Salvador Briggman is the founder of CrowdCrux.com, KickstarterForum.org, and he writes on his personal blog about startups, technology, and marketing. You can find him on twitter here. He recently wrote about his experience building up a forum to 2,000 users and expanded on it in this article. So, how to build an online forum community?
Step 1: Pick a niche interest.
This is the most important step. More important than the domain name or your logo. It’s going to determine the size of the community you will be able to create, and how active or engaged your members will be.
At the end of the day, the members are going to come to your website to discuss news, share tips/stories, learn, and to look for answers to their own questions. All this activity happens around a topic that interests all the members. One great way to get a feel for how popular a topic is becoming is to use google trends or browse the social bookmarking websites I talked about in my social media guide for entrepreneurs.
When selecting the subject matter that the community will form around below, be sure to avoid the following mistakes:
1. Don’t re-invent the wheel.
If there is already a healthy community formed around the topic (example: internet marketing), then it’s going to be more difficult to break into the space if you are essentially offering the same forum.
Either pick a segment of a larger community to focus on, a unique platform (like a LinkedIn group), or offer 10x the amount of value that the existing community offers. It’s not enough to simple be 20% better than the existing community.
2. Don’t force ducks to come together one by one, find out where the flock is already at.
Ironically, when you are “building a community,” the best approach is to seek out a group of people that have common interests and goals already and make it your job to give them the forum to interact and to lead the discussion.
For example: If you notice that a lot of people were becoming super excited about a particular new technology (3D Printing?), leading to posts on Reddit, comments, new blogs, and new social media accounts dedicated to the technology, then this is a good indication that a community is beginning to forum. If you give them the platform to interact, all you have to do is point them where to have their conversations.
This is a more economical approach than trying to first get people excited about a topic and then trying to convince them to interact in your online community
3. Avoid complicated names, and consider the SEO value
It’s always easiest to build a forum or online community around a growing topic, where few other communities exist. If you can claim a domain name that is hyper relevant to your topic and also ties into what users may be typing into google, the this is a good way to get some initial SEO traction.
For example: “BitCoinForum.com” or “BitCoinCommunity.com” When users type “forum for bit coin” or “bitcoin community” into google, these domain names will naturally rank hire than an obscure name like “Laymentix.”
Above all, the name should be easy to pronounce, the domain name should be available, and the full name should not be trademarked or copyrighted.
Step 2: Set up the community, creative incentives, and start marketing.
I use phpBB for KickstarterForum.org along with a premium theme, but you can also use vBulletin. If you’re creating a social media group, then the step will likely only take a few minutes, and as an added bonus, you can invite your friends to the group who are already on the social platform.
Once you set up the board, I’d recommend starting off with 1 or 2 general sub forums or topic areas (general thread, questions, or industry news). Start filling it with your own content and linking to bloggers and journalists in the industry. Later, you can reach out to those bloggers and tell them that you are promoting their content and ask for a mention on their website or on their social media profiles.
It’s a mistake to get started with too many sections, as it will take a long time before they are all filled with posts. Concentrate and one or two and build them up, then slowly add more discussion sections.
You now need to start thinking about incentives. What benefits and values can you offer new members besides content? For example, I do free twitter promotions on my forum to give users some exposure for their business. You could also give people free advertising (banners or make their topics sticky) in exchange for coming on each day and adding posts.
Some people do create fake user accounts to simulate discussions when they are just starting out, but I’ve never done this and think that time spent getting real users is more valuable.
Finally, it’s time to start marketing the forum on social media. I’ve already written about how to build up a twitter following and how to research an online community.
Step 3: Brace yourself for the long haul
Building any kind of online community is not easy and takes consistent hard work. It will likely take you at least 6 months before you begin seeing encouraging results and a year before you know definitively whether or not it’s a worthwhile project. Check out my results for the end of year one.
During this time, you should be conducting trial and error tests, learning the best marketing channels, and paying super vigilant attention to your google analytics. Every community is different and there is no one standard template.
If you want one golden rule, I’d have to say it’s “Be useful consistently.” Good luck! Drop me a line if you have any questions or leave a comment below.