Never camouflage your forum

by Martin Reed on 19 September 2007 in Articles

Dont hide your forum

Camouflage can be great, but not when you are trying to convert visitors into members. If they can’t see what your site is about, or even find your forum, then you cannot expect success.

Additional content can distract attention away from your forum

I have already written about adding additional content to your community website in order to attract more traffic. Such additional content can add value to your site and help you attract traffic through improved search engine rankings and increased backlinks.

Unfortunately, if you do not add the content with care and attention you may just find that you are hiding the real purpose of your site. As you add content, you need to ensure your navigation system makes the additional content accessible but not at the cost of camouflaging your forum.

Your priorities should be reflected in your design

For most community developers, their forum is their priority. Therefore it should be the first thing a visitor sees when they arrive. Don’t make a visitor click through a splash page or a page full of articles and other content if your main priority is to develop your forum.

It’s pretty simple – if your forum is your priority, then give it priority in your design. If your forum is already successful and you want to change the direction of your site, then by all means, redesign your homepage and dedicate space to making the visitor aware of everything else your site offers.

In most circumstances though, if you want your forum to succeed you need to ensure it is the first thing visitors see when they arrive.

Real life example

When I took over Soap Forum, it was pretty much a dead community. It was running on an out of date version of Invision Power Board and had barely been customised at all. One of the first things I did was start a design contest at SitePoint. The new design I chose was great, and was soon uploaded. I came to realise there was a problem, though – my priority was breathing life into the forum yet the forum wasn’t even on the front page in the new design!

New Soap Forum Design Version One
Version 1 of new Soap Forum design
(click to enlarge)

Unfortunately it took me a couple of months to realise the problem with the new design. Sure, it looked good – but if a visitor couldn’t see the forum as soon as they arrived, I was making more work for them than I should be. The forum needed to be on the front page so it was the first thing a visitor saw.

New Soap Forum Design Version Two
Version 2 of new Soap Forum design
(click to enlarge)

I noticed an almost immediate change in the amount of activity and new memberships once I made the change. It was obvious that the time I had wasted not having the forum on the index page had cost me dear.

Make sure you don’t make the same mistake – if your priority is your forum, get it on the front page. Never think that your website is as good as it can be – keep tweaking, keep analysing your traffic stats, and keep improving.

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Hair Loss Cure September 20, 2007 at 6:02 am

I liked the picture that you have put to show Camouflage. I totally agree with what you have written you have to keep adding freshness to your blog for the visitors to come back to the site. With changing times and everything moving fast it is very easy for things or sites to stale if not kept fresh.

Smiley September 20, 2007 at 2:17 pm

This is very true, I have this problem with my forums. I have to slowly convert chat room visitors into registered members of the forums.

But the main feature of my site is the chat.. the forums are #2, everything else comes after.

On the front page, I have both chat & forums mentioned.,mainpage.jpg

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 23, 2007 at 4:09 pm

Hair Loss – It’s a great image, isn’t it? I get almost all of the images for this blog from stock.xchng.

Smiley – I would suggest making the link to your chat forums a little more prominent, perhaps through the use of an image right near the top of your index page.

I understand that you consider your forums to be #2 to your chat forum at this stage – however the way the link to your forum is hidden, anyone would think it was priority #52!

Smiley September 23, 2007 at 5:34 pm

You think I should put the link to my message boards above the link to the chat client?

I’ll give it a try, can’t hurt to experiment. A few people in the chat client do ask “where are the forums?” when myself or a regular asks “would you like to join the forums?”, even though there’s a link at the top of the client etc.

I’ll put it above the chat link on the main page and see if I see a rise in guests on the forums.

Thanks for the tip, I’ll experiment with it now.

Smiley September 23, 2007 at 10:43 pm

Okay, I moved things round a little bit. Here’s the two screenshots of the main page now. The top half and the lower half.,ae2ar.jpg,bdagi.jpg

Does that look a bit better? It’s a good idea switching them around actually, because Chat Rooms is right there on the left on the main navigation anyway. People looking for a chat site are automatically programmed to skim the page and scan for “chat rooms, click here” so they’ll easily find them. They would be more likely to skip over “discussion forums”, though.

I’ll let you know if I notice any results from moving forums up on the main page.

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 24, 2007 at 5:49 pm

Smiley – Only you can determine if it looks better and only you can determine if playing around with your site’s layout will help you reach your goals.

It’s always a good idea to have a play around with things and see how they affect visitor interaction. Perhaps you should even try giving crazyegg a go to help you work out exactly what visitors are doing when they get to your site.

Smiley September 24, 2007 at 7:50 pm

I think it looks better myself. You’re much more ‘up’ on these things than me, though. Your advice is greatly appreciated.

One day after taking your advice and moving the forums link up in the priorities, I have 4 new members on the forums, all 4 have posted. So, genuine members.

The chat room hasn’t suffered a fall in visitor numbers, so in this case, a success!

I’ll give Crazy Egg a go later – off out for a curry and a few ales now, though! Rewarding myself tonight. You know, I haven’t been out ONE night since changing servers, been working non-stop to get the site’s momentum going.

Barry Cox - Scottsdale Realtor September 26, 2007 at 12:30 am

I think what you did is great. I agree that having the forum on the front page is the way to go. Anytime you can minimize clicks I think you are better off.

Also a creative idea about having a contest over at sitepoint. Digitalpoint would probably be a good place to do that as well. Thanks for the idea.

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 26, 2007 at 6:03 pm

Smiley – I’m glad to hear that your tweaking brought you such positive results. It just goes to show that a website is never ‘finished’; it needs constant tweaking and improvement.

Barry – You’re right; minimising clicks is essential. No part of your site should be more than three clicks away. I am not a regular user of Digitalpoint so cannot compare the effectiveness of contests held there as opposed to SitePoint. Thanks for bringing DP to the attention of other readers, though.

Jonathan Mark April 11, 2009 at 9:22 am

Well you would have to make the whole site look good not just the forum. Also you shuld match themes or colour co-ordinate. People don’t like sites with bad designs especially when they are cluttered with information.

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