A List Apart


How to Be a Great Host

How to Be a Great Host

Meet Joe. He’s an amateur web developer who’s just starting to receive a good feedback, a steady stream of traffic, and maybe even some revenue from his website. So Joe decides to kick it up a notch and add a forum. After all, everyone else is doing it—how hard can it be? So Joe downloads some bulletin board software and fancy skins to make his forums sexy, creates 20 topical sub-forums, and starts posting. All he needs to do now is sit back and watch the membership grow.

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Unfortunately, the members Joe expects never arrive. He talks a few friends into signing up and posting here and there, but his friends don’t share his enthusiasm for the website, so they don’t stick around. Joe’s prepared for a party…and nobody showed up. What happened?

Are you really ready to start a new community?

Before you create a forum, you should ask yourself a series of questions: Why would people join your community? Does your existing site attract a decent amount of traffic? Do other established forums exist that aim to attract your target user base? Do you have a niche audience in mind, or is your planned forum subject too broad to compete against other communities? How will a forum add to your current website? You may find that you have more homework to do—or that there’s probably not enough interest to make a new forum worth your while.

If you decide that you are ready to get started, keep in mind that online communities are quite a bit like college parties—you’re inviting a bunch of people you don’t know into your house, and that poses a series of challenges. If you don’t get the word out, you may be the only one there. If you’re not properly organized, your guests will leave before they’ve even introduced themselves. If you don’t keep on top of the party, inebriated strangers may bully your invited guests or trash your living room.

Laying groundwork

Most popular, active forums are associated with great websites—websites that include a great deal of unique content and are updated on a regular basis. Link lists or news feeds from other sites won’t cut it, so if you don’t already have a thriving website with compelling, original content, you’ll need spend the time required to create one. To get back to our party metaphor, think of this part as the foundation of your healthy social life: becoming an interesting person and making some friends.

Now that I’ve scared off all the folks who want a “website in a box,” we can get started building a forum.

Get ready and send invitations

If you want to throw a great party, you probably want to get your house ready and then let everyone know about it. So to begin with, make your forum look decent. You don’t need to make it spotless, but you should match the style sheets with those on your static pages so that the look and feel is consistent with the rest of your website.

Then you need to invite your guests. Obviously you’ll want to link to your forum from your website, but you can also include your URL in your signature on other forums, register with search engines, advertise on other websites geared toward your niche, and work with fellow webmasters on link swaps. As long as you’re not employing sneaky or spammy tactics to lure visitors, you should be in good shape.

Last but not least, don’t make it difficult for your guests to join—or just peek in at—the forums. When you’re getting your party started, you can’t really be choosy. Waive the cover charge (intensive registration), and let everyone in. You can always be a little more selective once your site is established. Make sure potential guests can look in through the windows and see enough lively discussion to inspire them to sign up.

So now it’s a few minutes before the big event, and now you’re just hoping your publicity has worked, and that people will come. All you can do now is wait, right? Actually, no. The most important part is just about to begin.

It’s party time

Start small and nurture your early conversations. This means creating one forum and calling it something like “Joe’s General Discussion.” Start a few threads pertaining to your website’s niche, and then recruit a few friends to help you get started. Be a good host. Make everyone feel welcome, introduce people, and make sure that current conversations don’t go stagnant and that new conversations are started to keep things fresh.

The first 50 or so members will set the tone for your whole forum, so make sure it’s headed in the right direction. For example, if you want your site to be family-friendly, now is the time to gently remind folks what’s okay and what isn’t. Speaking of which, it’s a good idea to write clear, simple ground rules for community participation and post them where everyone can see them. You probably don’t need dozens of rules, but a few basics will help maintain order later on.

If nothing happens right away, remember that forums take time. It may take months, even years, before you start noticing real growth. Don’t give up if you’re not seeing immediate responses. The hardest members to get are the first ones—after all, they’re investing in an unproven commodity. You might even entice your initial users in to joining by offering incentives like free products or discounts. Keep those precious initial users interested by responding to their comments and threads. Make them feel like they are royalty.

If your promotional tactics have paid off, next thing you know, your initial user base of friends will expand to include people you don’t know. Your new members will begin start their own topics or adding to discussions. Don’t expand your forum too rapidly or scare off your new guests. Add politely to conversations, but don’t be so overbearing that you look desperate.

When the time is right, split the forum into two sections—but don’t split it until you’re certain both forums will continue to thrive. The worst thing you can do to a promising new forum is go off and create 20 different sub-forums, only to watch them all die. If you have enough posts to support a total of a dozen topics, it looks far healthier if they are all on one forum, rather than distributed one each across twelve sub-forums. People don’t want to come to a dead forum. They want to join a party!

Be ready to improvise

After your basic forum has started to grow, you may notice some trends in new topics. Perhaps you own a gaming forum and see that many discussions are veering toward role-playing games. Even if you didn’t anticipate this trend, create a sub-forum for this niche. If you notice quite a few folks starting threads on Playstation 3, create a sub-forum for this as well. Follow all the threads on the forum and continue this process as needed—but only when you know the split will not kill both. As long as both potential new topics have enough posts in them to look intriguing to new guests, it’s generally safe to split a topic.

Keep your partygoers from leaving

If you want your forum to thrive, you’ll want to retain your existing members and keep them active. After all, a large membership base is useless if they never really post. Keep your community thriving by adding. Constantly monitor your competition and provide incentives for users to stick around. This often means adding more content on your static site, but isn’t limited to this.

Your members can start to help you out in this department. Once you have a solid user base, you may ask some of your most active members to contribute an article for the main section of your site. If you’re lucky, your website can continue to grow without much more than simple maintenance.

Don’t let things get out of hand

With growth comes problems. Hackers, spammers, and other troublemakers can make a party a little less fun to attend. If you don’t control them, your guests may longer feel welcome.

As your forum grows, recruit a few co-moderators, review your ground rules, and make sure everyone—including your moderators—complies with your guidelines. Not sure where to get moderators? Watch your forum closely as it grows past the first 20–30 members, and you’ll notice some posters are more mature (and active) than others. Bring those users on board by giving them moderation privileges. In addition to help you with moderation, these members are likely to post even more, because they feel a sense of ownership. If your community continues to grow, you might consider peer moderation systems (karma points and their ilk) to keep the signal to noise ratio high.

Dealing with party crashers

It’s only a matter of time before someone starts making a fool of themselves on your forum. which can make you look like a bad host if you aren’t ready. Don’t be afraid to make an example out of some of the folks who test your limits; if you don’t, your members will start to push the envelope over what is and is not allowed.

Don’t forget to keep up with the times: download the latest bulletin-board software patches regularly so no troublemakers sneak in through a back door.

Enjoy your own party

A vibrant online community can engage your members and pull them into a deeper relationship with your site by giving them a place to vent, share information, and get to know one another. With good planning and some help from your friends, you’ll be able to create a thriving online community that comes back regularly—and people will thank you for throwing such a great party.

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