How to Start an Online Forum
Let's start with a light dose of honesty: building a successful forum doesn't happen overnight. It takes time and a fair amount of focused effort. However, when built with care and foresight, online discussion forums can develop into large, vibrant communities with members contributing amazing content on a pretty regular basis. Moreover, as a forum community's membership and content grows, the value of the forum grows exponentially to both the owner and its members.
To get this project started, you'll benefit by having a clear plan laid out for each step of the process. For this illustration, we're going to assume a very limited budget where most tasks, if not all, will be performed by you. The steps you may consider mapping out are as follows:
- software selection
- finding a host
- setup & configuration
- content creation
- forum customization
- forum marketing
To begin, you'll need to choose a software solution for your forum. While building an online discussion community can be an empowering experience, it can also get unnecessarily complicated. How complicated will depend largely on the software you choose. Assuming we're working with a tight budget, there are basically two options; either use "open-source" forum software that will still require installation, configuring and hosting, or, find a reputable free forum hosting service.
The most popular open-source software applications are probably phpBB and MyBB; SMF also deserves a mention. While these are excellent products with a wide variety of designs and options, the fact remains they must be downloaded, installed, hosted and configured before you can even use them.
Keep in mind, with limited resources, the key to building a successful forum is to stay focused on the most productive tasks. If you're more interested in building a thriving community than sharpening your programming skills, then a reliable, free forum hosting service is the more practical choice.
The primary benefit of using a free forum hosting service is that all the business of managing, updating and securing the forum is done for you. You'll never have to deal with database issues, security issues, debugging issues, hosting fees, etc. Moreover, in choosing a forum hosting service, the "setup & configuration" responsibilities mentioned above will largely be reduced to making a few customization tweaks to your new forum.
With the setup issue addressed, let's talk about content. Content is the life-blood of every forum and, in the beginning, every new forum is a dry lake bed of content. If you've created relevant, original content in the past for other purposes, consider "re-tasking" it and posting it to your new forum. Topical research, blog posts, articles, newsletter contributions are all fair game for re-posting.
Further, any research you've done can be of great interest to others and can also have significant Search Engine Optimization (SEO) value. Consider posting the results of relevant topic-specific research. Any time you spend searching for answers on the web, take note of everything you find (links, facts, statistics, etc), and post that as content. These hard-earned tidbits of information can often be of great value to others. Later, as your forum gains momentum, the solo quest for new content will diminish as your community will naturally thrive.
Typically, once you've set up your forum, it is easy to customize. If you've created a forum using one of the solutions mentioned above, finding an abundance of free "skins" and themes to personalize it shouldn't be difficult. Forum themes are easily applied to most popular forum software and installation instructions are usually readily available.
With the recent updating of Google's search algorithm (Panda/Penguin), content has become synonymous with marketing. Good content = good marketing. Keep in mind, to be SEO friendly, content should be keyword rich. Beyond good content, marketing your new forum will require reaching out to the community. Send invitations to everyone you know who might be interested (but don't spam!). Also, consider asking experts in your field to participate in relevant threads. If timed correctly (when thread participation is high), experts will often jump at the chance to share their views and promote themselves. Experts are often a big attraction and you might be surprised by the number of people who stop by your forum to chat with a "celebrity" in your field.
The one indispensable aid every aspiring forum administrator needs is a friendly, knowledgeable support community. In fact, the expertise and helpfulness of the support community should be one of the key determining factors for choosing the right forum software solution. Regardless of which software solution you choose, be sure to visit and spend some time in the support community forum before committing to your decision. For a sample of a highly regarded, well established support community, visit http://support.proboards.com, create an account and navigate through a few threads. Remember, even the most experienced forum administrators sometimes have questions!
To recap; building an online community takes time and planning. When done correctly, it can generate tremendous satisfaction and benefit to you as the forum owner. Whether you follow all the steps outlined above or not, do yourself this favor; plan before you build. Having a clear picture of the objective before you begin will dramatically increase the probability of realizing it.