Welcome to Trebul's (Ethical) Community Building Guide.
Some basic background information about me. I have used forums for many years and I'm still active at some that I first started out using. Out of those I have registered at some have become very popular while others become abandoned or ultimately shut down. I have 3+ years experience administering my own site(s). I list sites because at one point I had three running, I later realized that I was stretching myself too thin. I have a part time job and I go to college, so my forum is my hobby. These are my experiences that I encountered building my community, I hope they will help out fellow SMF members.Time / Dedication
Before you start your forum you should know that forming a community will take a lot of time. If you want to grow you will have to put in the effort. You will need to tend to it almost daily when you are first starting out. There might be a slight chance that you picked a booming niche and will grow quite quickly but for the majority of us it will require a lot of time invested in order to grow.Creating an Identity
Giving your site a unique identity is a great way to get started. Some might say that people have created successful sites using a default theme. I would argue that branding your site gives your community a much better chance by setting it apart and making it noticeable. This can include but is not limited to finding a custom theme
and creating a logo / banner. An often over looked part of identity is making clear what your site's purpose is. Guests may not know solely based on the url, so inform them and capture their interest.Setting Up Forum Categories
When I was starting my site I had way more categories than I have today. I quickly learned that it was easier to keep the site looking more active with less categories. For instance you have a site A
running 20 different categories versus a site B
running 5. Say you make 25 topics, A
might have 1 or 2 topics per category while site B
will have 5. Now taking a look from a guest's perspective site B
is clearly more active. So minimizing the number of categories will help make things seem more active than if spread over a huge number of categories.Increasing the Number of Posts
This is often one of the most frequently asked questions. "How do I get more posts on my forum?" or "How do I get my members to post?" We'll we will first look at some ways that I consider unethical / useless and should be avoided.
- Multiple Accounts
Some suggest that the administrator sets up a handful of accounts and posts different things under each account. This is unethical and should not be done. On top of that you risk people finding out that this was done and then your site can get a bad reputation. If your posting as yourself do your community a favor and just use one account.
- Paying for Posts
Many companies offer paid posts for cheap, seems like a great idea right? Well in reality what you often get are topics that have nothing to do with what your forum is about or topics that get recycled, i.e. were posted on multiple other forums. Again you would want to avoid any pay for post service.
- Post Exchanges
Some may not agree with this being a bad way to acquire posts but I truly think this should be avoided. I have participated in post exchanges in the past but I would pass up on them if I had to start my community again. Reasons being people only stop by for their X number of posts and when people start replying they are left hanging because the original poster is gone because they meet their quota. Also topic quality can greatly lack any interest or knowledge of the forum's topic.
- Chat Room / Shoutbox
If your site is new ditch the chat room / shoutbox. The time your members spend in the chat room could be spent building up content for your site. The chat room is a nice feature but can distract people from posting which is the purpose of having a forum. Remember permanent content is better than temporary content. If people want to chat let them chat in your Off Topic area.
Now enough with what not to do, lets focus on things that will promote a more active community without harming your reputation.
- Spelling / Grammar
I believe this should be emphasized. Make sure you are writing complete sentences using punctuation and capitals. Members expect an administrator to be professional. They don't want to see posts like "tell me what u know bout that idk what ur talking about does this make and scents". Most likely people will be put off and move on. I also try to avoid using acronyms, I will instead write them out like "in my humble opinion", "for what it's worth", etc. I find that a lot of people aren't quite familiar with them so I keep the guessing out.
- Seeding the Forum / Your Posts
When you first start off your community your posts have to be of quality and of interest. When you are writing you want to capture the readers interest so they want to respond. Some really good topics are recent news stories relating to your niche, if it's a big story you have tons of people searching the web and they could possibly turn up at your site. Controversy is also a very good way to intrigue people. Guests don't want to see that your forum's only posts are like count to 1,000,000, movies A-Z, etc. That stuff can be found at any forum. Ideally, you should have a handful of quality topics in all your forum's categories before trying to promote. Otherwise, you have a very slim chance of gaining a guest's interest.
- Your Replies
Seeing a pattern? A lot of the community building is up to you. This goes for when replying to other member's posts. You want to avoid ending the conversation, often things like "Oh, that's great!", "Thanks", etc. Take a moment and try to figure out how you can keep the conversation going. Ask for details, "Who?", "What?", "Where?", "When?", "Why?" and "How?". Obviously you would want to incorporate one of those into a better crafted response but they are great starting points.
Considering one tool you always have access to is email you should use it. You should have the registration settings set to Member Activation when people register, this way you have a confirmed way to contact them. Sure people change email over time but the majority will still use the same address.
When sending emails it should be more than "We noticed you haven't logged on since MM/DD/YY, we are still around so check us out". That sort of thing is pretty boring and gives them no reason to come back. Most likely if they receive a few of these over time they will just delete without reading.
Some things to think about when sending out an Email / Newsletter. Note improvements to the site like new features, forum categories, new looks, etc. You can highlight topics of interest. They should be ones that really stand out and make the reader want to voice their thoughts on the topic. Also you can include tips, advice, or key information pertaining to your niche.
Timing is also another important factor, good days are usually friday, saturday, and sunday. These are the days when people usually have the most free time. Also the period of time between each email should be looked at. I found a good rate is every few months, but that can vary from how active your community is. I personally wouldn't send one more frequently than once a month, but if you have interesting content you might be able to get away with sending them more often. On the other hand you also might run the risk of annoying members if you send them to frequently.
This is by far another hot question. "Where do I get more members?" or "How do I get them to sign up?" Again we will look as some good options and some that should be avoided.
This includes spamming in chat rooms, forums, youtube, facebook, myspace, etc. You might feel like this is the quickest and easiest way to get the word out on your forum. In reality you are just stabbing yourself in the back, your site will quickly build up a negative reputation.
- Hiding Content
Hiding content can hurt your community. If you completely hide the forum it will affect how your site gets indexed by search engines which can hinder where your site shows up for certain keywords. Ultimately it negatively affects traffic generated through search engines. Next it gives your guests no reason to join, they don't know if your community is active or not so most likely they will just move on to sites in your niche that allows them to view without registering.
Another way people hide content is by a set period of time or number of topics a guest views. Some people tend to lurk for a while before taking the time to join. I will let them join when they feel ready rather than cramming some pop up in their face telling them they need to join to continue viewing.
Some good options to gain those hard to get members.
- Word of Mouth / Family and Friends
By far the easiest way to gain your first batch of members is by asking friends and family to participate in your community. Even if they themselves might not be interested they probably know someone who might be interested. Spreading your site by word of mouth is great since you never know when you might hit on a really influential person, i.e. one that will refer a bunch more to your site.
- Forum Signature
This can be a very good way to gain members, but before you add one make sure it's allowed in the forum you are posting at. When doing this I found it ideal to post and be active in those communities gaining a positive reputation for myself. Avoid posting one liners just to have your signature shown. Also, they don't have to know you are the admin of the site in your signature you could just be a dedicated member.
Finding the right forums is also key. For example having your site linked in a signature at a site that is in direct competition might have your forum looked down upon by their members. But by finding something closely related or goes hand in hand with your site may yield better results.
- Flyers / Business Cards
Offline promotion is another opportunity to attract new members to your community. I'm sure you encounter people who share the same interest at one point or another either at a park, store, school / college, etc. It's a good idea to have a business card you can hand them the has your site's address as well as a brief description about it. With flyers you can go door to door and drop them off or post them in places that allow it and are frequented by people interested in your communities niche.
- Ask Your Members
Another way to gain members is through other members. Outline ways for them to help. Such as linking their website to yours, adding your url to their signature (where allowed), adding your forum to their e-mail signature, access to printable business cards / flyers, etc.
- Yahoo! Answers
Another potential place to find members for any niche is Yahoo! Answers. You have to becareful not to just post a link to your site, it will look like spam and people will report it. You want to answer the question that has been asked and refer to a specific topic / message that is the source of your answer. Sometimes you will get lucky and find people looking for a forum in your niche.
- Online classifieds
These can also be a decent source of new members, you will probably get a handful of ads removed but you will learn what works and what doesn't over time. You also don't want to spam the classifieds just post an ad every so often. Some free places to post online classified ads; Kijiji.com, Craigslist.com, and Gumtree.com. I know there are others but those are all I'm listing.
Eventually you will want some help in keeping your community in order. Honestly by the time you need moderators you should have a really good view of how your members act. Those that are always active make good candidates as are those that are always friendly and helpful. You want to choose someone who really adds to the community in a positive way. If guest sees a mod that is always negative you probably won't be to keen on joining the site. I choose my moderators by my gut feeling and it has worked out pretty well. There have been no issues that I can report on.
Once chosen I set up a Staff Only forum section, viewable only by staff. I opened up a staff section and gave them a period to test out the different forum functions and helped prepare them for what their duties actually were. Clearly, outlining these duties can help prevent abuse of their new powers.Just the basics of what I outlined:
DirectoriesWhat is a directory?
- What is discussed in the Staff area remains there.
- Set up guidelines on expected activity.
- Types of posts they may encounter i.e. Flaming, Trolling, Spam, etc.
- And rules for specific actions taken i.e. when to lock a topic, when to move a topic, etc.
A directory is a listing of numerous websites divided into many different categories. There are also some directories that focus on certain niches, for instance Pets. So before submitting your site you should see if your site qualifies. Some directories require a payment or reciprocal link (meaning a link from your site to theirs) in order for your site to be listed. Other directories have free listings. Ideal to find a directory that has free links that doesn't require a reciprocal link.Why should I submit my site to a directory?
The most important reason is to increase your site's back links, which in turn can help your site show up higher in the search engines result pages. If you submit to a niche directory you may get some traffic but usually directories won't supply you with any significant amount of traffic.A few directories to get you startedIf you want a directory added send me a pm
Another little tip about directories, some people offer a paid service to submit your site to thousands of directories, stay away from these. Most of the time your site ends up on link farms which will actually harm your site's rankings.Disclaimer: What works for Trebul may not necessarily work for you.