Welcome to part two of building a profitable online forum.
In part one I talked about the two important factors in building a forum; building a community THEN looking to profit from it.
In part three I’ll cover various factors that will go a long way when it comes to creating and maintaining your community, and talk about what not do.
As for this part? It’s pretty simple: I’m going to tell you the biggest secret to building a strong community, which you can eventually profit from. If you want to build an actual community, then you might want to check your ethics at the door.
This advice is something that women have known for generations. The one thing you need to do:
It’s that simple. You need to fake that there is already a community in existence, for people to join.
Most people don’t like to “start” something. When you log onto play poker and all the tables are full, how often do you simply start up a new table compared to sitting on numerous waiting lists? Ever been to a wedding where they have a conga line? You may join in, but it’s very unlikely you were the one to start it.
It’s the same with forums. Most people won’t start or spearhead discussions if they’re new to a forum; they’d much rather watch others make the posts, and jump in whenever they can make a small contribution.
There’s also no bigger turn-off for a forum than for people to click on it, and see that it’s a complete ghost town. When it comes to forums, first impressions are everything. People need to click on your forum and realize that it’s a busy, thriving place. Somewhere where they know if they have any questions they’ll get answered immediately, and where they know there will be an audience for any posts they make.
Therefore you need to fake it.
You don’t install vbulletin, link to it from your website then sit back and watch it grow itself. That’s NEVER going to work out. Things like “post on the forum to win stuff” is like burning money as well. You want people to post because they WANT to, because they want to share, or because they have questions they want answered. Those are the people that will stick around; people who will contribute to your community on a regular basis.
If you encourage people to post simply to win stuff, all you will get is random one sentence posts that make your forum look like crap.
Another method some people like to do is hiring people to post, however the same rules apply here; you’ll get hundreds of completely useless posts that even a moron can see are 100% worthless, and will turn people off from your forum.
So, what do we have to do in regards to faking a community?
First of all we’ll tackle the obvious: multiple user accounts. You’ll create multiple users, who you will control, and who will all chat to each other throughout the forum. 20 is usually a good base amount.
Second, make sure to create memorable usernames. Real names, and usernames like “The Canadian Gambler” are good. Names that stand out, that people will remember.
Third, make sure every user has an avatar. Avatars are a great way for people to recognize each other. It personalizes each person, and makes it more welcoming for new users to the forum.
At this point we have 20+ fictional users, so now we need to start creating threads. Create threads on a variety of topics. Generic su bjects, latest news, whatever. If you’re focusing on purely search engine keywords, then aim towards the current hot topics. If you’re promoting via your website, then have quite a few threads relevant to the articles you are linking from.
Most importantly however, create threads that rely on user interaction.
Think about your target market, and what they want to talk about. If it was a poker forum for example, I’d have threads on “post your worst bad beat” or “What is the best poker show on TV?”. Sports forum? Ask who is going to win the Superbowl, or how you think a particular rookie is going to do now he’s in the big leagues.
The two most popular topics are where users can (1) Complain about something, or (2) Share their knowledge on a subject. I know we all have those poker playing friends who can’t stop telling us about their latest bad beat, or those guys that watched March Madness and now are experts on new pro NBA players.
For every thread you create, have numerous of your fake user accounts respond to get things going. Look into controversial posts or topics too – threads where people can’t HELP but respond. I mean if I was running a sports forum the first thread I’d be doing is on the topic of LeBron James being better than Michael Jordan, with posts so absurd that new users wouldn’t be able to help themselves but join in!
Of course, it’s not just about creating numerous threads with fake usernames then letting nature run its course. Building a community is a fine art. If you have FictionalUserA make a ridiculous post about why Lebron is better than Kobe, and RealUserA registers and makes a post disputing his points, then you should have FictionalUserB, C & D all posting to agree with him.
By making people feel they are part of their group, it strengthens your community. One thing I liked to do on a poker forum I ran from time to time was create a really idiotic Fictional User. This user would make a post about how poker is rigged, and they’re the perfect poker player yet they just can’t win, so it must be rigged.
That user would then post his Pokertracker stats where he has a VP$IP of 80%+(in other words, he’s a horrible, horrible player). All the other users would mock him and in turn, strengthen their friendships as they all start to form a group.
It doesn’t matter what sort of website you run, or what traffic you currently have – the best way for your forum to grow is if there is already an existing community. We can all agree that Pokerlistings is one of the biggest online poker portals on the web right? Did you know they used to have a forum? Yet it was a virtual ghost town, simply because they didn’t do anything with it. They didn’t nurture it; they didn’t work on it. They put no focus or resources on it, and because of that no-one cared about it, and no-one posted. Even the ones that did post there didn’t stick around, simply because there was no personality to it.
You see – one of the biggest things you can do immediately is personalize the forum. Every user should be immediately recognizable, be it by username or avatar. If your forum is going to have any success then these people will become online friends over the next couple of years, so that’s something you’re going to have to focus on.
I’d mentioned avatars above – this is one of the easiest ways to allow users to express themselves, and encourage personalization.
Set it up by default so that every user who registers has a default avatar. On one of my forums this is the default avatar:
People hated that! People didn’t want to post and have that picture beside their post. It wasn’t them! So they’d immediately change their avatar to one of their own choosing. It might be their picture; it might be a sports team logo; it can be whatever.
However this is a sneaky first step to convincing the user to stick around. They’ve interacted with the forum, they’ve did something outside of posting. They may not realize it, but this tiny little extra thing will convince them to do other things…the most important part of which, is bookmarking your forum.
The fact is, building a community is incredibly tough work, especially in the beginning. Do you have to fake it? No, however your chance of success is a hell of a lot more if you fake it to begin with. Then you already HAVE a thriving community that people want to be apart of. After a couple of months you won’t even have to fake it anymore; the community will start to run itself, and if you ever feel the need to give it a little push, you just create a fake account to make an idiotic post, and have everyone bonding over it.
Finally, let’s talk about:
The biggest mistake you can make:
I love this one, because time and time again, I see new forums crop up with people making this very same mistake over and over. Right off the bat they’re destined to fail, yet they just don’t get it. This is the mistake EVERYONE makes, and I can’t stress enough how stupid it is.
The biggest mistake you can make after installing a forum is simple…
…building multiple forums.
This is something EVERYONE does – and it’s such a stupid, stupid thing and shows they have no concept of what a community is. They install their vBulletin software, and the first thing they do is create a ton of forums. They’ll have a forum for Holdem players, a forum for Omaha players, a forum for new visitors, a “General Poker” forum, an off-topic forum, a forum for discussing news….SO MANY FORUMS.
You need one. One freaking forum. That’s it!
You know the dumbest move you can do while trying to build up a community? Segregate them. “Hey Holdem players, you belong over HERE”. “You play Omaha? Okay, you have to go over here.” “Draw poker player? Your rooms over there”. “Oh you want to introduce yourself to the community? Well there’s a whole separate section for that!”
You have to let a community grow. You need all your community members to get to KNOW each other. Therefore you stick em all in the very same forum to begin with. You know all those forums you want to build? Well you come up with megathreads for each forum instead! Have a thread for Holdem Strategy, a thread to talk about a specific poker room, a thread for people to discuss bonuses, a thread for people to introduce themselves….all within the same forum.
This makes it a lot easier for the users to manage, and they’ll start to familiarize themselves with each other. They’ll see all those usernames on there and recognize them, even start chats with them. They’ll start to bond and become friends over common subjects. UserA may like Holdem while UserB likes Omaha, however with them both in the same forum at the same time, they’ll soon discover that they’re both Lakers fans, and boom a friendship is born and your community starts to gel together.
It’s also a lot less underwhelming for the user too. Many forums these days are strict and full of assholes; this turns off new users. Let’s say a new user wants to ask the age-old question of “Would you fold AA pre-flop in the 1st hand of the WSOP main event?” This is a question that’s been on forums for years, and always gets a reaction. But if you have 800 potential forums to post it to like “Holdem”, “Poker Strategy”, “Beginner Questions”, “WSOP” and “General Poker”, they’d rather not post it, than post it in the wrong place and get told off.
There will come a time when yes, you may have to expand to multiple forums, but it’s all about supply and demand! When threads start to become so busy that it’s hard to keep up, that will be a good time to look at expanding. But anything more than one forum to begin with is suicide.
Please – if there’s just one advice you take away from this series of articles, it’s that. One forum, multiple threads. That’s how you build a community; by keeping them in the same area all at the same time, and allowing them to become friends, and bond.
Honestly – this stuff is not rocket science. Yet the amount of people that get this basic aspect of building a community wrong blows my mind. Hint: It’s about 99%.
Building a Profitable Forum Part 3