A Quick Guide to Web Forums That Work
by Maria Schneider
December 19, 2008

The biggest mistake when launching an online forum is thinking “if you build it they will come.”

Let’s face it: Simply putting a forum on your site without any more energy on your part is like throwing a party you don’t show up for. If you’re not going to show up for your own party, why should anyone else?

A forum can be the most welcoming, interactive and useful part of your site if you’re willing to really get in there and really work it. In fact, a forum can become your No. 1 traffic generator and give you the kind of built-in devoted audience that companies would kill for.

It’s not about having the most up-to-date software, although having nice digs helps. A great forum is all about the people who frequent it and the quality of the connections and information they can find there.

I just launched my new writers’ forum two months ago, but before that I ran a vibrant forum for the magazine I edited. The forums scared me at first—it felt like herding cats. But once I figured it all out, running the forum became one of my favorite parts of the job.

There are plenty of places you can get software advice so I’m going to focus on the all-important people factor. Here are a few of the lessons that I’ve learned about how to be a good forum host.

1. Show up! Being there on a regular basis is crucial to forum success. Your daily presence sends a strong signal to your audience. If it’s not worth your time to hang out and chat in your own online community, why should other people waste their time?

Just accept that your forum will be pretty quiet at the beginning. I think all bloggers already know that “shouting into the wind” feeling that marks the early days of a blog. But consider that a challenge to be your most interesting, charming and compelling.

Push through those slow early days and actively encourage conversation. Create conversation starters that riff off of your blog posts. You know what your readers want to learn and talk about so post those relevant topics on your forum. You’re not taking anything away from your blog—you’re adding to it by enabling a richer, more meaningful conversation.

2. Invite a few good friends. One of your first posts should be asking for volunteer moderators. Your early volunteers will likely come from your community of blog readers who are also passionate about your subject matter.

Moderators are essential to your forum’s success. Your moderators spur conversation in the quiet early days. They delete spam and play defense against hot tempers. You can’t be on the forum 24/7 so let go of the reins a bit and trust your moderators to keep things running smoothly when you’re not there.

3. Set the tone. Honestly, it helps if you’re a patient, even-keeled personality type. If you’re not, well, you’ll get a lot of practice with a forum. You do have to mitigate arguments, calm down hostility, rein in dominant types, and practice the art of diplomacy.

It’s up to you, as the owner of the forum, to set the tone for what won’t fly on your board. Establish your standards early on about profanity, obscenity and flaming. You have to let people know what kind of decorum you expect on your board. And if they don’t live up to that standard, you have to be willing to show bad guests the door.

4. Put your guests first. The question you should always be asking yourself when you’re running a forum is: How can I be of use?

If you’re running a good forum, you’re offering members a part of you—much more so than with a blog. But what you can get in return—trust, dedication, loyalty—you can’t buy these things.

Your work on a forum can give you the kind of platform that will translate into sales of your book, your services, or whatever it is you have to offer.

So be a good host and you’ll be surprised at how much your guests really do appreciate all the trouble you’ve gone to.

About the Author: Maria Schneider is a freelance writer and editor who blogs about writing and publishing.