyone should be able to work out the subject of the forum just from the name.
Never include your name in it, paulscomputerhelp.com is a big mistake. It makes the forum sound too personal and unless a visitor knows Paul they are very unlikely to register.
The domain name also needs to be easy to remember. You don’t want a really long one that someone will see and then forget. Also don’t make the name more complicated just because the one you want isn’t available. So for example say you wanted computerhelpforum.com and it wasn’t available, don’t just get computer_help_forum.com. Can you imagine someone trying to tell their friend the web address. “I’ve got a great website for you, the address is www.computer, underscore, help, underscore, forum.com”. There is no way that their friend is going to remember that.
As with the hosting do some shopping around. There’s a huge range in prices across the internet. You may find it is cheaper to buy the domain and the hosting from the same company as they will probably offer discounts.
The forum software is a very important choice. One thing to remember is that members are never going to care what software you are using, never make the mistake of thinking that. You need to find the piece of software that suits you best. More experienced users may believe that they are better using a very customisable piece of software such as phpbb, whilst others may be happier using the much more user friendly option, in my opinion, which is vbulletin. As I have said look around, different software will suit different people. Talk to people in the Software Specific forums here at TAZ and ask any questions you like about the software.
Customising YOUR Community
When creating your forum you need to remember that it is YOUR community and you shouldn’t just copy another site because what they did worked. Use some of what the competition used, but most importantly make it better.
Customising your theme is very important. Just using a skin other than the default one is not enough. You need to create your own or if you don’t have the skills to be able to do this yourself get someone that can do it for you. If you are going to pay someone to make you a theme then make sure you ask to see some of their other work. Make sure you are getting what you want before you pay anything. The great thing about having a unique theme is that no one else has it, making your forum as a whole better. It is like a car, if it is one of a kind then it is worth more money. If your theme is one of a kind it is worth more to visitors.
A very big factor to consider when creating a new theme or having one created is the colours. There are 2 things that you must steer clear of when deciding on a colour scheme. The first is to make sure that you don’t make your forum too dark. If your forum is too dark then members will be put off straight away. No one is going to want to sit and look at a black screen anymore than they want to sit in a dark room. The second is to ensure that you don’t use too much of the same colour. I have seen lots of forums that are all blue or all red and the text is just a different shade than the background. The huge problem is it is very hard to read, another is if you actually squint at the screen it just looks like a blob of colour, which I’m sure you’re aware is not a good thing.
An essential part of customising a forum is the logo. In the logo you need to have pictures, something that relates to the subject as well as the name of the community. These logos you see that have weird shapes and then a name next to them are useless. The pictures in a logo are going to catch someone’s attention a lot quicker than a couple of weird shapes.
Content and Members
If you thought the actual setting up of a forum was hard, the hardest bit is yet to come. The running of the forum is definitely the hardest bit. There are 2 things that I consider as the biggest task, yet most essential parts of any forum. The first has to be the forum content and the second are the members.
When I say content I mean topics, replies and articles. It is these that make your forum a community and not just a standard website.
The relationship between the content and members is like a ‘Catch 22’. If you don’t have any content then visitors are not going to register as members and if you have no members then you are not going to have any content on your site. The main task for any forum admin in the beginning is to break this cycle, something many fail to do.
You will be happy to hear that there are many ways that this task can be tackled. The first is to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in making post after post yourself. What you need to do is create a huge number of different usernames for yourself. What you then do is something that you can only do on the internet without getting locked up, talk to yourself day after day. You make about 10 new topics everyday using your different usernames and then discuss them with yourself. This is why you need to have great passion for your subject, if you don’t you will get fed up writing about the same thing over and over and you will abandon the project. Also it is the reason you need a great knowledge, otherwise you are going to simply run out of material.
Another good way of getting content on your site is to take part in some post exchanges. If you don’t understand what this entails, it is you posting on someone else’s forum and in return they post the same number of posts on your forum. The only problem you might find is that the person whom is posting on your forum won’t be as interested in your subject as you are, resulting in poor quality posts from the other person.
Paid posting is a great way of getting that all important content on your forum. The name is self explanatory, you pay someone or a company to post on your forum. There are usually a fixed number of new topics and new replies. The great thing about these companies is that they really want to do a good job because they want you to recommend them on places like TAZ and want you to buy another package from them. As with everything though make sure you shop around.
Making visitors into members is extremely hard, don’t think that it is going to be easy. After advertising a bit you might find that you are getting a reasonable amount of traffic but no one is registering. They might be really interested in your subject but not know what the site is about. It is always important to have a description of your site right at the top, otherwise you are going to lose valuable members.
A huge mistake that you really need to avoid is hiding your content. There are loads of forums I have seen where the posts are hidden to visitors and they have to be a registered member before they can read them. Visitors are not just going to register, as many people believe, to see what is behind the closed doors.
Terms of Service/Rules
Anyone new to starting forums may believe that rules are not important, despite this initial thought they really are. Though when you write them you need to ensure the rules are fair and don’t make it sound like your better than them because you’re the administrator. Nothing will put visitors off more than an admin who’s playing God.
Getting a perfect set of rules first time is impossible, don’t be hesitant to change rules where necessary. A great way of establishing the initial set of rules is to adapt yours from those of other forums.
Hiring moderators too early is a common mistake made by many new administrators. Some new admin’s start hiring moderators before the forum is launched and others after hitting around 10 members. The overall result is the majority of the members are moderators, which can put many visitors off registering because they know their posts are going to be read by a moderator. Even though they might not be breaking the rules this can still make them feel a bit uncomfortable. It is just like being stopped by the police, even though you might have done nothing wrong it is still quite intimidating. The best way to judge the time you need a moderator is when you are no longer able to read the majority of posts on your forum. Don’t get carried away though, only hire one at a time.
Eventually the time will come when you will have to hire moderators. You don’t have to jump straight into a decision though. It is advisable to hire someone from the inside rather than from the outside. The simple reason for this is a member is likely to be interested in the subject, whilst someone on the outside might want to be a moderator just for the power. The first place to look is at the list of the most active members, the members with the most posts. When you have a list of the 10 top posters actually read through some of their posts, see if they are good quality. Cross anyone of the list that have a lot of one word replies, don’t often create new topics or anyone you don’t believe is suitable for the position.
Once you have your short list then send a message to these members informing them that you are currently looking for a moderator and that they have been identified as a possible candidate. At this point also ask them whether they have an IM program such as MSN Messenger and ask for their ID so you can talk to them. It is better to be able to talk to them via a messenger as you can get instant answers. Come up with a series of questions that you would like them to answer, I’m not going to suggest any because depending on what you are looking for in a moderator the questions are going to be different.
After these questions and answers session is the selection. You should select the person who impressed you the most in the IM session and in what they posted on the forum. Don’t make anything permanent at this stage though. Contact this person again and inform them they you would like them to be a moderator over a trial period of a month. This way if you find they are unsuitable you’re not actually sacking them, you’re just not hiring them, which means they feel less insulted. If they do impress you, then hire them!
It is important that moderators know what their job is, it is advisable for you to write a moderators guide that can be sent to your staff informing them how to handle certain situations.
Finally a very good rule for hiring moderators is:
“Never hire someone who asks to be a moderator”
The people that ask are just in it because they want the power, it is the people that don’t make a fuss about such things who are the best people to hire.
Friends on the forums
In my opinion you should think twice about inviting friends to your forum. I have heard from many people who tried starting a community and then it all went badly wrong when they invited their friends to the site. The problem with having friends on the forum is the fact that they know you in real life. As they are a friend of the administrator they believe that the rules don’t apply to them, and you’ll find it very hard to punish a friend. If you do punish them you may find it could affect your relationship, this is why I suggest you don’t invite friends on your forum.
The final bit of advice I can give anyone starting a new forum is that you need to be dedicated to the project. Before starting don’t just ask yourself whether you’ll still be happy working on the project in a couple of weeks or a month, consider whether you’ll still be happy in a year or a couple of years. If the answer to this question is no then don’t even bother starting the forum because without this dedication it will inevitably fail.
I hope that this little guide helps you and good luck with your forum!!!