The first 5 things a new forum visitor looks for

by Martin Reed on 17 September 2007 in Articles

What do forum members look for?

Visitors to your forum are a fickle bunch of people – if they see something they don’t like, they will leave: simple as that. You have to blow them away if you want them to register and become a valuable member of your community.

In this article, I will present you with what I feel are the top five things a visitor to a forum site first looks for when deciding whether to register.

Without further ado, here is the countdown working up from the fifth most important factor, all the way up to what I consider to be the most important.

#5 – Your forum post count and thread count

Visitors to your forum will not be interested in registering if there is no content. A visitor may have been impressed with your community until they saw its post count – make sure you don’t fall at the final hurdle.

There is simply no excuse for having a forum void of content. If you have no members to generate content, then you need to do it yourself. Don’t expect new members if you don’t create new content, and don’t advertise your forum’s youth by having too many categories!

#4 – Your forum member count

It is safe to say that virtually every single visitor to your website will look at your member count and use it to gauge the popularity of your community. Of course, member counts may not provide the full picture – most members could be automated spam bots, or the count could even be fixed.

Your visitor is unlikely to consider the validity of your member count – they just want to see the number! Don’t deceive them, but be aware that if your count is low then you can’t expect a rush of members to register for the online equivalent of a black hole!

#3 – The content of your forum

Needless to say, if you have no content then don’t expect any members. If you have low quality content, expect low quality members. If you want fantastic, engaging and loyal members, you need to create fantastic and engaging content.

There can be no shying away from this fact – if you don’t create content, you will not create members. Why would anyone join a forum with no content? It would be like sitting in an empty room all by yourself. Much better to go next door where there are people to talk to, eh?

#2 – The specific subject of your forum

It is highly unlikely that someone will join your forum unless it is on a topic of interest to them. The chances are they found your site from a link or via a search engine. Therefore they should already have some degree of interest in the subject area of your site.

Ensure that visitors to your site can tell within a few seconds exactly what it is about. Ensure they have no doubt about your subject’s subject – declare it prominently on your forum, and incorporate the subject into your design, if possible.

Web users are lazy – unless you spoon feed them, they may not stick around long enough to investigate any further.

#1 – Your forum design

Now before you all start screaming at me that ‘content is king’, let’s remind ourselves what this list is about – namely the factors that contribute to the overall first impression you give a visitor to your forum.

The first thing they see when they arrive at your site is its design. If this is poor, a visitor will not even scroll down the page – they’ll leave. Pure and simple.

If a visitor sees a default design, or one they have seen a hundred times before, they may well stick around for a bit – but you will have lost the opportunity to impress your visitor from the outset.

Get yourself a good, custom forum design – make yourself unique. Ensure you site looks and works great. Visitors will then be more interested in having a dig around – that’s your chance to lure them in and ensure they get hooked!

Your thoughts

Do you disagree with the points I have raised? Would you place them in a different order? Have I missed anything? Share your thoughts and comments by leaving a comment below.

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{ 33 comments }

Eric Martindale September 17, 2007 at 6:40 pm

This just means that I’m going to get on the redesign of our role playing forums. Woot, incentive: go.

aaron September 17, 2007 at 11:00 pm

2,3,1,5,4. I know I’ve said this here before, but I’m just not sure a completely unique design is that important. It’s certainly not to me as I’m browsing for forums and I’m a member of hundreds. If it’s default, then it’s easy to navigate, pure and simple. That’s why 2 and 3 are more important. 5 is more important than 4 because member numbers are quickly becoming spam fluff. If your forum doesn’t include good measures to decrease spam registrations, you could easily have 10-100 new members per day just from spam. I look for a solid member online count also. 10-20 minimum.

Biddy September 18, 2007 at 9:33 am

I don’t take any notice whatsoever of member numbers: as Aaron says, I’d expect most of them to be would-be spammers anyway. I’d rather have three members who know what they’re talking about than thirty thousand who don’t.

Don’t really care about design: what I’m bothered about is content. If your forum doesn’t let me view content without joining, I won’t join, end of story.

Smiley September 18, 2007 at 10:59 am

I agree to a certain extent. If you’re wanting veterans of message boards that are looking for a ‘new home’, then yes, member count, post count etc etc etc, all these are important factors.

But if you’re wanting new users.. that is.. new users to chat communities in general, I’d argue that post counts and member counts are much less important, as someone who is new to communities would not look for these things.

I’d say the 5 things that these kind of users would look for is;
How user-friendly is the forum?
How easy is the forum to navigate?
Is it easy for a new user to get lost on your forum?
Is your forum cliquey, not very warm towards new members?
How helpful is the staff of the forum?

Veterans of message boards in general will hop from community to community, they know what they’re about, they’ll go to a website, check the post count, either bugger off elsewhere or sign up and jump straight in. People who are new to message boards full stop need much more attention, and are often forgotten about.

Message boards are either cliquey and ignore people who are new.. or the staff does not take into account that not everyone are message board veterans!

You’ve said it yourself before, Martin, and I’m a firm believer in it – quality over quantity. It’s no good having 20,000 posts if they’re all one-word replies or emoticons

I’d say encourage members to be less cliquey, more open to new members (most message boards I’ve come across abuse and insult new members, calling them “n00bs”, “newbies”, making them feel like outsiders and unwelcome…. why?!), and the rest will fall into place.

Disc Jockey September 19, 2007 at 4:10 pm

I’d put forum post and thread count way up on number one. That is what I always look for first thing. A forum first needs to be alive, good looks and all the body parts are add-ons. A dead forum with no new posts since a long time is no good.

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 19, 2007 at 11:51 pm

Eric – Good luck with the redesign; make sure you really think hard about every single design change and consider involving your community in the new redesign process.

aaron – I agree that when it comes to community sites, very often the design isn’t important – once you have converted a visitor into a loyal member.

The fact is that a custom, unique design instantly interests a new visitor. Stopping a visitor from leaving a few seconds after getting to your site is the biggest challenge you face when getting a new community off the ground.

Catering to the fickleness of these casual visitors by having a unique, attractive design will definitely help your conversion rate.

Biddy – I agree that the majority of content should be visible by everyone. How can you expect someone to register for your community if they are unable to get a feel for its personality by reading a few posts?

You could have the best design in the world but if you don’t have the content to match, those extra few seconds you kept the visitor interested for will be wasted.

Smiley – Having a welcoming community is definitely important. There is no point going to the effort of attracting new members if they are going to be pushed away by your current member base.

Disc Jockey – Having content is essential; if you try to attract visitors but have no content you are only wasting your time and the time of those you are luring to your site.

the subconscious mind September 20, 2007 at 8:39 am

yep, content should be visible for everyone and people do look at how many people are posting. i think a big mistake people make is starting a forum too early when they dont have enough visitors to fill it with content, but i you do habve the visitors its a great thing to have in addition to a main site.

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 23, 2007 at 4:12 pm

subconsciousStarting a forum from scratch is a huge challenge as you don’t yet have the visitor numbers needed to sustain the community and have to create all the content yourself.

Of course, if you are adding a forum to an already established website it can be easier to make a success of it.

Chris October 2, 2007 at 5:40 pm

Also very important in my opinion is activity. People have to be posting every single day (or more). If people see there is no activity they will leave!

One tip for beginners is don’t create too many sub forums. It makes it harder to post and get the community going.

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 3, 2007 at 8:15 pm

Chris – You’re right there; people won’t want to join a forum if there are no members and no content! I also agree that one of the biggest mistakes forum owners make is having too many categories.

ses5909 October 16, 2007 at 12:21 pm

Nice post as usual Martin. Here are some thoughts and questions about your points.

5. How do you know what is a good number of posts or threads? Should you compare yourself to your competitors? I would assume that good numbers are different for each topic.

4. On my forum count I show the number of actual members as well as the number of those that are active but I don’t see this done very often. Should I just show active or just show total members?

3. Very good point about the content. When I launched my commmunity 3 months ago, I had to start 5-10 threads a day. Now I usually just have to start a couple, but I do still have to help get the conversation started.

2 & 1 – these are related for me. I do have a custom design but it is completely unrelated to my topic. My topic is blogs yet I have a mad/scientist theme going on. I did that in hopes I would stand out from the crowd and I paid to have a lot of nice custom graphics created for it. I can’t really go back on that now.

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 18, 2007 at 3:59 pm

ses5909:

5. I think you should determine what a good number of posts or threads are based on your own goals. As a rule, I would look at the number of posts you have compared to the number of members. If you have 500 members but only 100 posts, then something is clearly wrong as it is obvious only a tiny number of your members are getting involved in the community.

Exactly as you say, what constitutes ‘good’ numbers depends on a variety of factors, including the topic.

4. It depends if those statistics are flattering. If you are displaying the fact that only 10% of your members are active, then you are making a mistake. If the numbers show that almost all of your members are active in the community, by all means show those figures off!

3. As time goes on, you should see that you need to generate less of the content yourself. This doesn’t necessarily mean your community is ready to go it alone – as you say, you may still need to get involved in order to get new conversations started.

New members in particular, have an aversion to starting new topics – you can get around this by starting them yourself.

2 & 1. Having a custom design is a good idea, but I think it should be related to your topic, otherwise you risk confusing your visitors. I think it is a mistake to think you have committed too much to a certain design to want to change it for the better.

Albergo November 11, 2007 at 10:07 pm

i think the “MUST” thing that user need and see on the fforum is off course forum content. without that your forum is like a man without life.

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 12, 2007 at 6:05 pm

Albergo – Content is the most important factor that determines the success of your forum however it is not necessarily the first thing a new visitor looks for.

Carla February 7, 2008 at 9:57 am

I wish i had read your posts before i set up my online community. At first it was a real problem getting people to post. Luckily I snaired a few die hard fans that kept the wheels turning. I find it amazing that i have over 500 visitors per day and yet a fraction of them actually post, most just read other posts. Is there anyway i can lure people to post? Or is that a bad idea?

Martin Reed - Blog Author February 7, 2008 at 9:11 pm

Carla – Die-hard fans are fantastic. Make sure you treat them like gold dust and keep them happy.

It can be a challenge to encourage more visitors to post – asking questions in threads helps. I will be writing an article in the future offering more advice in this area.

Alex Liu March 7, 2008 at 9:48 am

AS a forum visitor who first come to a new forum, I definitely will look at those 5. But most of the time I will ignore #1 because design is not as important as the content and topics inside. #1 would be something I hardly care about.

Ryan March 9, 2008 at 5:28 pm

I’ll admit to looking at member count numbers before registering for a forum. But I also look at how many are online at that time to give me an idea of how active those members are.

As an example. I used to be a moderator of a forum with the same topic to mine. When a new owner came in they shut down all forums so that you have to be logged in to see them. So they had, and still have, new members signing up left and right because they see a high number of members. It’s only when they get into the boards that they realize that nobody has posted in the past 2 months and the new member never comes back.

George Lindemann March 13, 2008 at 7:00 am

It is safe to say that virtually every single visitor to your website will look at your member count and use it to gauge the popularity of your community.

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 15, 2008 at 7:03 pm

Alex – I agree that design is not as important as content (as long as the design allows you to access it!), however people do subliminally judge your website on its appearance so it’s important you have a unique design.

Ryan – I am strongly against making forums unreadable to non-members. Sure, you may get a few signups but most people will simply go to your competitors where they can get a feel for the community without having to register.

Web users are savvy people – many will look at forum activity before deciding to join. At the same time, they are lazy – if you make it hard for them to join or access your content, they will leave.

George – Hmmm, I am not so sure that every single visitor looks at member count, but I will concede that the majority probably do. It is up to us as community developers to convince people that it’s content that counts by blowing them away with the quality and freshness of what’s in our sites.

Chris Guthrie April 8, 2008 at 1:25 am

@point number 5

I agree with this one for sure. That’s why for the very first forum I ever started I just did the fake it til you make it approach.

I made a bunch of different accounts and talked to myself and stopped using those accounts as the community started to take off.

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 8, 2008 at 10:13 pm

Chris – It’s definitely worth creating characters and making posts yourself when you start out. Not only does it create content, it adds to the all important statistical summary.

pcheing June 2, 2008 at 10:43 pm

I guess number 1 is the thing I look at a lot, that is how often new posts are made. If no one is making any contributions on a daily basis, I am not that interested in coming back.

Martin Reed - Blog Author June 3, 2008 at 6:20 pm

pcheing – I agree; if your forum has no activity it will struggle to attract new members!

Anjuan July 18, 2008 at 5:52 am

Exellent point about creating content before you get new users. This was not intuitive for me. It seems like you have to have a conversation with yourself and then hope this draws other people into the conversation.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 23, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Anjuan – Sometimes you do need to talk to yourself in order to create content, value and activity within a new community. Just don’t take it too far and end up talking to yourself in the real world, too!

DJ MC August 14, 2008 at 1:30 am

I guess I’m very fortunate, because there is one very good Disc Jockey forum (with content that’s related to my site & similar key words), called “Our DJ Talk”. The forum is open to Google, -AND- the signature links are “do follow” which helps one’s SEO.

Smiley August 14, 2008 at 2:43 am

I agree with Martin, Anjuan. Just do it, no matter how weird it feels. When I first started Friendly Forums I registered 3 usernames. Smiley(Host) and two other ‘regular users’. I sat there for days having a three way conversation with myself. LOL. It did feel rather weird joking and bantering with myself, but I did it nonetheless. I kept it up for weeks and weeks, getting involved in all three usernames. I was ridiculed for it by most that knew, but I knew it had to be done.

To a new user, on a new forum, it looks good. Once I had enough registered members, I slowly ‘phased’ my extra usernames out. One was “too busy with University”, the other was moving in with their boyfriend.

It makes me sound insane, but fact is it worked, and the forum runs on its own without me 90% of the time now.

Jon August 29, 2008 at 8:14 pm

These are some great tips for some just starting a new online community (myself included). We recently added a forum to the Gamer-Junkie site and it’s been a long and drawn out process so far.

@smiley I’ve read about having multiple users to help add activity on a forum, but haven’t tried it myself yet. Sounds like it worked for you though.

kouji September 24, 2008 at 10:59 am

i tend to check the member count first. hard to have conversations, when there aren’t that many people around.

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 6, 2008 at 8:26 pm

DJ MC – That’s good; just make sure that the forum admins are OK with you including a link to your site in your signature.

Smiley – I am surprised you didn’t drive yourself crazy and forget who you really were!

Jon – I am glad you found the article useful, and good luck with your new forum.

Kouji – Yup, it’s a fact that most people look at forum stats before deciding whether or not to join a forum. That makes it even more important to ensure you have quality content to offset any disappointing membership stats.

James Barton December 15, 2008 at 11:11 pm

I think that simplicity, lack of too much advertising, clarity and quick loading times are important factors that new visitors look for. I am in the process of moding my new phpbb3 Spiritual Forum layout to make it clearer for new visitors.

In some more specialist forums people might be happy to join and post comments even if the current post count is low. The reason for this is the email notification feature which will alert them when their thread receives a reply.

Farrhad A July 11, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Martin, I completely agree with all your points.

People keep saying content is king but then design is queen.

I invested around most of my forum funds in a custom skin, and it has helped my community stand out.

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