Drawing on visitors in the college age bracket, the Next Level Forum has some great features and unique content that makes it stand out from the rest. Enjoy this next Big Board Featured Forum as a great example of success in an online community: FORUM BASICS: What is the name of your Web site and a brief description of the theme/topic of the forums? What is the URL? The Next Level Forum, or TNL (http://www.the-nextlevel.com/board/), has been around since the late 1990s as part of a video game review site. Traffic exploded (relatively speaking) in October 2001, when GameGO Magazine, the successor to Gamefan Magazine, was diagnosed as dead on arrival and the companion message board database became corrupted. Since the print magazine failed, the message board was not going to be restored, so all the eager former Gamefan readers migrated to TNL. We are a popular culture forum that caters to people that are college-age and older. Kids and other easily hysterical types are quickly weeded out by the veteran members, a process that is a mixed blessing: it hurts our membership numbers somewhat, but it ensures the quality of the discussion. List some of the most popular forums and describe its discussions. The heart of the forum is the "Gaming Discussion" board, but there are also boards for movies, music, sports, books, and drawing/photography. We have a couple of hundred core members that almost function as moderators, in that they keep the boards well-organized and focused. This may sound like baloney to those not familiar with TNL, but I have never, ever seen any other community with this mix of message board savvy and sheer fun. There are boards filled with geeks, there are boards filled with mature people that can keep topics more or less on solid ground, and there are boards where the members are funny as hell, but TNL excels at all the above. If you have a good sense of humor and at least a high school education, you'd be hard-pressed to find another group this close-knit, knowledgeable, and consistenly entertaining. What prompted you to start your forum? What was your launch date? The site was started by Chris Scantleberry in 1998, and the existing forums are an amalgamation of the original TNL community and the community that rose up around Thomas Keller and Eric Mylonas' GameGO magazine. I came in from the GameGO side and, unlike most forum owners, took over the reins in mid stream. The current version of the forum has been open to the public since March 26, 2002, after we upgraded from free forum software to vBulletin to better deal with the population growth. Do you have any special forum features or activities? We have meetings around the country where members get together to eat, drink, and have fun. These events may draw twenty or more people, especially the ones on the east coast. I might organize a get-together in Japan or Australia eventually. We also have an area of the forum that is only open to veteran members who request access. This serves as a place to hash out issues that would disrupt the main boards, so that everything runs more smoothly. I also started a Wiki for the site to help users preserve our history in a compact and funny form. SOFTWARE: Which software do you use for your forums? We keep vBulletin updated. Do you use any add-on scripts to enhance your site? Which ones? There is an underutilized reader review feature (GARS) and a leaderboard for the communities Xbox Live scores (gXboxLive). HARDWARE: What is your current server setup? Do you have multiple servers for your big board forum? Who manages your servers? Right now, we have one server handling everything. We rent the box and bandwidth from a large hosting service, but the real work is done by one of the administrators, Jason Jamieson, with a lesser part of it handled by me. MEMBERS: Membership stats? How many members? Since we switched to vBulletin in 2002, the list has been pruned down to the current figure of 3707, with 1,686,101 posts in 45,506 threads. It is ludicrous to have a member list of over 100,000, when you only truly have a couple of hundred that have actually contributed anything of worth. I prune the list periodically so we do not have thousands of user names tied up and thousands of profiles in the database of people that have never posted. Sure, it makes the site look smaller, but it is simply a more honest and more user-oriented approach. What are the demographics of your site (percentage of men, women, age groups, locality related)? The site is overwhelmingly male, but there are some prominent female members. Most are in their twenties, but the oldest member I know of is well in his fifties, and a large percentage is in its thirties. There is a huge concentration of users on the east coast - New York, Maryland, and Florida - and a lot of users are in Texas, California, and Ontario. We have regular users from all over the world. STAFF: Tell us a about your staff including how many admins (and their functions), moderators, mentors, web developers, etc. Explain how your staff is organized. I am the owner and oversee the functionality and direction of the site. My primary goal at TNL is to keep the users happy and coming back. I have two other administrators that are respected members that help keep the site on the right track, one other that works on design issues, and one more that handles the programming and technical administration. There are fifteen moderators that oversee the posts on the entire forum and make sure the spam and porn are dealt with and the discussions stay civil and reasonably on-topic. I'm responsible for the decisions ultimately, but I trust the crew very much and we all work together. REVENUE: How do you generate revenue to cover your expenses (e-commerce, subscriptions, advertising, affiliate links, etc.)? For a while, I was relying on the TNL Store, which is an Amazon aStore with a couple of other affiliate widgets mixed in. This never covered server costs except during the holidays, when I run a big gift exchange. But if you are buying presents back for every one you get . . . well, that does not cover server costs either. So the affiliate approach cannot be the only approach. We started running advertising a couple of months ago, and that is a much more reliable stream of revenue. There are paid subscriptions available to those that do not want to view ads, but the ads themselves are monitored very closely so that they are reasonably tolerable. I hope to finally release some merchandise this year. I have never properly monetized the forum and it has bitten me in the butt now that times are tougher financially. But whatever we do, it is with our veteran members in mind and with an eye to attracting quality newcomers. Do you offer upgraded members groups for a fee? What benefits do they get for subscribing/upgrading? Currently, the only subscription we have is to remove ads. I have always made avatars, big PM boxes, and other desirable forum features available for free, so I am not taking anyhing away to charge for it, even for new members only. I may make Web space, e-mail accounts, and/or other new features part of a subscription in the future, but I doubt that will bring in any major revenue on a sustained basis. Unfortunately, ads are the cornerstone of any plan to cover costs. ADMIN: What is your name? Nick. Please share a few things about yourself (bio, family, education, background, hobbies, your favorite pizza topping, your favorite vacation spot, your choice of transportation, etc.). When I first became involved in the community that evolved into the current TNL, I was not very computer savvy and did not have any working knowledge of HTML. But the personality and excitement of the community drew me in and I started applying my limited image editing skills (and, believe me, they were very limited) to make avatars for people. I also used what may be my most distinguishing admin gift, diplomacy, to become a moderator at the old GameGO forum and an admin at TNL. Even though I did not start the site, I have put an immense amount of energy and many thousands of dollars into building it, shaping it, and running it. I have read about HTML, PHP, image editing, and community building, and it is my love for the site and my desire to have a place for intelligent yet fun discussion that kept me at it. Outside the site, I work full-time and am finishing up a college degree. How do you spend a typical day as admin on your site? What do you enjoy about your job as admin of your site/forums? Do you work on the site in your home or in a separate office space away from your house? I spend most of my admin time helping people with technical matters and conflict resolution. I run another busy forum, the users of which are almost the polar opposite of TNL users (they are predominantly female and far, far less tech-savvy), and that site accounts for the bulk of the tech support and arbitration requests, but I am always looking for ways to help make TNL bigger and better - and those can be very time-consuming projects, especially when I have to learn a new skill (or ten) to make something work right. I do not have a separate office for the forum. What has been the biggest obstacle you have faced in starting or running your forums? How did you/do you handle it? It's hard to keep new users because some of the old ones are very territorial. They have loved the site for years and realize that almost the entire video game forum landscape is a wasteland of annoying "fanboys" and obnoxious ads, so there can be a little bit of a trial by fire for new users that are more headstrong or used to MySpace-like correspondence. If you read a few posts and realize that we are not the GameFAQs forum (an extremely huge gaming forum that attracts schoolkids), you should be all right. As an admin, and as someone that actually pours money into the site and has an interest in its success, I step in if I feel that a new user is being made to feel unwelcome. Diplomacy and flexibility go a long way, especially on the Internet, where they are both in short supply. What three things have helped your forums to be a success? 1. Intelligent users that feel protective of the site and almost feel like co-owners in some regards. 2. Being a user-oriented administrator that takes a long view and isn't pig-headed or out for great personal recognition. 3. The boost from GameGO Magazine, which only published one print issue, but brought a lot of great people together. Congratulations to your success, Nick! We wish The Next Level continued growth!