Towards the end of last year there started a growing trend. More blogs were adding community features such as MyBlogLog or forums to their offering. Some had off-site forums, such as Flickr, others such as Darrens Digital-Photography-School and the mighty Techcrunch chose full forum software.
Blogs are a great focal point for ideas and with comments there is some opportunity for conversation. Real vibrant exchanges require a bit more. Firstly people need to be able to start their own threads, blogs tend to be “I speak then you reply”. Second with forum software people can contact each other and make connections reader to reader using your community as a conduit but not necessarily as a venue.
Early on in the life of Performancing it became obvious we would build a community. While there are arguments in favour of running a traditional blog the amount of feedback and conversation you can get with free-form discussion threads provide real win-win benefits for you and your readers. We quickly saw the fruits of this strategy. Many ideas were generated in the forum and I know one or two business ventures were launched between members who hooked up through forum posts and private messages. If two heads are better than one, how about a few thousand? Heh.
In terms of financial benefits there are few factors in forums favour. Advertising is perhaps least successful on forum threads. People after a while tend to read posts and forget advertising is even there. Clicks tend to come from random search engine drop-ins. On the plus side you get a ton of those search engine visitors because of the natural language people use to title their threads, language that tends to match what people will be looking for in their searches.
For a community to work you have to put the time in. With a blog you can on occasion get away with putting your stuff out there and forgetting about it. Forums run 24/7 on your members schedule. While you are sleeping someone could be posting (good or bad). Sometimes you will wake up to some brilliant discussion that makes you proud you started the site, on others you will have the online equivalent of graffiti or see the devastation a troll has wrought. This means you should not launch a forum lightly.
While at times a community is hard work it can also be the most rewarding effort you can put into the web. Let’s not forget that when we use the word “community” we really mean a group of people. I have heard before you get the community you deserve. Perhaps we did something right, the Performancing community is great! I think it’s safe to say there are members here I can now call friends.
It feels to me like the start of a turning point where some larger blogs will change from being “just” blogs into larger properties with blogs as one aspect of a wider offering. See again as well as Performancing, Techcrunch with their job board as well as the already mentioned forum.
Darren provided a list of lessons he learned from launching his forum over at Problogger. Here are a few of my additional thoughts.
- Size matters – start small, it is better to grow to encompass every topic in your niche organically rather than try to cover everything from day one and have empty areas. Just like a restaurant window people will look to see if the place is busy or a ghost town. Best to not give the wrong impression. Also with too many choices people make no choice. Should my post go in “Misc, foo, water-bound-mammals or animal dentistry? Oh forget it…”
- Encourage and lead but with a light touch – forums need active participation and leadership. Start threads, give ideas, encourage people, show gratitude. You need to balance engagement with the community with being over-zealous. It’s not all about you and for better or worse the community decides what shape it will eventually take.
- Monitor the atmosphere – there is nothing worse than a budding community that turns sour. Too many communities go this way unfortunately. Things to look out for:
- Trolls – they are there to make trouble, don’t feed the troll and encourage others to leave them alone also. Trolls wither and die without attention.
- Flamers – banter and to and fro is all good, but watch out for comments with a harsh edge. Sometimes this stuff is well-intentioned, such as people saying “RTFM”, but it leaves people feeling bad. If this grows you get a bad reputation as a forum, people do not separate the individuals from the venue. Make sure your community is a place where people feel comfortable asking questions and not risk getting their heads shot off. Think about it this way, even if a question is old to the long term members, it might not be to the new guys and easy answers allow anyone to answer a question making both feel more involved.
- Cliques – after your community grows closer you get in-jokes and cliques forming. This, while being nice and cosy for the old-hands, stunts the growth of the forum because people feel less welcome and have the hurdle of all the shorthand and incomprehensible “funnies” to contend with. Make sure you make a point to really welcome people and perhaps have a FAQ specifically mentioning all the odd community idiosyncrasies.
- Intolerance – haters tend to be trolls but there are occasions where otherwise nice individuals will have a chip on their shoulders about a certain type of member or opinion. Like when religion or politics crops up in an otherwise unrelated discussion, or when brand-allegiance becomes them-and-us. Sometimes even intolerance against new members (I stopped visiting an otherwise great group on Flickr because of the “this place was a lot better when there was only NN of us” threads). Have a zero-tolerance rule for intolerance, heh.
If you feel inspired to start a forum for your
blog look into your hosting control panel. Many provide forum or
bulletin board software as part of the one click installs facility. Forums though I think are just the start, I fully expect blog based communities to grow in ways I couldn’t possibly predict.
Know of any blog based communities I have missed or started your own? Let me know in the comments …