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 It was running on an out of date version of Invision Power Board and had barely been customised at all.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!
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.
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.