Can general interest forums succeed?

by Martin Reed on 7 July 2007 in Snippets

Everyone and their dog (including myself) harps on about how important it is to differentiate your community from others. Some feel that because of this, if they have a ‘general’ forum without a specific focus or niche they cannot succeed.

General forums can succeed – you are catering to a huge audience by not restricting your community to a specific niche, although you will need to work harder to differentiate your forum from others.

Opportunities and challenges for general interest communities

Attracting a crowd with general communitiesBy administering a general interest community, you are not limiting your potential audience. See this as an opportunity – virtually every single Web user is a potential member of your site. You may think that because your potential audience is so huge, getting your community off the ground will be easy. Wrong!

It is precisely because your potential audience is so large that you will have to work extra hard in attracting and retaining members. It will be harder to target individual, niche sites when link building as you will be after visitors with various interests.

There are also an overwhelming number of general interest communities online – why should someone register at yours, when there are so many alternatives? Many of these alternatives will be far busier and more popular than your community – so how do you compete and attract visitors?

How to differentiate your general interest community

Make your community differentOnce again, the key is to differentiate. Your community must be different to all the others that are out there.

Make sure you are the odd-one-out. Make sure that your community offers something that the others don’t. Customise your forum – never stick with the default design. Give your community a distinct personality – go a little crazy! Get your visitors intrigued and get them involved.

Keep an eye on the competition – see what they are doing wrong, and make sure you don’t make the same mistakes. Newcomers tend to be the biggest innovators – you need to do the same if you want your general interest community to succeed.

Do you have a general interest forum? How do you differentiate your community from all the others out there?

Share this community building advice


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Tim July 7, 2007 at 3:31 pm

I’ve proposed moving from specific to general interest mainly for the bigger audience reason (and some more specific to our case.
Our main difference would probably be the great community feeling we offer unlike other zero policy on everything forums.

Smiley July 7, 2007 at 6:04 pm

Yes, I certainly believe general interest forums can succeed. Just look at your own as proof!

Different forums have different members, different styles of humour, different banter, a different atmosphere, different rules, different management style etc, so all forums are different in their own way.

It all depends on what you class as ‘successful’, if ‘successful’ is having hundreds of members with 200,000 posts, then I’m certainly not successful. But then, my forums are only 4 weeks old. They have new members, the members seem to enjoy them, they post regularly and keep coming back everyday, so to me, that is successful in its own way.

The first thing I did to differentiate mine was take your advice; I customized it!

Instead of the usual boring “welcome to our newest user, ” I changed it to this:

Instead of the boring “admin” & “mod” I changed to:

And ofcourse, the agreement:

I’ve added other little features, such as making it easier to upload pictures, allowing users to create their own custom emoticons, music uploads, a feature where users can create their own quizzes.

That’s basically the customization done with. The next step was to create a unique atmosphere of banter, which as you know is quite easy for me to do anyway, as I can be quite fun when I want to be when not being purposely controversial.

As I’ve said before, I create little ‘characters’ that frequent the boards and make the users laugh.

Such as “Mr Bling” the gangsta-rapper psychologist, and “Father Purve”, who runs his own confessional on the boards where users can post anonymously their “sins” for a bit of fun.

I’m also very laid back and get really involved with the users, and banter with them.

Just tiny things like that, it’s surprising how much of a huge difference it can make.

And I recruited a couple of the more loyal members into what I call “Spam Control”, which made them feel real valued, and they take the position seriously. I was getting bombed to hell and back by Russian spammers, now I never see spam, my ‘Spam Control’ team delete them before I even get chance to see. Again, because I avoided standardized titles etc, it also even creates an atmosphere of fun for the users preventing spam, rather than it being a chore, they ENJOY it:
Customized mod title:

Customized user title:

I think whether general interest forums succeed or not is all down to the management, and like you have said yourself, how passionate the management is about their own community – as that passion rubs off on the users.

RangerBhoyBlue is in the chatrooms more than I am, and he’s only been around 2 weeks, and works his fingers to the bone helping the site take off.

kevin July 7, 2007 at 7:33 pm

It is so hard to do anything general on the web these days, focused content just seems to win out.

Dallas Web Designer July 7, 2007 at 11:08 pm

Do you know of any forums that are general interest and have become successful? Just curious…


Smiley July 8, 2007 at 12:13 am
Russ July 8, 2007 at 12:51 am

I think that it would be extremely difficult to start a general chat forum because of the huge amount of competition already available. There are thousands of sites already out there, so you would have to make yours really special with unique content.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 8, 2007 at 6:48 am

Tim – You have an interesting viewpoint there; most people tend to advise communities to target niche subjects in order to attract and retain members due to reduced competition. As for my opinion? I feel any online community can succeed if the owner is determined and dedicated.

Smiley – You are right that ‘success’ can be measured in many different ways, and will vary according to individual goals and targets. You seem to be well on your way to developing a great forum – the steps you have taken so far have really differentiated your community. Good luck!

Kevin – I think that being successful online nowadays is no harder than it used to be. Sure, it may be more difficult to set up a site now there are more competitors but so long as you work hard and don’t give up, you can succeed even today.

Dallas Web Designer – Thanks for your comment. I feel that the forum over at Just Chat has been reasonably successful; asides from that I don’t have too much time to visit other general forums these days.

Russ – I think starting a general forum is a big challenge, but I also think that starting any forum or online community is a big challenge. Competition should never put you off – make yourself unique, keep at it and you can make a community on any subject succeed.

Smiley July 8, 2007 at 8:25 pm

I find it great that even with your vast experience, Martin, you still take in suggestions from others and take it on board, such as you now include pics in your blog that make your articles much more attractive to read.

It really sets an example to others that even as you gain experience, you should never let an ego get in the way of improving via other peoples suggestions.

Blogging July 9, 2007 at 5:01 am

I definitely agree with your point on differentiating a general interest community. Most of them do fail, but there are some successful ones and their common point is they have something that differentiates them (I have seen a few which are general interest forums which offer other free services such as web hosting).

James Pegram July 10, 2007 at 2:44 am

Making a general interest forum be successful requires a great deal of time and patience. More I think than most people are willing to put in, so I think it would be a daunting task for most people.

Justin July 10, 2007 at 10:27 am

I have a fairly successful general forum. It experiences ups and downs, but I think eventually we will be able to keep activity constant.

63,500 posts and 400 members in 7 months. No website or money spent on advertising.

We clearly show how we stand out, and that’s what inspired me in the new theme I made. :)

Melissa Odom July 11, 2007 at 4:08 am

In regards to Justin’s comment…How do people find your site if you have “No website or money spent on advertising?”

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 11, 2007 at 6:45 am

Smiley – It is essential to always take feedback and suggestions from all visitors seriously. After all, they are the very people you want to please if you are to retain your visitors. I am well aware of this fact and always practice what I preach!

Blogging – I have no doubt that the vast majority of all communities fail. It is easy to install a forum, but a huge challenge to attract and retain members.

Differentiation really does give you a huge advantage over your competition (as long as the differentiation is beneficial to your visitors!).

James Pegram – I think developing any forum requires a huge amount of time and patience. You are right that many just do not realise the hard work involved!

Justin – Your forum really does seem to be buzzing; congratulations on your initial success! Keep the momentum going and continue to keep yourself differentiated and I am sure you will reach all your goals.

Melissa Odom – There are many ways of attracting traffic without having to spend any money on advertising.

Take a look at the archives section of this blog for relevant articles I have already written (articles such as my link building series may be particularly helpful). Additionally, stay tuned as I will be writing additional articles on this area in the future.

Ed July 11, 2007 at 10:33 pm

Open discussion or general topic forums can be a challenge, but also they can be a pleasure. The difficulty as described well in your initial post is that advertising is hard because it’s nearly impossible to target. “Word of mouse” may be the way to go, but that in itself presents challenges. My own general forum is growing, but I would not say it has reached critical mass just yet.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 12, 2007 at 6:21 pm

Ed – I think creating a successful forum is always both a challenge and a pleasure. Advertising on general forums can be tough due to their wide audience although you may well find that you are attracting a certain demographic despite the general nature of your community.

Good luck with your own forum, and thanks for your comment!

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