Forums (or community-style content blogs based on Drupal – think ThreadWatch) are a natural extension of blogs. Once your blog has a regular following and traction in your niche, forums (reader-generated content) offer the best solution for growing your brand and the community around it.
So how do you add a forum to your blog?
There are several parts of the process that you need to take care of:
- Understanding if a forum is right for your blog
- Selecting and setting up forum software
- Integrating the forum within your blog
- Promoting the forum around launch time
- Running and managing the forum
Can your blog support a forum?
Forums are notoriously hard to launch and even harder to sustain. The Internet is littered with failed forums. Having a blog’s community be part of the initial forum community can make the launch much easier and significantly raise your forum’s chances of survival.
There’s no hard and fast rule to how big a community your blog should have before the launch – but as a rule of thumb, I’d say this:
If your blog posts get lots of comments (30+ per post) and they come from a varied source, then your blog is a good candidate for launching a forum.
However, if your blog traffic overall is low (less than 5k uniques per day – approximate number, use your own judgment here), launching a forum on the back of the blog will be a bit harder.
If your blog is growing, is stable in its traffic and “getting more readers” isn’t your primary problem, then a forum is probably the right step to take your blog to the next level and help you dominate your niche.
If in doubt, just ask someone here.
I personally prefer bbPress (simple, integrates with WordPress (single login for both blog and forum) and is fast), but you have a choice between Vanilla, vbBulletin and phpBB (just to name a few). If you have a Drupal blog, forums are already integrated in the CMS.
There are pluses and minuses for both. See this discussion on Perf for more on different forum software.
Integrating the forum in your blog
Some tips for maximising forum exposure on your blog:
- Show latest forum threads in the sidebar (just like you would show recent comments / posts) and make this prominent.
- Promote the forum on every single post / page – how? You can add a line to your WP single post template that asks users to discuss posts in the forum. You can replace one of your ad blocks (let’s say the adblock that comes at the end of each post or the one at the top of the sidebar) with a graphic ad promoting the forum. Badges, link reminders, short posts covering forum discussions – any way you can hack it, promote the forum on your blog.
- Run a competition with the clues buried inside your forum. Chris Garrett used a modification of this to launch his blog and build feed subscriptions (he advertised a free report on flagship content only in his feed and promoted this fact everywhere – built up his feed subscriptions pretty fast too).
What other strategies can you suggest for integrating the forum in your blog (and making it a part of the ‘daily process’ your readers go through when they read your blog)?
Launch the forum
How you launch your forum will depend on the time you can invest in it and your budget. A big splash launch would include press releases, buying advertising on blogs and forums, doing an extended preview of the launch, etc etc.
However, there are still ways that you can launch a forum without too much time and a lot of money – the key is knowing what to focus on.
- I hope you have friends as bloggers in your niche – leverage relationships to help give exposure to your forum through other blogs (note, you might want to offer an incentive – an offer for their readers, perhaps). It pays to make friends though.
- Create linkbait in advance and publish them on the day the forum launches – then use the resulting attention and traffic and funnel it to the forum. It’s cheap, and requires some effort, but matched with your existing blogging community this tactic alone can give your forum the initial push it needs to survive.
- Pre-populate the forum with some posts and threads so that it’s not totally empty. One tactic is to email regular readers and co-bloggers and get them to ‘start’ on the forum a day or two before the actual launch. Real posts are always better than you creating 10 different IDs and posting under them.
- Building up interest in the forum in advance is a no-brainer, but instead of putting up announcements about it run a competition and give out a prize, make the competition winnable only through the forum and then promote that prize / competition everywhere. It’s been done before, but it works.
- Got some spare cash? Pay a popular blog to cover your forum – find a proper angle to suit that blogger’s audience if necessary.
What other strategies could you use to launch a forum?
Day to day management
Deserted forums, trolls and spamming are part and parcel of any forum – and for a lot of people the extra time spent managing the forum can be a significant obstacle in setting one up.
- As much as you possibly can, give the moderating tasks to your readers.
- Set out clear guidelines before you start.
- A community is usually self-sustaining once it reaches a tipping point of members. The key is to push your forum to that point as quickly as possible, and that means a) having a big enough readership / community around your blog to start with and b) to make a big splash with your launch.
There is plenty of good advice on running a forum – and the best might be this list that I’ve referred to over a dozen times in the last year:
There are bloggers out there (Paul and Darren, I’m talking to you) whose blogs are begging for forums – these blogs are niche leaders and for them a forum is simply a continuation of their brand-building process.
You might think that having a forum is not the right move for your blog.
The question isn’t about adding a forum – the question is enhancing community value. Blog comments don’t give readers the freedom to start topics and to share their knowledge the same way that forums do.
If you’re uncomfortable about forums, break the rules of how forums are run in your niche and adapt it to your blog’s needs. Put up a stripped down forum with basic functionality (like bbPress) if you’re worried about management, maintenance or have any other excuses.
Bottom line – what are you doing to build your blog’s community?