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.
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.