Conversations enliven communities, and forums can be great places to facilitate conversations among community members. But how do you know when it's time to add a forum to your website?
To answer that question, let's consider some examples of forums that developed around large, active online communities. We'll discuss the reasons for the forums' success and analyze how they encourage camaraderie, learning, and achievement among participants.
Purpose and value
Leo Babauta's Sea Change program provides a forum to help members "build relationships, form accountability teams, and create lasting change" in their lives. These goals follow naturally from the message of Leo's popular Zen Habits blog, which focuses on finding happiness through simple, deliberate living.
Since Babauta's blog doesn't use comments, the Sea Change forum is the principal platform through which members communicate with the greater Zen Habits community. In other words, the forum delivers value beyond the public Zen Habits content – peer-led accountability that keeps members on top of their self-improvement goals.
The lesson from the Sea Change approach is that a forum must have a specific purpose and deliver value members aren't receiving elsewhere. A forum without an underlying purpose can lead to serious problems like:
- Emptiness: The "empty room" effect occurs when your forum is visible for all to see but nobody actually uses it to engage with the community. There are few posts, virtually no active conversations, and nobody knows what to talk about.
- Lost credibility: A byproduct of the empty room effect, an inactive forum can call your credibility into question. Members will wonder whether you knew what you were doing when you implemented the forum.
- Lost members: If members don't feel they're receiving value from your forum, they might rethink their member commitments.
To avoid those outcomes, think about why you're adding a forum to your site. Does it introduce additional value to members? If so, is it clear what that value is? Provide a new way for members to realize, through conversations with others, the goals your blog already encourages them to achieve. Then communicate that purpose to your members.
The right tool
Besides expressing a clear purpose and delivering fresh value to members, a forum needs to help you achieve what no other digital communication tool can. At School of Scratch, a music education program for budding turntablists, the member forum does precisely that by adding a layer of communication not present in other conversation-enabling tools.
Unlike Zen Habits, the popular website from which School of Scratch was born allows comments on its public blog. Subscribers, therefore, already have a place where they can converse with one another about scratching. The thing is, the blog is dedicated to scratching tips. It isn't a place where enthusiasts can discuss technique and motivate one another.
It's for this latter purpose that the forum shines. Since blog comments aren't the most effective way for community members to encourage one another to achieve new scratching goals, the forum facilitates those kinds of conversations.
If you're thinking about adding a member forum, determine beforehand whether a forum really is the right tool. In School of Scratch's case, existing tools didn't cut it and a forum made sense for the community. Frustration with existing communication tools is a good sign it's time for a forum. But if you're not experiencing that frustration, consider how another tool – blog comments, for instance – might encourage engagement among your members.
As a forum administrator, you will be actively monitoring and moderating posts. Depending on the nature of your forum, you might be publishing entries and responding to questions from members as well. Are you ready to commit to these new responsibilities?
Consider Mark Lauren, who oversees a forum where community participants motivate one another to lose weight, build strength, and improve physical health through bodyweight exercises. Lauren is very active in the forum. He congratulates participants who achieve their goals, chimes in when questions are asked, and thanks people for praising his strength training programs.
You may not need to contribute to your forum in such a direct way, but what if your forum's purpose calls for it? Mark Lauren is a busy bestselling author who speaks about strength training on television and produces slick exercise videos, yet he still makes time to participate in his community forum. Before introducing a forum to your community, consider whether you will need to:
- use the forum to answer members' questions: Even if you don't invite members to engage with you directly, any presence you maintain on the forum could oblige them to do. You might have no choice but to keep up with conversations and respond in kind, which can be time-consuming.
- invite members to engage with you: If you do plan to take questions from your members, remember that you might create a lot of additional work for yourself.
- enter the conversation at a later time: What if some members are providing erroneous advice to others? You might feel compelled to set the record straight, which is fine, but be sure you're ready to be a teacher in addition to a forum moderator.
Regardless of the extent to which you take part in forum conversations, maintaining a forum takes lots of work. Only introduce one if you're ready for the commitment. When you are, facilitating forum conversations will be a rewarding experience.
Putting community first
Forums are fantastic tools for encouraging discussions around a central theme. They can help your members form relationships, motivate one other to achieve goals, and learn new skills.
Just be sure it's the right time to introduce a forum and that it's the right tool for what you want to accomplish. A forum should have a specific purpose and provide value to your members. What's more, you should be ready for the commitment required to maintain it. If you're wondering how to get started with forums, here are some tools to check out:
- Discourse: Robust and professional discussion forum software featuring powerful conversations and dynamic notifications.
- bbPress: An open source forum for WordPress users, bbPress is a simple, cost-effective way to introduce a member forum.
Remember: the tools themselves matter much less than how you use them. A forum should be about your community. Make sure that's your focus, and any of these options should serve you well.