Web forums have somewhat fallen by the wayside with the advent of social media, but they haven’t died off completely. Quite the contrary; they have simply become inclusive, tight-knit communities centered around common interests. On Facebook you can have a wide net of social acquaintances. On Twitter you can build a community of people with similar senses of humor and interest. On LinkedIn you can build a professional network. It’s all based around social aspects and similarities.
On forums, you have widely disparate people who might never otherwise have met, associating around a central core interest. You can have people from around the world, of all ages, posting together simply because they all like the same thing.
Reddit, for example, is a huge web forum with a somewhat exotic way of displaying content. Various subreddits bring together players of specific games, fans of specific TV shows, workers in specific industries, and hobbiests of all kinds. You can think of other web forums as individual subreddits, in a sense. Bodybuilding.com has a massive forum full of people, with over 13 million members, but they’re all brought together by a shared interest in health and fitness. Gaia Online has 26 million members and over 2 billion posts on the board, all centered around various forms of teenage nerddom, from gaming and RP to TV and crafts.
Of course, not every forum is a Reddit or a Gaia. Most forums measure their users in hundreds rather than millions, and end up getting only a handful of posts per day. They have trouble attracting new users, because it’s hard to advertise a community as something worth joining when so many broad spectrum social networks already exist. With the demands on everyone’s time and the lack of immediate value to give, how do you convince users to join your forum and, more importantly, participate?
1. Create a New User Onboarding Campaign
On pretty much every forum software ever made, users have to register via an email address. This means you can add in a mailing list drip campaign to give them some introductory information, welcoming messages, and some additional value.
What should go into this campaign? That depends on your forum. The number one thing is to be topical and casual, as if you’re reaching out to the user to help them get used to the site. This will help them feel more comfortable and at home. If you can explain some board rules – including social cues they might not be able to pick up from a casual browse – you can make their transition from new registrant to active user much smoother.
Ideally, you will point out a few locations on the board they can go for certain types of information. Tell them where they can go for a tutorial, where they can find discussions on various topics, and how they can participate. You want to inform them of how they can get value out of your forum, and where they can go to bring value in.
If you have a novice-centric section area for Q&A and newbie questions, promote it. Likewise, if you or any other admin or moderator is willing to chat one on one for informational purposes, include their contact information in the email. It helps anyone who may have questions know where to go to get answers.
2. Encourage Participation and Sharing
Bodybuilding’s forum is great about this one, but it can also apply to any topic that has a growth over time metric that can be measured. Using weight loss as an example, encourage people to post their progress logs. Establish a protocol; make a post with your basic information and various metrics that should be monitored for progress, like weight, muscle mass, weight lifting capabilities, diet, and so forth. Then set up daily or weekly progress reports, where the user can come in and post about their experience that day or week, and how their numbers have changed.
Take the same concept and apply it to business; you can have weekly traffic stats, revenue, SEO strategies, and so forth. It’s all case study data and it’s all tangible progress.
The best part is that this has a wide range of benefits. It helps new users have something to do and some reason to return – to keep updating their logs. It helps hold them accountable for their mistakes and helps crowdsource improvements. It brings a community in to participate in making everyone’s life better.
3. Be Active and Helpful Personally
As the owner and admin of the forum, you are in a position of authority. You’re a big part of the reason people have come to the forum. Communities these days tend to gain respect because of the people in them. Jon Loomer’s Power Hitter’s Club is one such example; it’s a potent community with a few things making it attractive, but one of those is that it’s filled to the brim with influential people.
People will come to this community for many reasons. Some will come looking for help or for advice. Many will come to engage with and network with influencers, and as the owner of the community, you are one such influencer. People perceive that your attention has value, and that means you’re going to have people vying for your attention.
If you’re not around, if you never post, people will lose faith. They came to interact with you and other influencers, but if you’re not around, they feel like they get less value out of posting on your board. The more you can participate, the more people will be willing to stick around and engage with you.
4. Promote Users
You can also give tangible incentives to your users. One thing I like to do is create a promotional section. Usually forums tell their users that they can’t just use the forum as advertising, as a way of minimizing how many people drop in to post a promotional message and leave.
By creating a promotional section, people can be attracted by the potential to leave their marketing message there and gain users from your forum. I like to gate it behind a certain number of posts, so users have to participate before they gain access to the benefits.
Then, in addition to allowing users to promote themselves to each other, I like to establish a weekly or monthly rotation of site-wide promotion. Depending on the activity of the forum, pick a user whose business you want to promote for the week or the month, and promote it. You can make a sticky thread, you can post about it on your site, and so forth. It’s free advertising for your users, and it comes with engagement on your board as an entry fee. This gives your users a chance to be hooked.
5. Hide Value from Guests
I know I’ve registered for many a forum in my day just to see content that I know exists but that is hidden from guests. I needed to register in order to see it, but it was referenced in external sites – blogs and other forums, mostly – so I knew it was there.
The problem with this is that it’s an incentive to register, but not an incentive to post. You still need to combine this method with other tricks to get people to do more than just look at the one bit of content they wanted to see before they go away. Usually, a weekly content digest to their email can help keep them coming back to see interesting things, and that can get them to comment and eventually become an active participant.
The caveat here is that you cannot hide ALL of the value of your forum away from people. If no one knows there’s value there, no one will be interested in registering just for a look. You need some publicly visible sections with value and activity, so people don’t have to gamble their time on value.
6. Use Your Forum For Value
Once your forum has been built up, you can draw from it for value to your own site, which will often be value to the people you’re drawing from as well. When a user has successfully used your community to grow a business and recorded the logs for all to see, you can take advantage of it by writing a case study about their business to post on your blog. You can contact them for an interview, you can provide followed links to their site, and you can in general benefit them and get yourself valuable site content in the process.
This has the added benefit of getting you a link in return, most likely, as well as promoting your forum. People will see the public success story and realize that they, too, can join the community and start the process to reaching success.
7. Gamify the Board
There are a lot of different ways you can add gamification to your site. Gaia Online goes all out with flash-based minigames, monthly events, and a whole avatar dressup system that appeals strongly to younger folks. For more matured, laid back groups, you can do something like add custom user titles for reaching posting milestones, add posting and activity-based achievements, and have badges for users that they can publicly display. Heck, even Reddit and Imgur have these sorts of trophies for participation.
Now, you can only pull this off if your forum is a somewhat casual experience. If you’re a top-end professional board for corporate types, you probably won’t be able to add silly games on top of what is supposed to be serious discussion. Use your best judgment and don’t be afraid to decide a program was a failure and should be retired.
8. Actively Moderate Your Forum
Nothing is worse than coming across a forum and seeing very little other than recent spam posts. If your board allows bots access somehow, or if old accounts are compromised, bots can take over and spam it. If you don’t actively take care of it, you’ll lose users and it will be virtually impossible to recover.
Moderation is important for more than just spam, however. You also need to keep slapfights between users to a minimum, keep hate speech and other such vulgarities down, and generally make sure your board is a pleasant place to read. Arguments and discussions are fine; insults, threats, and doxing are not.
9. Prune and Add Boards
A lot of times, communities will evolve over time. Reddit is perhaps one of the most active about adding new boards, because any user with sufficient karma can add a new subreddit. Other boards are active about removing old, dead discussion areas and adding new ones.
The idea is simple. If a sub-section of your forum gets no activity, it’s not drawing in users. You might as well hide it or move it to an archive, if there’s valuable content in it, so that it’s not giving people a false impression. Meanwhile, you should be opening up new discussion areas for topics that are emerging as hot topics and trends. This helps foster new discussion and draw in new users.
10. Start a Referral Program
Referral programs are one of the oldest and most effective ways to get new users to a community. By giving people incentives to get new users in, you get a larger community and a more engaged community. It can also tie into the gamification, if you decide to go that route, or it can simple result in monetary incentives by way of monthly gift card drawings or merch.
You’re going to have to confront the problem of fraud, however. It’s difficult to determine when a referral is real, which is one of the big problems with affiliate marketing. The better the incentive to referrers, the more you will have to combat fraud. I’ll leave the solution to that up to you.