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How to make a forum that drives business success

In the constantly evolving world of modern technology, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that the humble online forum has been with us for almost four decades. Long before English scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, technology enthusiasts would turn to bulletin boards, which formed the foundations of the Internet we know today. These forums or boards were simple applications for managing user-generated content in much the same way that modern forums work.

Onward to 2019, and online forums have, in many areas, been superseded by the mainstream social networks which themselves grew from bulletin board systems. Today, however, live community forums are making a rapid comeback as the public grows tired of the constant noise and lack of privacy on social media. Unlike typical social media groups and pages with their thousands of disengaged followers, forums provide the means to build a more involved community where genuine engagement and meaningful human connections can thrive.

Today, many brands are trying to discover how to make a forum that can turn their customer bases into engaged and close-knit communities where loyalty thrives through shared interests and real relationships. It’s not easy though. There’s a natural tendency for new forums to start strong before eventually fizzling out as excitement wanes with time. It’s happened with many once thriving online communities, including both social networks and major online forums, but it’s not necessarily the fault of the technology.

People laughing gathered around a laptop

Build a community, not a forum

Forums are communities aren’t interchangeable terms. A forum is simply the medium, a way for people to come together as a community. You can’t expect to build a thriving community simply by installing a platform like phpBB or MyBB on your website and hoping to attract new members. Rather, you need to think about your community. It’s about people, not just forum software and other tools. That’s why your goal should be to create a strong community by identifying and speaking to the needs of your target audience.

While forum software, social networks and mobile community apps give people the means to connect to one another, you need to them something to talk about in the first place, a sense of purpose if you will. If you don’t, all you’ll end up with is a digital ghost town, which will only become a liability, potentially damaging your brand. To get people to participate, you’ll need to give them some incentive. Show them why it’s important and what’s in it for them. A brand community might, for example, exist to provide customer support or a space for feedback. You need to convey your value proposition as such that people can instantly see the benefit of joining.

Naturally, giving your community access to the right tools is important, but to ensure they get the value you’re promising them, you’ll need some kind of onboarding process. One option is to create a brief video introducing the main features of your forum as well as the benefits new members can enjoy by signing up. If, for example, your business sells courses or consulting services, a forum might serve as a space for clients to share their ideas and experiences and, in doing so, feel encouraged to spend more. If that’s the path you ultimately want your members to take, then your onboarding process needs to align with it.

Above all, people must feel like being a member of your community is worth their while. Too many brands make the mistake of installing forum software and hoping the community will just look after itself. That’s not going to happen, particularly in the beginning. When a new member posts a question in the forum and never receives a reply, they’ll start feeling like they’re being ignored. At least until you have top contributors in your community, the responsibility to keep drive the conversation falls entirely to you.

People sitting together on bean bags

Make it easy for people to get involved

Patience is thin in an age when people expect almost instantaneous gratification. While they treasure relationships, and strong brand communities are among the most powerful marketing assets of all, a poor user experience will put people off in droves. No matter how committed you are to your community, no one wants to wade through oppressive sign-up processes or spend hours trying to become familiar with your platform. In fact, it’s the instant familiarity of the major social networks that keeps people involved.

To make your value proposition clear, you need to ensure your brand community is at least as accessible and user-friendly as mainstream social networks. You need to be present where your members are and provide a modern user experience to bring your community closer together. Save for a few niche environments, that’s not likely to happen if you’re relying solely on a conventional bulletin board. The problem with many of these platforms is that they normally don’t offer an optimal experience on the small screen, which is what most people are using today.

Community media has evolved far beyond the clunky controls and typically text-heavy content of dated forum software. The user experience on mainstream social media is far from perfect too, as people and brands struggle to make meaningful connections through all the noise. To make your community as accessible as possible, it needs to align with the preferences of your target audience and the priorities of your business. That means you need a customised menu structure and feature set that delivers upon your value proposition rather than gets in the way of it.

A brand community is all about bringing members together by giving them something to talk about and the tools they need to share content of their own and communicate with each other. For many audiences, and particularly where mobile-first communities are concerned, it’s wise to give precedence to multimedia posts over text-heavy content. Members should also be able to add friends, subscribe to feeds, search by hashtags, and send private messages all at the tap of a button. The same applies to an even greater extent if you monetise your community.

Member list and profiles from the Community Hub with customer insights

Manage your members to drive lasting success

Actively engaging your members, and giving them the tools they need to do the same, is only half the battle. When you’re learning how to make a forum or any other community, you also need to think about the administration side of things. A brand community provides access to customer insights on a level that’s practically impossible to achieve by any other means, but it’s going to take some extra work to turn those insights into actionable information. There’s also the persistent challenge of moderating your community to keep it healthy and stop less desirable elements from taking over.

To understand your community, you need to actively monitor your members’ behaviour. You need a way to instantly identify the most active members, the most popular posts and audience demographics. By learning more about your community, you’ll be able to continually improve it and locate any bottlenecks that might be hindering member involvement or, worse, getting people to leave. By identifying your most valuable members, you’ll be able to reward them with recognition for their efforts and perhaps even give them a role in moderating your community.

While general metrics like monthly active user and new subscriber counts can provide insights into the overall health of your community, you can also collect valuable information simply by asking your members. Adding the ability to create polls, for example, presents a great way to learn more about the needs, desires and pain points of your members. Members will also feel appreciated when you’re proactively asking them to share their opinions, and therein lies the whole purpose of a brand community – to inspire conversations that drive both brand and customer success.

Disciple community management platform helps people build independent, valuable and trusted communities in a safe space that they own and control. 

Mike Harrower in
6 min read

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Mike Harrower in Community building
Mike Harrower in
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