There are certain things you never hear about when the question is asked: "How do I create and manage a succesfull discussion forum?" Details, so small and yet so important, that people sometimes don't even give them a thought can mean the success or failure of a forum. Sure, we've all been told to hire the correct staff members, use an appropriate and eye appealing design, but what about simple things such as promoting profile use and actively talking with your users over an instant message system? You might think they mean nothing, but being a tactical administrator myself (who managed to bring up a forum with 80,000 posts in 5 months), I beg to differ. If you draw in the guests, then you have yourself an advantage.
I'm going to lay out a small formula for sucess. Mind you, it won't involve the major concepts that are constantly thrown in your face, but instead the "minor" side of it all. There is no reason for me to tell you the same thing, now is there?
Profiles, Avatars, Mods, & Profiles
This goes hand to hand with a "community feel", but instead of talking about keep friendships intact on forums and things such as that, I'm focusing in on the users using their profiles more often and giving "life" to their accounts. With the exception of communities where signatures are frowned upon by the people at large, an administrator should do his or her best to promote the use of profiles. This can be done several ways; some of the easiest being asking them to over IM or PM, or opening a portion of the site to signature requests, or even making a single topic linking to several image sites (that are approriate for avatars). Guests tend to think that users with profiles and standard avatars/signatures plan to stay longer, while users without much identity are just drifting through. Think for yourself. What is the main point of having an avatar? To give more identity. If a forum lacks avatars, it lacks identity does it not? I think so, and I think you'll come to find most guests do aswell.
To give the forum life, is to give yourself more registrations. So we have to think for a second. What can we do to a forum to make it more lively? For one, active shoutboxes (appropriately used & sized) tend to draw conversations on more personal levels, and seem to be a lot more care free. Guests enjoy this sense of calm and easyness, because it tends to give them the idea that if they sign up, they'll instantly be part of the forum. Of course, this also depends on the type of forum you are managing (might be harder to pull off for a joke forum or something with typically rude users).
Statistics can either be your greatest friend, or your worst enemy. Usually for new forums, it's a curse. However, as things progress on your forum, you'll notice the posts and user count gradually increase. This can lead to a problem, though. A lot of administrators, and I would say a majority, tend to neglect the "Online Statistics" and instead focus on the posts/members. While I think it's obvious to anyone that posts and user count are the most important, online statistics CAN NOT be neglected.
If you find you're guest count is closing in on a record, try spreading the link quickly to increase you're "Total Online". If you want to cheat the system, try some proxies. The Total Online Display, quite possibly, is one of the most worthless and yet handy things to ever be created. While it doesn't mean much to the community, it does have an impact on guests. I polled a few users (TAZ mostly) and found that out of 30 of them, 18 thought the online statistics were a vital source of information. That's over hafl!
That said, guests also won't want to join a forum where they're the only person on. If you can, try to keep you're account logged on to the forum. Also, if you know someone who has their computer on most the time, ask them to do the same. Usually you're staff members will happily agree, and the place won't appear dead automatically. Even if you bring in hundreds of posts a day, a lot of people will make their assumptions off of the Whose Online box.
Noticable BB Change
This is what I'm famous for. I'm a phpBB junkie myself, and I tend to change around the Statistics Box and make it appear more like a Vbulletin layout. I do this so, without looking at my copyright, they're unable to tell what kind of bulletin board system I'm using. You might think this has no point, but the truth is it might be enough to draw those people in who love detail. There are a few of those people here (check the review zone) who just love a dash of originality. They also tend to be the type of people you want to sign up on you're forum. After all, haven't you ever asked yourself why someone would dare sign up on a forum that has those terrible, free layouts? While I don't want to make a stereotype, those type of users are usually the ones who can't seem to place a period in the correct place.
Remember, this has to do with the "design" aspect. Just like how people don't like to see a free skin on you're forum, they're not going to like to easily recognize the bulletin board system used. It's also a good idea to play around with the language files. Simple things such as changing "guests" to "drifters" or something of that nature makes you're community stand out even more. I own GeekGathering.com for example, and instead of "users online", I changed it to "geeks online." As soon as I did, the majority of my community gave me props. Simple things like this add to the "WoW" factor, especially since a big majority of administrators rarely play around with their files.
It's a recent trend that has been spreading rapidly through communities, and I think without it, you're doing yourself an injustice. It's always good to reward your users. It's also a good idea to give more to those who have done more. That is why I think, with you're activity in mind, you should place several different usergroups for the community at large depending on how active they've been. Don't do it too low, since then you might find yourself the victim of spam, but rather 100+ posts is good. You don't need to do much either. Larger PM inboxes, freedom from the post delays, secret forums, and small stuff such as that are all that is needed.
Users also seem to be obsessed with colors. If you want to, I would highly suggest making individual usergroup colors for the different ones you put in place. Of course if you're like me, you like to keep colors limited. In that case, custom user titles can become handy.
Link It Up
This is geared towards administrator's who are willing to do a lot to keep their community thriving. You really need to think of different ways to link people up to you're site. While google and putting you're site's url in a forum signature do come in handy, they're not going to do much without some backing. Try to become famaliar with AIM, MSN, and Yahoo. Also, think up some unique ideas of your own. Have you ever tried spreading a chain mail message over the internet with a link to your forum cleverly placed inside of it? I have, and I must say, I enjoyed getting those eleven new users signed up in one day.
You need to think outside the box, most of the time, if you hope to acheive success. Individuality is key. It's the bread and butter. The whole bag of chips. Okay, you get the point. Just remember, chances are that no matter how much you try to do something different, someone else out there already did it to their community. That said, don't get discouraged. Make you're forum as unique as you can. People will appreciate every bit of effort you put in it, and that will only lead to great things.
I think most administrator's can be hold at fault for neglecting simple things, and not trying to make their forum stand out. Unfortunately, users look for the simple things. While an eye appealing layout and a fast database will provide you with a lot more help in creating a community, it is the simple things that matain a community and keep it alive. Remember that, and keep at it.