Forums and online communities have become a crucial part of the internet landscape. With the rise of social media, more and more people are looking to connect with others who share their interests and passions. This has led to an explosion in the popularity of online forums and communities. For organizations and businesses looking to build an engaged following, having a thriving online community can provide immense value. However, building a successful online community requires careful planning and the right technology platform. In this guide, we will explore best practices for building engaging online communities, the key features to look for in forum hosting platforms, and tips for cultivating participation and membership growth.
Why Forums and Online Communities Matter
Forums and online communities serve several important purposes:
- Fostering connections between people with shared interests. Online communities allow people to find others who are passionate about the same topics, from niche hobbies to major lifestyle interests. This facilitates friendship, collaboration, and sharing of ideas.
- Allowing for crowdsourced knowledge. Active forums contain a wealth of user-generated information. Members can get their questions answered by fellow community members who may have extensive experience on a topic.
- Providing support and advice. Forum members can provide each other with moral support, practical advice, and new perspectives on issues they may be facing. This provides value to people seeking help and solutions.
- Generating influencer followings. For companies, online brand communities can organically grow followings of loyal, engaged customers who become influencers and advocates.
- Driving engagement and website traffic. Forums provide built-in user engagement that can also drive website traffic and introduce new audiences to brands and organizations.
With so many potential benefits, it is clear why forums and online communities have become must-have assets for brands and organizations across industries.
Choosing the Right Forum Software
The foundation of any successful online community is the underlying forum software and technology platform. This software provides the features and functionality to manage members, discussions, and every other aspect of operating an online community. For small forums, simple free platforms may suffice, but for larger communities more advanced tools and capabilities are required. When evaluating forum software, here are some key factors to look for:
- User management – Ability to easily add new members, set permission levels, ban or suspend problematic users if necessary.
- Discussion moderation – Powerful tools to manage conversations, block spam, highlight quality threads, and delete unwanted content.
- Analytics – Usage statistics, trends, and metrics to see what types of discussions and topics are resonating most.
- Mobile optimization – For on-the-go access, forum software should be mobile-friendly or have a dedicated mobile app.
- Customization – Options to tailor the look/feel, branding, structure, and features to align with your community’s needs.
- Search – Helps members easily find information and reduces redundant posts. Search should index content, topics, profiles.
- Multimedia – Support for images, GIFs, videos, and other media to liven up discussions.
- Integrations – Platforms like SMTP email services, analytics software, single sign-on, and bots.
- Security – Must have robust security against hackers, spammers, malware, DDOS attacks, and trolls. Backups are also a must.
The ideal forum software balances powerful community management and utility with an intuitive, user-friendly experience. Getting hands-on with trial versions of different platforms is recommended to find the best fit.
Designing Forums for Engagement
Once the underlying forum software is selected, the next step is to thoughtfully design the forums to drive high engagement and vibrant member participation. Some best practices include:
- Organizing forums into logical sub-communities and topics – Too broad is difficult to navigate, too granular also causes issues. Get the structure right from the start.
- Allow open discussions alongside categories for advice, help, introductions etc. The mix fuels participation.
- Intuitive, consistent layout and navigation – Members should instantly feel comfortable finding where to go.
- Strong visual design – While forums are text-based, good graphic design improves experience and brand image.
- Post templates providing structure – Templates for starting discussions or asking questions foster organized, focused conversations.
- Gamification features – Awards, reputation points, badges, rankings and more can incentivize engagement.
- Polls, surveys, trackers – Interactive elements allow members to share opinions and give feedback.
- Easy rich text posting – Formatting like bold, lists, quotes etc. allows self-expression and readable posts.
- Multimedia embedding – The ability to embed visual content can enhance conversations.
- Tagging – Help members filter and find related content.
The goal is to remove any friction points in posting, navigating, and participating, while providing avenues for members to feel rewarded and recognized.
Promoting Forums and Building Membership
Once built, the next crucial task is driving people to the online community and converting them into engaged members. Some key promotional tactics include:
- Launch marketing campaign – Run ads, send emails, leverage social media, and any other channels to spread awareness on launch.
- Position forums prominently – Embed or link to forums from high traffic areas of your website like headers and footers.
- Invite influencers – Reach out to key voices in the industry or topic and invite them to check out the community. Their involvement attracts followers.
- Promote new activity – Share discussion highlights, popular threads, and new posts on social media channels to showcase community.
- Reward referrals – Providing bonuses or perks for members who refer their friends incentivizes organic growth.
- Host contests and giveaways – Run promotions that encourage new sign ups to the community.
- Send update emails – Regular emails updating members on new discussions and activity fosters engagement.
- Analyze and optimize – Use analytics data to see which strategies are working best and double down on those areas.
- Be patient – Communities take time to develop. Stay focused on providing value to members rather than getting caught up in the numbers game.
The companies that take a creative, multi-pronged approach to promoting their forums reap the benefits with thriving, vibrant online communities.
Setting the Tone Through Moderation
Assuming the forum software provides the needed moderation tools, the human side of moderation is just as crucial for healthy forums. The goals of moderation include:
- Maintaining civility – Don’t tolerate trolls, bullying, or discrimination. Set the expectation for kindness.
- Enforcing guidelines – Ensure members understand and follow community rules. When needed, delete posts or even ban members who repeatedly violate policies.
- Reducing spam – Spot and delete obvious spam advertising posts and accounts. Consider enabling CAPTCHA.
- Promoting high quality discussions – Highlight standout posts. Gently nudge repetitive or low value conversations in more constructive directions.
- Motivating engagement – Thank members for contributions, answer questions, and participate yourself to set the model.
- Resolving conflicts – If disagreements arise, step in impartially to de-escalate tensions and remind members to disagree politely.
- Gathering feedback – Keep pulse on how members feel about the community and act on suggestions for improvement.
- Providing mentorship – Take new members under your wing and show them the ropes to help them get comfortable engaging.
The time invested into moderation pays dividends in the quality and consistency of discussions. Members will come to rely on moderators to preserve the forum environment.
Fostering a Sense of Community
Beyond the forums themselves, members should feel a broader sense of community. Some ways to achieve this include:
- Creating member profiles – Enable members to share about themselves and customize profiles adds personality.
- Building connections – Consider friending, followers, testimonials, or other ways for members to link up.
- Supporting off topic areas – While maintaining focus, some off topic forums for casual chat can strengthen relationships.
- Planning in-person meetups – Online relationships can carry over into real-world hangouts, meetups, and events.
- Recognizing standouts – Identify valued contributors and influential members to showcase as community heroes.
- Facilitating teams and groups – Enable members to assemble into smaller teams and groups within the broader community.
- Giving back – Sponsor volunteer opportunities, donations, social causes to bring members together around meaningful efforts.
- Creating rituals – Community “inside jokes”, holidays, special projects, etc. build shared identity and bonding.
- Spotlighting members – Curate and share member content, profiles and creations to distribute “fame”.
By moving beyond the forums into wider community building activities, members gain a more enriching, multifaceted experience. The community becomes not just a place to discuss an interest, but a welcoming second home.
For organizations seeking to foster engagement and loyalty, forums and online communities should play a central role in the digital strategy. By selecting flexible software, designing for engagement, promoting effectively, moderating thoughtfully, and facilitating bonds between members, organizations can build invaluable communities where their biggest fans gather. Get the basics right, provide consistent support, and let the community take on a life of its own. The resulting forum will become a hub of meaningful conversations, relationships, and idea exchange that keeps members enthusiastically engaged over the long-term.