Things I’ve learnt from running a forum for 4 years

by Gregor Bočič - Guest Writer on 3 March 2008 in Articles

Forum development is a learning process

Greg is a Slovenian tech journalist, writing articles about social media, Linux and open source for the tech magazine Software Power. He also maintains his own Web productivity blog and is a big fan of CommunitySpark, whose author quite curiously got his first computer in the same year as Greg.

Introduction

It seems like it was just yesterday. I still remember what a newbie I was, asking myself questions like what is PHP? Why do I need it to run a forum? Where do I get my hosting? 4 hours and 6 cups of tea later, my first phpBB forum was up and running on a lycos.co.uk account (yes, that’s the one with ads).

Like all websites, the first year was just horrible. A few members here and there, but altogether the traffic almost made me cry. See, my forum was in my local language, Slovenian.

Besides this, it was a rap battle forum. Now try and calculate how many 13 to 20 year-old battle-rap fans who have an Internet connection you can find in a country with two million inhabitants.

After 4 years of struggling, my forum has become the largest rap forum in my country, with a thousand unique visitors daily and around 3,000 members (minus the bots). Yes, I managed to get almost everyone on the Slovenian Internet battle rap scene to register.

The forum is still growing, and I have no intention of closing it whatsoever. It works now almost by itself.

This is a small article about what I learnt in the process of being an administrator struggling to find members for a forum thought to have no market. I hope that many people new to forum administration and promotion will find this very useful.

Find loyal members and get them to help you

I was very lucky in the beginning, because another very similar forum broke down just before I created mine. It was time for me to collect the ‘spoils of war’. I had 5 active members. Yes, five. One of them was my cousin! Not knowing what I should do, I simply asked the new members to help me. They entered the page URL into different directories, got friends to register, advertised the forum on other web boards etc.

I then thought to myself “It’s been 5 months and we’ve been heavily promoting the forum – and we only have 47 members. This will never work!” Boy, how wrong I was.

Create a moderator team as soon as possible

I handled every aspect of site administration and moderation myself. That cost me a lot of time, which I could have used for other projects. After forming a team of moderators when the forum was one year old, I could go on vacation and not worry about the forum so much.

Everything was being taken care of by the mods, even forum event organization. We discussed staff matters in a special locked section of the forum, visible only to admins and mods.

Forum events boost traffic

At our rap forum, we have rap tournaments. They’re pretty simple, and the prize is just a “200X battle rap champ”-style badge. Nevertheless, it gets free word-of-mouth advertising and people who sign on for the tournament almost never leave the forum. I let my members organize events by themselves now. It’s much faster, but you must make sure they follow through!

Community revolts and ‘wise guys’ come and go

I’ve had about 3 revolts by now. With a heavily visited forum, you will sometimes be forced to ban a member. If your community revolts, don’t panic. You must understand only a few of them understand how you work with your forum. Let them say what they want, but stay civilized. Arguments never work. If you don’t have the nerves, don’t respond. The fire will die out, eventually.

Also, even though revolts are deemed as bad, they actually boost your post count for a few days – and that poor sap thinks he’s hurting you!

Just one more thing:

Remember – You are the administrator

You are the boss of the forum. You are running a bulletin board, not a country. Sometimes it’s very useful to ask your members or staff if they want a certain modification or change implemented, but if you don’t agree, don’t do it. If you feel that monetizing your site would be a good idea, do it yourself. You built this house, so you get to furnish it.

Good luck to all forum admins out there!

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{ 28 comments }

Smiley March 3, 2008 at 7:49 pm

Interesting article. Just goes to show — don’t give up. Persistence is the key.

I really don’t know how my forum is doing well. I’m useless as a role model, setting a good example is not exactly my forté, my humour is understood by about 1% of people that know me and I don’t exactly have the most loveable personalities in the world.

I put it down to my staff and loyal members myself. They set the example, they’re the role models, they’re the ones who are on the front line.

Patrick O'Keefe March 3, 2008 at 11:59 pm

“You are running a bulletin board, not a country.”

I like that. :)

MistressOfTheDorkness March 4, 2008 at 2:01 am

My favorite is always ‘This is a free forum, not a democracy’. You don’t pay the bills, you don’t get to vote, and you are free to leave if you don’t like it.

:-D
Anywho, great summary. Running a forum can sometimes be a lot of thankless work… but, if it provides a great community destination, it all somehow seems worth it, doesn’t it? :-)

Smiley March 4, 2008 at 4:23 am

Of course it’s not a democracy. End of the day the bill payer has to do what he or she thinks is right.

I put in a system of hierarchy where “co-hosts” are my “advisor’s”, representatives of the members to me.

..Basically it’s just a pretty way of making it LOOK like my say is not the final word.

Nicole Price March 4, 2008 at 6:07 am

Very insightful piece. Specially helpful since it also spans the initial hiccup ridden days. It is very encouraging to read this and believe that however small you start, you can grow over time.

Online Furniture Store March 4, 2008 at 6:12 am

I am still not too sure what PHP is :) but i am learning about all this stuff thanks to people like you who share your knowledge with us and give us the benefit of your experience. You know what they say, experience is the best teacher!

pinay scandal March 4, 2008 at 7:31 am

I think every skill is transferable. Past skills from forum can be transfered to blogs.

Amish Made Furniture March 4, 2008 at 10:01 am

That is a very nice post. I am really happy for you and your sharing your experience and advise is just what makes blogging so interesting. All the best.

GetAIO March 4, 2008 at 10:49 am

“Find loyal members and get them to help you”

Its very very hard to get loyal (active) members, you have any advice on how to get them?

Gregor Bočič - Guest Writer March 4, 2008 at 11:58 am

Hi, thanks for your comments :)

GetAIO: Try posting a “call for mods”. For a forum in its early stages, new mods really can’t ruin anything, and by seeing how mouch they try to get into the mod circle, you’ll be able to guess how loyal this member is.

It always helps to act as the ‘big bad admin’, no matter how large your forum is ;)

Smiley March 5, 2008 at 3:45 am

GetAIO – swallow your pride and suck up, suck up, suck up! When I first started my site I was on my own. Just me. I was the sole member. I had no friends from past sites (I used to rather enjoy ‘winding up’ shall we say?) so I had to start from lower than rock bottom.

I completely changed my image and I sucked up to the very few visitors I got BIG TIME. The visitors were far and few between and when I got them I would sit and chat to them, get very personal with them, very friendly. Eventually I came across one who thought I was nice and she became my first regular, she then went on and fetched 3 of her friends to the site, who I in turn also sucked up to.

Those were my first loyal regulars and the site has been growing ever since and now I’m slowly trying to create a professional distance and not get so personal with users. But in the beginning it’s very important to be open, approachable, friendly, and a suck up!

Pacquiao Marquez March 5, 2008 at 8:04 am

I also started in forums, then move to blogs. What you’ve learned in forums can be administered in group blogs.

Sue @ TameBay March 5, 2008 at 2:12 pm

“Wise guys come and go.”
That’s a good thing to remember. I know I let snarky community members get to me too much: I think I’ll write that on a post-it note on the top of my computer :-D

Roleplay March 5, 2008 at 4:29 pm

Great article, glad you could come over and guest post!

Kevin March 6, 2008 at 6:24 pm

Good advice. Just launched my forum and while there is a lot of interest, people seem a little bashful to post. I’d like to start getting members to reply to other members instead of just me answering them, any suggestions?

Gregor B - Guest Writer March 6, 2008 at 8:57 pm

For starters, I’d suggest creating an ‘Introduce Yourself’ forum category. That’s the easiest way to get a few posts.
But I don’t believe there is a real ‘recipe’ for getting members to post. Trying to post a lot yourself is a good first step, you have to remember forums are much like blogs in the sense of getting ‘comments’. Just keep on posting and replying. As more members get to your forum you’ll get your posts in time.

Josef March 6, 2008 at 10:30 pm

Great success story and good advice. Getting loyal fans actively involved as moderators is a great way to outsource and get some of your time back.

Congratulations on the payoff for your persistence.

Chat March 8, 2008 at 5:04 am

I agree persistence is the key, its one of the things that keeps me going… which is funny :p some day with enough persistence anything is possible I one day hope to get more loyal members.. im working on it, being persistent.

Finance Forums March 8, 2008 at 12:08 pm

Thanks for the tips on building a moderator team. I have a few people in mind already.

What do you think about a Forum Promo Contest? and How do I distribute prizes as credits?

Gregor Bočič - Guest Writer March 8, 2008 at 3:55 pm

I reward myy users with special ranks (just like I wrote – 2006 audio chap) or a similar perk…

I can’t recommend a contest since I don’t have any experience with ‘hysical’ prizes, although I think it depends on your forum ‘topic’.

Cheers

Mr Woc March 13, 2008 at 12:13 pm

Hi there

Your post did make me snigger and i can relate to a lot of what you have said for example the 3 revolts comment, I have had a few myself lol.

I agree it can take an awful lot of work to get your forum moving, i think its a case of finding a good 10-15 people who can post regularly, then your forum will slowly grow, my forum is no where near where i want it to be, but its going in the right direction and its fun thats the main thing.

You are right if somone kicks off and starts to cause problems, dont panic, dont argue with them (thats what they want you to do), state your points clearly and why you are not happy with them, if your not getting anywhere ban them, simple really !

I always say to my chatters tongue in cheek its not a democracy its a dictatorship lol, i do try to be as fair as i possibly can, but ultimately its your forum take control of it and dont let people push you around, cos once they think they can, they will take advantage of this !

Woc

Dan May 9, 2008 at 11:55 pm

Yeah – moderator team is crucial! I’ve read so many posts at other community based sites that either didn’t stress this too much or even almost ignored this idea. But it’s so much necessary to grow the forum! – and it also frees our hands as often the mods are the most dedicated and motivated folks on the site (sometime even more than the super-mod, who might have been through his/her burn-out periods ;))

Melodiccolor May 29, 2008 at 5:49 am

A group of us have just started our first forum. It is only a few weeks old and still being constructed. And yet with only 18 members and no links yet, it is very active; more active than many larger forums I visit.

This article and many of the others on this site has been very useful, in letting me know what we need to pay attention to and what we are doing right. We have been guessing, but it seems we’re off to a good start.

Thank you for the encouragement on getting a tiny forum to grow. I will be watching for ideas on that, especially in the first year.

One of the things we’re doing is letting the core members help design the forum; make suggestions in setting up the rules, choosing a name and a few other things. In the end though, our admins are actually doing the writing and the members are voting on the results. But they feel like they are a part of the forum and have a vested interest in it. We know it’s a different approach to setting up a forum. I’ll let you know in about a year how the experiment worked. (We probably won’t really know until then.)

Robert Irizarry June 29, 2008 at 8:02 pm

I’m very new to community building through forums but have run a blog for over 2 years now.

I had been considering forums as a way to provide the passionate bunch of folks around my blog the means to interact directly and pose questions to each other. However, I still had some reservations until I read this article. I particularly found the early bumps on the way to successful forums inspirational. Thanks for the article.

Safety Protection Technology June 30, 2008 at 1:34 pm

I visit many sites, forums and blogs daily. I can see thousand forums are being setup daily but majority of them disappeared. I think forums are difficult to manage and handled, instead webmasters can go for blogs. Forums have their own charm and I caught in that fever. I am managing 2-3 forums which keep me busy a lot but it is just alike passion.

Edward August 14, 2009 at 10:40 am

Great article. I hate having to play the “it’s a free forum and we make the rules” card, but sometimes you have to.

JL August 18, 2009 at 12:08 pm

One of the most important things to make sure of is that whatever host you put your forum on must be able to handle the kind of traffic you’re looking to generate. If your forum is slow, or constantly down, no one is going to bother with your boards. The same goes for any sort of technical issues.. stay on top of any bug reports/complaints.

Tom August 19, 2009 at 1:00 am

This is the one thing that worries me. Things going wrong with the forum.

My phpBB boards were recently hacked. A malicious code was injected into the .php pages and it took the entire site down, I lost everything.

I’ve re-installed and started again, this time I’m not installing any hacks/mods, which I have now learnt the hard way that they simply leave back doors open for malicious injections.

I’m considering upgrading to v3 of phpBB. I’m still a phpBB2 dinosaur because I really honestly don’t like phpBB3. It’s complicated, it’s too vBulletin-ish, and worst of all, it’s bloody impossible to customize! PhpBB2 is fantastic to customize. You can customize it from top to bottom. PhpBB3 is just awful in that area.

But there won’t be any more security upgrades for v2 which will obviously cause problems in the future. However, I have found a site of phpBB2 enthusiasts who are making their own security upgrades, so it all depends whether I wish to put the future of my forums in the hands of non-official coders!

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