When Something Is Wrong with My Forum

Two weeks ago I began reflecting on my experience with online communities in the form of forums.  I looked at the places that had me hooked for years and although they were full of friends and sustained a following during their lifespan, these two forums were technically unsuccessful.  The common interest that had attracted us to the community virtually disappeared as soon as you walked through the door (so to speak).

These forums were fortunate to keep interest for so long without having solid leadership or a clear purpose; most forums without these things tend to suffer from lack of engagement and quickly become deserted.

If you’ve ever been the only guest to show up for a party, you know how desperately the host will cling to you and beg you to stay.  You also know how that desperation makes you less likely to stick around (or to come back).  Well, I hate to say it, but I was once that desperate host.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I committed the cardinal sin of community management: I posted under fake accounts to generate activity on the deserted forum I once managed.  My supervisor saw that our forum was dead, panicked, and thought the best way to kick-start activity on the site was to have me post under a few different profiles on a regular basis.  At the time I knew that this strategy wouldn’t work – people can see through that kind of activity, even when it’s online – but I didn’t know what else to do.  My supervisor seemed more concerned with SEO and Alexa rankings than the ethics of manipulating the few legitimate participants on the site.  After two or three weeks of creating fake posts, I ran out of things to say (it is very difficult to sustain a conversation with yourself – see point 8).  Instead of gaining any new community members, I gained a whole lot of shame.  If I knew then what I know now, I could have come out looking like the hero.

The first problem with the forum that I could have addressed was lack of leadership.  I was the forum administrator and not a community manager.  My experience working on forums up to that point had been more policing and organizing than engaging and inviting.  I had the forsight to develop an “introduce yourself” thread and made sure to respond to anyone who posted, but after that all I did was general housekeeping: moving threads to the correct subforum, banning or blocking spammers, assigning moderators, and occasionally building new categories.  If I had changed my perspective from maintenance to development, I may have had a better shot at creating something that had some sustainability instead of just talking to myself (although a different perspective alone wouldn’t have saved the community).

Now you may be asking why I was building new categories and assigning moderators if we didn’t have any activity on the site.  That brings me to the second (and probably biggest) problem with the forum: the purpose. When the forum was originally built, someone decided that the forum should serve as an area where members can ask “experts” their questions.  Each expert was given moderator status to their own category on the site and encouraged to respond to posts made within it.  I won’t get into all of the reasons how this set-up discouraged community growth from multiple angles, but the most obvious issues were that:

  • the forum categories were prescribed by the experts and did not grow organically;
  • the “ask the expert” model discourages peer-to-peer discussion as the expert’s word is the be-all-end-all and there is no motivation to stick around once your question has been answered;
  • the moderators/experts were all new forum members, many of whom did not take ownership over the categories that were given to them, none of whom posted in any category outside of their own; and
  • the little forum activity we had was spread out over 10+ categories.

Well no wonder we couldn’t get anyone to stick around!  Ultimately what it boiled down to was that the forum was created to serve the purposes of the company, and not for the benefit of members.

All is not lost in the world of forums, though.  There are many examples out there that do it well!  I’ll take a look at two success stories in an upcoming post.  Stay tuned for part 3 of my reflections on forums.

6 thoughts on “When Something Is Wrong with My Forum

  1. A very nice post! Close to home for me.

    I too followed a number of forums in my younger days, which eventually led me to start my own. I had some success, I am happy to say, and the forum still is flourishing, though I don’t visit it as often as I once did. I set up my forum to replace a dying forum I was visiting, convinced I could re-energize the community.

    Some of my best tactics included personally messaging users of the previous forum and convincing them to post on my new forum. The key was to fill the forum with content in order to attract new users. I also picked out highly involved users and gave them moderator and admin roles. This was crucial. One of the problem of the forums I was replacing was that it only had one administrator, which meant if he was busy (ie. not around) the forum would become stale, and no one had the power to change it.

    My aim was to make sure this was not the case on my site. I chose 2 other people who I trusted and gave them full Admin access including all the login information for the server. That way, things could carry on when I wasn’t around. This has been very successful, and the forum still continues in my current absence from it. Around 120 members log in each day.

    Some stats from my forum:
    —Totals—
    Posts: 173,191
    Threads: 9,826
    Members: 2,772
    —Averages—
    Posts per day: 97.54
    Threads per day: 5.53
    Members per day: 1.56
    Posts per member: 62.48
    Replies per thread: 16.63

    The total hits for the site since its launch in late 2007 are 8,983,851.

    Like anything else on the web, content is key. If you have a strong base of content, you will always be able to attract new members. The key is to identify which new members end up producing great content once they arrive, and showcasing that content to attract even more members. Monthly contests and other games can also foster community growth, but the focus should always be on expanding content.

  2. Sure, it’s for one of my very geeky Hobbies, Warhammer. Specifically for a faction within the game called Chaos Dwarfs. So most of our content involved people posting work in progress pictures of their projects, as well as their completed works. Contests involve people creating miniatures and entering them in a competition. We try to reward active users though a Badge system, which works fairly well. We’ve also created our own quarterly online magazine, had podcasts, and a few other things. Our news forum is also linked to a twitter account so people can follow changes on the site right from their mobile device.

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