Building a Profitable Forum: Part 1
Building a Profitable Forum: Part 2
In Part 1 of this 4 part series of articles, I talked about why you shouldn’t build a forum, simply due to the time and work involved. In part 2 I discussed the most important thing you could do when it came to building a community, and also mentioned the biggest mistake you can make when building a forum.
In Part 3 I am going to tackle some small additional things you can do when building your community. In the 4th and final part we’ll look into actually PROFITING from the community. But make no doubt about it – the most important thing to building a profitable forum is building the community.
Before you even begin to build a community, you might want to run a “test” to see how your traffic is. One thing I like to do is add a “chatbox” to a website. Something like this:
Where people can post in it and it takes just two seconds to post. If people start using it regularly, then you know you have a good basis to start a forum with. If you get a few repeat users on there too who intend to stick around then that’s a great basis to expand and start a chat room. One of my longest running forums was based off a chatterblock and I had to do literally no work to get the community up and running, as it’d already started inside the chatterblock.
Your ultimate goal when building a community is that you make your forum part of a persons daily habits. The person wakes up, logs onto the computer, checks their e-mail and opens up your forum to see any new posts, and participate in discussion.
When your forum user is sitting there on a bus, bored out of his skull? He’ll open up his mobile device, and browse to the forums for reading material.
That’s what a forum is. It’s a living, breathing community. And unfortunately it’s not a “if you build it; they will come” type story. You’re going have to work your ass off to get people there, and you’re going to have to work even harder to keep them there.
We’ll use a poker forum for an example of this, as I expect most readers are aware of, read and maybe even participated in poker forums over the last few years.
Let’s cover the technical stuff first…
Software wise, you’ve got a few options. I would recommend buying forum software because it’s always better, and by investing into it financially it will also help in investing in the forum mentally. vBulletin is a popular choice, although I haven’t been impressed by their software after they launched 4.0, and I feel their support is lacking.
I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about ipBoard lately. I’d tried it out years ago and it was solid then, and the next time I build a forum, I’ll be trying them out over vBulletin.
For free choices I’d look into phpBB or Simple Machines.
Personalize Your Forum:
Now you need to get a design for your forum and brand it. If you are looking to rely on search engine traffic rather than traffic from an existing website then browse the vBulletin templates, pick one you like, slap on a unique header and you’re good to go.
If you have an existing website it’s the same process; except you really should look to have the design match your actual website as best as you can. These things may not seem important but they really are. They show that you are putting effort into your forum, and care about your forum.
I mean have a look at PokerNewsBoy.com side by side with their forum – click for big:
Awful(Sorry Gerry!). If you found that forum via a search engine, you’d have no idea what website it was attached to or anything. There’s no branding – it’s just an out of the box vanilla vBulletin setup. You need to personalize it. Ideally this is going to be the visitors “home” on the web. They’re going to come there to rant, to talk about poker, to discuss movie reviews – everything. Decorate it up, and make it feel like an individual forum rather than one of thousands of generic other forums out there.
Don’t go Mod Crazy
There are tons of vBulletin mods out there. You can have an arcade, a casino, a poker game and everything on there. People are always tempted to throw in all these frills right from the start. All this does is distract people from your forum! Your goal should be to have people posting on your forum, not send them away to play Space Invaders or Blackjack immediately. These are things you can add in later to strengthen the community.
No “Like” or “Thanks” Button
Many forums these days like to have a “Like” or “Thanks” button on every post. If you read an opinion that you agree with, you simply click “Like” or “Thanks”.
There are some slight benefits to this – it can strengthen your community to have people sticking up for others. However in the beginning it is detrimental to the life of your forum. You want people posting on the forum. Clicking a button takes a second; having them reply even just to quote the message and say “I agree” has the user taking interaction to a new level, and actually getting them involved in the discussion.
Honestly, the hardest thing is getting a user to make a post. Don’t discourage them by giving them an easy way out. Do everything you can to make them post, even if it is just to say “I agree” or “QFT”(Quoted for Truth). Once they post once, it’s a lot easier to get them to post again and again and again.
Force subscriptions by default
One handy thing you can do with forums is subscribe to specific threads. You can choose to subscribe to threads, and even auto-subscribe to threads that you make posts in.
Kick this up a notch: set this to be on by default. First of all, it’s easy for a first time visitor to sign up, make a post then completely forget about it. You want these people to remember and to get notified as soon as they get replies to their post.
Second, forums need to be lively. You want people on the forum as often as possible, encouraging repeat visitors and making the forum basically their own chat room. With your users being notified of replies immediately, it incites lively and up to date discussion.
Those are a few of the technical things you can do to help with discussion. Let’s touch on the core of the forum now, and how to build a community.
Marketing Your Forum:
Honestly, the easiest part of a forum is the actual marketing of it. Getting people to your forum is the easy part; getting them to stick around is what’s tough.
If you’re relying purely on search engine traffic then it’s really easy – make sure to do basic SEO, then have threads on a wide variety of topics. Along with all the standard topics, aim for threads on current hot topics. What’s even better, is hot topics where users have questions and are naturally going so sign up.
Situations like “Black Friday” and the True Poker/Bookmaker etc situation are perfect examples. People are curious, and people are also lazy. Rather than read up on the situation they’d rather ask about it and have others tell them. I mean hell, head on over to Yahoo Answers and look at all the questions that people are asking, when a quick google search would solve everything. Yahoo Answers is a huge community for a reason; they allow people to have their own voice.
People can read all day about “Black Friday” – but they want to know about THEIR situation. They want to post about the money they have, and ask what’s going to happen with it. You can take advantage of situations like that by allowing them to post, and answering them and reassuring them. Then next time they have a question? They’ll be back to your forum, and hopefully will stick around.
If you have an existing website then it’s simply a case of promoting the hell out of your forum and doing everything you can to get people there. Make them feel like they’re missing out by not visiting your forum. Look at what traffic you get, and how you build up the forum by using a lot of that traffic.
For example – let’s say you were ranking for “WSOP Results” or “WSOP Chip Counts” in an article. You’d then tell people that for all the latest updates they can register for your forum, where the updates are practically real-time. This isn’t the sort of traffic that will have a high conversion ratio in terms of registration, but it’s still something.
Some great terms to rank for and help populate a forum would be something like “Rush Poker strategy”. The people who are checking that out aren’t interested in signing up for a poker room. So unless you’re selling an e-book or pimping a mailing list, you can promote your forums on there. “Come to the forums for more advanced Rush poker strategy, and to ask any questions”. Things like that, with a link to the specific forum or thread on Rush Poker.
Encourage people to post with their questions, and be on the ball and answer them immediately.
One thing I did to increase signups at a forum was to utilize the comments area. People love comments; they like seeing what “real people” say. My site was on WordPress, and I used a WordPress->VBulletin bridge which connected the accounts. I then had a specific forum just for articles I posted on the site, then integrated any replies from the thread in the actual comments area. People would see these comments and want to reply, but by doing so had to register at the forum. Then they’d get e-mails notifying them of replies and keep coming back.
Which reminds me…
One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to registering for a forum is when forum administrators make you jump through 16 different hoops to register.
Now forum owners aren’t doing this just to be mean; they’re mostly doing it due to spam. However this is something I’ve never understood: why make spam the users problem? If you care about your forum, shouldn’t you be motivated enough to handle the spam yourself?
Think about it from a users perspective. He’s went to log onto Full Tilt Poker, only to see that the poker room isn’t connecting. He’s a casual user, has never heard of 2+2 or anything like that. So he googles “Full Tilt poker won’t connect”. He finds a thread on your forum about it, is curious and wants to ask himself.
He attempts to sign up, and the first thing he sees is this huge profile field he has to fill out. He’s gotta put in his date of birth, his location, his sex, his MSN screenname and everything. Oh on top of that there’s 900 spam filters he has to deal with. Annoying captcha? You got it. Skill testing question? Yup! Then he has to verify his e-mail address, and even after that he has to wait for administrator approval before he can post.
Why be so restrictive? Why make it such a hassle? When it comes to things like spam, try and handle them on your end. For example with vbulletin there’s various plugins to catch spammers like one that checks Ips etc with stopforumspam.com and blocks them if there is a match.
The most important thing though, is just be on the ball. Spammers will always get through, so make it easy for yourself. Have buttons on the forum only for administrators that will ban a user and delete his thread immediately. Then just keep checking your forums regularly, staying active and monitoring for any potential spammers. Moderate a users first post if you have to, just to make sure nothing bad gets through. Just be on top of things so that you can approve users posts promptly.
Seriously – when a user registers make them just have to enter their nickname and e-mail address. The less hoops they have to jump through, the more chance they have of registering for your forum.
Of course, we can go completely the opposite…
One of the best tactics to selling something is exclusivity. This also can work for forums, and really strengthen a community.
People like to be a part of something, especially if it’s exclusive. They appreciate it more. At practically any igaming conference these days, Bodog have an “exclusive” party. In reality most people can get into it, but by making it invite-only it makes people feel that much more special. They in turn appreciate the Bodog brand more, and promote Bodog more than ever so they can keep getting invited to these “exclusive” parties.
Try making your forum exclusive too.
This isn’t something you can do at a whim, and it isn’t something you should do early on. It’s only later on when your community is mostly built and maturing. This is where you can make your forum exclusive. It really strengthens the community and will make them appreciate being part of the forum that much more.
Then if people want to join the forum you either have it set up on an invite-only basis, or make people fill out an actual application before joining. Believe me it may sound nuts, but this is a fantastic way at maintaining and strengthening a community. Anyone who gets in will appreciate it that much more.
You don’t even have to go all the way exclusive. Create a private members forum that only established members can participate in. Just an off-topic place for people to chat, hang out and talk about whatever. This can have the adverse effects of creating a clique if you’re not careful, but it’s also a great way for people to really bond to the point that they never want to leave your forum.
These are just a few basic methods to get you started on building a community, and hopefully get you in the right mindset to understand the sort of work that is required for getting a community going. In reality this is just the tip of the iceberg. All forums are different, and there are so many more methods you can implement to build that community, but these should get you started on the right foot at least.