Managing Online Forums
Everything You Need to Know to Create and Run Successful Community Discussion Boards
Author: Patrick O'Keefe
Pub Date: April 2008
Print Edition: $24.00
Print ISBN: 9780814401972
Page Count: 320
Format: Paper or Softback
e-Book ISBN: 9780814412930
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Laying the Groundwork
"The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you're willing to pay the price."
To start your community off right, you must have your mind in the right place. You should know what your community is, what you are trying to accomplish, what you'll need to do to accomplish it, and you need to ensure that you can provide the community with the stability that it needs to flourish long into the future. This chapter gives you an idea of what to expect and will help you to make some of those important, initial decisions.
Before launching your community, inevitably there are some decisions to make or, at least, some things that you should think about that will help determine your community's existence. Some of them will affect most everything that you do from this point forward, from decisions you make to any work that you do.
What Will Your Community Cover?
Although a general, discuss-basically-anything community is always an option, chances are that you want to focus on some specific subject or niche, even if it is fairly general.
Whether it's programming (or just a specific programming language), sports (or just football), writing (or just nonfiction), you'll need to determine what subject will be the focus of your community. You don't want to try to be everything to everyone. You want to do what you do—and do it well.
Whatever the subject, it is usually not important that you be an expert on it or even know it all that well—the most important thing is that you are committed to it and to your community.
For instance, I own KarateForums.com (an active martial arts discussion community) and PhotoshopForums.com (an active Photoshop help and discussion community). I've never done any martial arts, and when I started PhotoshopForums.com, I had never even used Photoshop (a kind user sent me a—yes, legal—copy of Photoshop Elements a bit later). Again, you don't need to know about the subject matter as long as you are committed to the idea. I started these communities for various reasons. Besides random revelations, I sensed a need, saw that a good domain name was available, and thought that I could do it better than anyone else—and not just talk about it but actually do it.
You can surround yourself with smart people (or people smarter than you) on your staff of whom you can ask questions relevant to the subject of your community, on those (perhaps rare) occasions where it will be needed. Don't get me wrong, being passionate about the subject of your community can be very helpful and may help ensure your passion for the community itself (and, as such, your long-term interest and enjoyment in your work, which is very important).
But, I'll say it again: Have passion for the community. If you have it, you can succeed. If you have passion for the subject, but no passion for the community or for running the community, you really don't have very much at all and you're in for a struggle.
Whom Do You Want to Attract?
Even a community that is for "everyone" really isn't for everyone because by nature, a community for everyone will turn certain people off. Make sense? What type of users are you after?
This doesn't have to be that specific. But visualizing it can help you to make decisions and plot a course. For instance, you can simply target anyone interested in having a baby—or you can target pregnant mothers under the age of twenty-five. You can target baseball fans—or fans of the New York Yankees. You can target computer users—or you can target users of a certain operating system. Does your community target a specific age group or gender? Are you looking for users who are experts in your subject matter? Or beginners? Attempting to bring them both together? Whomever you target, you'll want to develop your community with them in mind.
You will probably (and naturally) attract people outside of your targeted audience, and chances are that'll be perfectly OK with you. But having your primary audience or audiences in mind will help you to make appropriate decisions about your community.
What Will the Benefits of Your Community Be?
How will you attract people to your community? What will make them come? And stay? These can be few or many—tangible or intangible. You can help people or provide them with useful information, you can provide a friendly atmosphere or an exclusive atmosphere, you can give them direct access to your company—you can do a lot of things. The things that make you interesting, unique, different, and special—those will be your key benefits.
Assuming it exists, you can learn from your "competition." What are they doing well? What are they doing poorly that you can improve on? What are they missing that you can provide? How are they different from you? The limitations of your competition can be inspirational.
How Will You Support the Community Financially?
Before you jump headfirst into anything, you should think about the money it will take to support your community and keep it online. Sit down and figure out how much it will cost you to keep the community running at an optimal level for the foreseeable future, and plan for that figure to increase. Simply put: Will you be able to support it?
If you would like the community to pay for itself or even turn a profit (or a great profit), how are you going to do that? Advertising? Affiliate programs? Donations? Will you eventually embrace some sort of subscription model where people pay for enhanced options in your community? Chapter 9 will assist you in your efforts.
The bottom line is that you do not want to start your community only to realize in a few months that you are not comfortable with the amount of money that it takes to maintain it.
What Is Your Situation?
There are generally four different ways to assume charge of a community:
1. Create a brand-new stand-alone community.
2. Launch a brand-new community and content site at the same time.
3. Launch a brand-new community as an addition to an existing content site.
4. Purchase or take over an existing community.
You can approach all four situations similarly, of course, but there are some additional considerations that will require your attention in order to get the most out of your situation.
Create a Brand-New Stand-Alone Community
This is a community that stands on its own. You will not have the advantage of directly linking with an existing, established website (not your own, at least) that will be able to send you traffic. The primary (possibly only) draws are the forums themselves. This is, perhaps, the most challenging scenario of the four as far as getting going is concerned. But that shouldn't scare you—this is the way that many, many forums started off, including mine.
If you do have a high-quality product, it may be possible for you to partner with an active and established content site where you will become the site's community. For more details on this, check out chapter 4.
Launch a Brand-New Community and Content Site at the Same Time
Having an active content site to go right along with your community can definitely help to get your community going. Mainly, it will give you more to discuss, bring more people to the community, and keep them on your entire website (content and community) longer. This is if it is active. And it's important that it be. You'll want to have writers (or one active writer, at least) lined up before you launch to ensure that you will have a steady flow of content. In general, the more active it is, the better off that you will be.
You should integrate the content site and the community as much as you tastefully can. For example, let's say that you have some sort of articles site. One simple way to integrate it with your community would be to display the five most recently published articles from your content site somewhere in your community. Give your authors special distinction in your community so that they will stand out from the crowd. Get as many of your authors as possible to participate in and (if applicable) answer questions in your community. On your content site, be sure to include a visible link to your community. On your index page (or every page, if it's reasonable), you could display the five or ten most recently active threads from your community. On all of your articles, be sure to include a "Discuss" link of sorts where users can access your forums in order to discuss the articles that they are viewing. Here are some ways that this link can be set up:
* If your system allows users from your content site to go right to your community (logged in or anonymous—logged in is probably the way to go and would make junk far less frequent) and reply to a special thread that was automatically created for an article, great. The first post in such a thread should be a link to the article. This helps people find out what others are talking about, allowing them to more easily contribute. This brings more attention to both sections of your site. Some content-management systems and/or community software may be able to make this happen. If not, this feature will likely require custom programming. If you can swing it, it's the ideal solution because the seamless integration encourages users to participate. SitePoint (http://www.sitepoint.com) has a setup like this.
* Start a thread (manually) in your community for each article that you publish and then hard-code a link to the thread in the article. Obviously, it's better to automate this process (as outlined above), otherwise it adds to the time required to maintain your site (and may create problems down the road if, for example, you change software and the URLs change). Regardless, it will definitely encourage people to participate.
* Create some sort of static link to your community's index page or a specific forum that relates to the article. For example, if your content management system (CMS) allows a specific discussion URL to be associated with all articles in a given category of your CMS, you could make it so that your individual discussion forums match your content categories (in one way or another). Further, you could make it so that all "Discuss" links for all articles in a given content category link to the forum most closely related to that category. For instance, you could have a baseball section on your content site and all of your baseball articles would then include a link to your community's baseball forum. Failing that, simply include a direct link to your community's index page. What can I say? It's better than nothing!
* If your content section has a really simple syndication (RSS) feed (or something of that nature), you could achieve half of the effect described in the first method by setting up what is commonly referred to as a "news-posting bot" to automatically post threads in your community from your feed(s). You could have a feed for each content category (if necessary) and have the bot post items from that feed into the most appropriate forum. Taking from the earlier example, you'd have an RSS feed that is just articles in your baseball section, and the bot would post those items in your baseball forum in your community. You can set it so that an excerpt of the article posts with a link to the full article—or you could just post a link to the full article.
The point is that if you have an articles section and you have a community, you should integrate them in every way that makes sense. They can help each other. Obviously, some methods are more effective than others, but even if you go with the simplest form of integration, it's that much more exposure for your community—and your content site—and is definitely worth it.
Launch a Brand-New Community as an Addition to an Existing Content Site
This is where you have an already established (and hopefully reasonably successful, at least) content site and want to expand it by adding a community. If all goes as it should, it will enhance your content, keep your users at your site longer, give your site the opportunity to gather more of a following, and allow you to make more money.
The same ideas about content site and community integration apply here as well. Having an established content site gives you a leg up in that you will already have some loyal users and some traffic coming in. Once you integrate your community and your content site, users will find your community and potentially want to become members.
Regardless of your situation, it's definitely important that you maintain some sort of constant activity in your community so that you can keep the users that you will have at the beginning. It may just be you and these users talking things out for quite a while, but it is important that it stays active. Even if it is just you, your brother, and his friend talking, pretty much any activity is good activity.
Purchase or Take Over an Existing Community
This is where you've bought (or taken over) an existing community. This situation has its own challenges that require your attention.
Before buying a community, you should consider where it is, what your goals for it are and/or would be, and how far the community is from those goals. In doing so, you are trying to figure out how much work it will take to get it running properly, and this will help you to determine whether it is worth it, all things considered.
For example, my communities are based on a very firm foundation of respect and are family friendly where the subject matter allows them to be. If a community allows its users to get away with being disrespectful, vulgar, or otherwise inappropriate, it is probably not worth it for me to buy it because of the effort that it will take for me to turn it around. It will end up being a waste of my time and my money. I would never just let a community run as it has, if I know of a better way or I'm not comfortable with how it's running, simply so that I can make a buck.
You should care (and make it clear to your members that you care) about people more than numbers. When people learn that you bought the site, they will probably have doubts about your intentions, as they should, perhaps. They may think that you are in it just to take a profit and that you don't really care about the community itself. After all, you did just spend the money to buy it, so you need to make that money back and then some, probably. There is nothing wrong with money being a motivator, but it cannot be the only one. You must want to manage the community, want to work hard, and want to be successful.
So you need to put these thoughts to bed and reassure people that you are there to make the community as great as it can be. Introduce yourself, explain your background and your aim, speak openly, answer questions in a kind and respectful way, and make yourself available. Be upfront and honest. People will get behind you, get away from you, or be indifferent, but at least they will know you and have a better idea of what to expect. They may not like what you want to do, but the truth is better than uncertainty.
Make sure that you make a great effort to work with the current staff members. Remember that they may have a great deal of respect for the previous owner/administrator and be sure that you respect that. Get to know one another and work to get everyone on the same page. Explain your beliefs and hopes for the site. Try to ask them for their thoughts if you feel they would be valuable. And when you do, be sure to listen and respond appropriately. I was once a staff member at a site that was bought by a person who annoyed me. Why did he annoy me? Because he asked us for feedback and then appeared to not give it a second thought. Or that was the perception that I got. He didn't make me feel like he considered what I said at all. It's not that he needed to do what I said, but conveying to your staff members that you appreciate their perspective is an important part of leading a team.
Some people feel that when you are making changes to a community you have purchased or acquired, you should make them slowly. Although there can be benefits to that, I'm rather indifferent on speed. If you go slowly for the sake of going slowly, you are delaying progress. Just make the changes at the pace that is appropriate. The sooner you make a change, the sooner you can move forward.
There will be people who will not fit in with your strategy and goals for the site, and they may have to move on. Not everyone will like you, not everyone will like what you do, not everyone will stay. This is natural. But, by listening, by conveying to people that you are listening, by being understanding, by explaining yourself and being open to questions, you will put yourself in the best position possible and give yourself the highest chance of winning people over and being successful.
What Skills and Characteristics Do You Need to Have?
What is the most important piece of the initial cultivation and development of your community? You. You, as the community administrator, determine a lot. You will be a major factor in the success or (hopefully not) failure of your community. You don't have to know everything and you don't have to be God's gift to community administration. You do need to be open to new ideas, open to learning, and committed to doing the best work that you can. Nothing is handed to you—you will have to work.
You need to have good people skills and good communication skills. You need to be able to communicate clearly to users and staff. To that end, you must also be able to understand people and not discriminate based upon the way people type or communicate online. It helps if you have a healthy knowledge of Internet lingo and lingo related to the community's subject matter so that you can understand as much of what people say as possible. However, if you don't know what someone is saying, you can usually look it up, pick it up as you go, and/or ask for further clarification.
You need a great deal of patience. You'll be dealing with idiots and, if your site is large enough, plenty of them—people who will, quite frankly, love to and even want to cause trouble, upset you, or rattle your cage. Nasty messages? Venomous hatred? Get ready—they are now a part of your everyday life. You need to accept this, laugh it off, and stay on point.
You need to be accessible to people (via private message, email, and/or otherwise) and be comfortable with it. You are the boss, and any communication method you list on your community profile is fair game. You can't be angry when people use them. For example, an administrator should never, ever have "no private messages!" in his or her signature. If you don't want to be contacted, don't be the administrator. If you put your instant messenger name on your profile, expect people to contact you. You can't get angry at people for using contact information that you made available to the public. You're on twenty-four hours a day. Your mistakes are magnified. Don't forget it.
The best administrators that I know are active participants in their communities. It's a good thing for people to see the administrator posting along with them, welcoming them to the community, etc. It helps to lower the disconnect—it helps them to think of you less as some higher figure of authority and more as a person. It also gives you the opportunity to set a posting example that others can follow. Even on KarateForums.com, I still participate actively where I feel comfortable, despite my lack of martial arts knowledge.
You need to be able to avoid taking things personally, otherwise people will easily offend you. Respond without thinking and you will damage your community. You are held to a higher standard than your users, and you should hold yourself to one, as well.
Although you shouldn't take things personally, you still need to care. You need to care about what happens in your community; you need to care what people think, how they feel, and how they are. Caring about what you do is important, and you have to know when to care and when not to care—when things are really important and when they are not.
You have to be able to make hard choices. Sometimes, this means deciding between what is right and what is easy. Don't do the popular thing unless the popular thing and the right thing are the same thing. You will have to make choices that will make you lonely. You will have to make choices that may cost you users and may cost you staff members (that, hopefully, can be minimized through explanation and through involving your staff members in the process). But part of being a good manager is the ability to make these tough decisions—to step up to the plate when it's not fun or pretty.
Technical knowledge is one thing you don't need. You do not need to know how to program (I don't), although if you did it would serve you well. However, there is no reason you can't pick up small details here and there in the course of your work. It's not a good idea to be so reliant on someone else for all of the technical aspects of your community that you are completely helpless because you don't know how to do simple things like upload a file, repair a corrupted MySQL database table, and so on and so forth. It's not a good place to be when it's 11 p.m., your site has been hacked, and you have absolutely no idea how to get it back online. You should continue to learn every day.
Everywhere you go and everything you do will reflect on you and your community. Do not ever forget that—always carry yourself with this in mind.
This chapter discussed some of the things that you have to think about and decisions that you should make before you jump into managing an online community. Having this understanding will help you to manage your community and give you a better chance at success.
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