How to Be a Great Host
Issue № 226

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?#section1

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#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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#section8

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#section9

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.

About the Author

John Gladding

John Gladding is a Human Factors Engineer for a Fortune 500 company in Folsom, California, as well as the owner and founder of community website MyFolsom.com. No, he’s not an inmate of Folsom Prison.

29 Reader Comments

  1. I think you also have to provide the first content yourself. If I enter an empty forum I will leave right away. So start by adding a few topics yourself and discuss them with your coworkers and friends.

  2. There are two kinds of forums. One where there are a lot of unanswered questions. Whenever you google some topic you’ll find many forum postings with the same question, but no answer. There are a few forums however, where the members are very skilled and prvode answers to newbies as well as to other pros. So unless you want to have a question only forum you should provide something interesting for the pros. Socialize with them, ask them directly to provide a bit of their know how. Pros attract pros. And you should be the first one.

  3. I certainly agree that the most important question to answer is “Why do we need a forum??”

    As the first few paragraphs outline because people see loads of forums popping up (and its rather ‘easy’ to do with premade software) managers and the like seem to think – “well we should have a forum, what a great idea that will be!”.

    Without a concrete reason for it a forum is pretty useless in my opinion – so good article!

  4. Ross, the reason to have a forum differs depending on your business. For an internet based business traffic is (almost) everything, and a forum can provide a lot of traffic. The reason for the traffic is the content (content rules…), and as a business you are always glad if you do not have to provide the content yourself, but the user does it for you. This will lead to a lot of search engine users coming to your forum, a lot of backlinks, and so on. Of course the content should be relevant to your business.

    For offline companies the forums have a different focus, maybe to build up reputation. So there you should have good moderators to ensure the content quality.

    Of course I totally agree that not everybody needs a forum (I don’t have one myself).

  5. I knew that my comments title would confuse people (reading it now even confuses me!)

    Definatly agree with your points though Sven – I was simply trying to have a rant at the kind of people (many of whom I seen to work under :<) so see the forum as a 'cool' thing to gave that will impress friends and collegues without actually thinking about why they should have it or the work it takes once they have it to maintain it!

  6. A very successful forum based in the UK is The Triforce (http://www.thetriforce.com/forum/) They have one of those sites which has a line at the bottom saying “The newest user is: xyz” A tradition has sprung up whereby a regular user will start a thread _with that users name as the title_, welcoming them to the forum by means of a totally off-the-wall, unexpected question. The new user immediately engages with the regulars and feels all special!

  7. Robert, being friendly and maybe surprising is a very good way to make users out of visitors. Some forums make it so hard to register, the answer to your first posting is “this posting is not compliant to forum rule nr 42” and the moderators behave like being god in their little forum world. It sounds like The Triforce is quite different.

    As the true value of a forum are the users willing to contribute they should feel warm and welcome.

    On the other side you have to get rid of the trolls. How do you deal with that?

  8. …Trolls included.

    The most effective means of dealing with trolls is to ignore them. It is attention they crave and _any_ response only encourages them.

    Make sure your moderators and other valued community members are informed not to feed the trolls.

    In extreme circumstances, it may be necessary to prune — as ALA says they “reserve the right to delete flames, trolls, and wood nymphs.”

  9. Another great article. Some good points. Starting a forum is tough and in most cases, it’s either not worth it, or not warranted for the site. Most people do not realize how much work it is and give up before it can grow.

    Reaching critical mass is also not the be all and end all, it’s important to remain an active and contributing member.

    Giving members benefits, like including a signature is also an essential way to keep your forum alive.

  10. Whenever there is a discussion about how to control a forum to prevent trolling, I’m always trying to mention the other solution — remove temptation.

    Sure, it’s not always apropriate — depends on what kind of forum it is. It can benefit greatly any support forums, where you want answers to your questions, but might be totally wrong for a “close friends” forum where people mostly want to socialize.

    Anyways, this article “advertises” the benefits of anonymous (or mostly-anonymous) forums, and gives you something to think about:

    http://wakaba.c3.cx/shii/shiichan

  11. I’ve just started a new website with a forum, and I one of the philosofies I’ve followed is put on “Building Communities with Software” [http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/BuildingCommunitieswithSo.html], from Joel Spolsky.

    There are a lot of good tips for people starting a community oriented website. Low entry-barrier, easiness of posting, entice users to come back. There’re a couple misdirected jabs at Slashdot that I disagree, specially the quality of replies (at least when you factor in the moderation points, browse at +3 and /. is a knowledge pool).

    John, if you let me, I would like to add another tip: Some websites don’t generate enough traffic to kick-start a forum growth, the first 50 posts in a small period of time. My advice for webmasters in this position is to form alliances with other webmasters on your niche, and have a single, shared forum.

    It’s easier to bring traffic, and everyone has a greater chance of succeding. Plus, there will be a healthy (I hope) competition between the webmasters to see who posts the news first and who gives the best / fastest answer.

  12. Thanks for the advice, very helpful indeed. I’m in a similar position to the imagined person in the article.

    However, for the kind of content I’m looking to foster (shared experiences and best practice), I’ve been looking more towards starting a wiki than a forum. Does anyone have any extra advice or tips that they can share?

  13. I’ve run a magazine for science fiction writers (Speculations, at speculations.com) since 1995; its online forum just celebrated its tenth anniversary. We’ve survived spammers, flamers, bots, and trolls with anonymous posting intact; most recently I instituted a Plonk option, so registered users may ignore posts from certain accounts if they like.

    Things I’ve learned from doing Speculations:

    1) The ability to just wade right in and post anonymously is very important. Requiring registration is a huge barrier to entry.

    2) Authors who care enough to sign in should get something extra. Ours receive the ability to submit positive and negative feedback, which will quickly hide off-topic messages, and a sort of X-ray vision, so they can see origin IP addresses and detect whether they’re reading posts from sock-puppet accounts created by the same person or agency.

    3) The presence of trolls is a good sign. It means that the community is generating more than enough energy; somebody thinks that the attention of these people is worth trying for.

    One mistake I made was attaching emotionally-significant identifiers (like “nutburger” or “flame”) to certain negative feedback options, which tended to encourage trolling. I am presently thinking about abstracting out the verbiage into a separate layer of tags that has no significance towards moderation, and condensing all feedback options into a simple +1 / -1.

  14. This is a great article for starting a forum and I’m sure many of the strategies translate over to starting a social networking or social bookmarking site as well. I’d love to see an article that specifically addresses this point though.

  15. I would agree that anonymous posting ability is a great way to kick start a forum. However it shouldn’t be considered a long term option – it will not provide much incentive to join. We actually started small and when it expanded to a point where we could sustain it, we made a few (non-crucial) forums “members only” so it gave them an incentive to not only sign up, but remain logged in. People complained at first, but they get over it quickly. If the site adds value to them, it is worth it to remain logged in. It’s a great thing because newbies see more people online and know the forum is active.

  16. I agree that if someone visits an empty forum they will automatically leave. But I beleive that in order to get visitors to come and stay you need some kind of information that they want or need. Once they find information they really want that will help a great deal. Of course then the rest is up to you in order to keep the information fresh, interesting, and up to date.

  17. I think this article would have been well-served to define, exactly, what the term “forum” actually means in this context. It is actually a really broad term that, in my experience, confuses a lot of people.

    A “forum” can encompass everything from a usenet group, a blog that allows comments, or (what I assume you mean by forum in this article) the “traditional” phpBB-style, hierarchical, topic-based site. Mailing lists can also be considered forums. Any time you are using software that facilitates a discussion, that’s a forum (on the web).

    By using the generic term “forum”, and not distinguishing between the types of forums, I think this article is likely to contribute to the confusion that exists out there, and end up cost us web developers even more time explaining the concept to the not-so-technically-inclined.

    I think an essential question to add to the list of “are you ready?” questions is: What _kind_ of forum do I want? In many cases, the answer to this question will determine whether or not your “forum” is successful or not. Not all sites need a full-blown phpBB topical forum. In my humble opinion, I believe that a good portion of the existing forums of this type are completely useless at building a community (and can actually hinder the process in some cases); whereas, for example, a blog would be much better suited for the type of discussion desired.

    Anyhow, as always, a good read from the A List Apart crowd 🙂 Thanks very much.

  18. Another approach to make your website scaleable, *without any javascript involved*, is to consequently use a relative size for your content.
    Just ensure, your website design does not rely on pixels: they are bad when it comes to zooming. You can instead define a base font-size (say specify font-size:small for the body element) and further on use relative font-size (eg. “font-size:smaller” or “font-size:120%” for all other elements.
    This, of course, also works for images: Just specify the width and height of your images using em and ex (eg. ). If your source image is large enough, it still will be displayed in acceptable quality as todays browsers scale it good enough.

  19. Really enjoyed John’s article. We’re just now making the move into forums and blogs ourselves at jaduka.com, starting with a couple of blogs. We had an interesting set of discussions internally and wound up pretty much agreeing with what a number of the readers here have pointed out — namely that great content will be what really drives usage to the site and that.

    We chose to go down the blog path first because we liked the idea of starting off each of the threads ourselves and keeping a little bit more control over the feedback. But reading John’s article makes me think that we might be able to encourage a freer level of communication with our users if we go the forum route.

    Thanks for a great read.

  20. This article is right on. A couple of points to add:

    Creating an online community can succeed even in a small audience so long as you have good content that people can be passionate about.

    A great way to make your forum succeed is to not hide it away in the “forum” section, but figure out ways to blend it in with the rest of your content. If you can query a database there is no reason why the forum software has to be the only way to access its content. Weaving topics in with your content really makes your whole site come alive.

  21. The largest forum spamming software has a default forum category to post to. These are General, Common, Business, and Adver. So to avoid a majority of software spamming your forums you can rename these forum categories or just not have them at all. Ive done this on a few forums and you can see the drastic reduction of spam.

  22. Ive been running a forum for about a year now. The main purpose of it was for me and my friends stay more in touch when we didnt see much of each other. It was a big hit at first, but about 6 months in, it fizzled out. Now it just sits there, with an occaisional post here and there. A friend of mine, who writes a web comic suffered the same fate. The forum was built for fans, who mostly consist of classmates, to dicuss snd speculate the comic, as well as talk about other interests. His, just like mine, started out great, but died, even faster than mine. Any suggestions on how to rejuvinate and keep our forums alive?

  23. Great Article

    It can benefit greatly any support forums, where you want answers to your questions, but might be totally wrong for a “close friends”? forum where people mostly want to socialize.

    Getting a Forum up there can be quite hard, it takes times, good work

    Stephen

  24. It’s really very valuable. I am in the process of creating forum on my website. Your’s instructions give me some better ideas; which I am definately looking forward to implement. The things on which I am working now are:
    *I want the installation to be fairly straight forward. *Users should be able to subscribe to a forum and have the option of having all the messages posted to that forum sent to them as emails. *It would be nice if they could respond by email or click a link to respond. These options make the forum look like an email list but with the ability to go to the website as well. *I want users to be able to post messages that will be visible for a long period of time, such as 1 year.
    Again thanks for yours instinctive, certainly easy and above all functional concept.
    Thanks
    Alex

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