Forums are a unique type of semi-social networking online, and they occupy an interesting niche. Millions of people worldwide still use forums, despite the prevalence of social networks, precisely because of their unique niche. They’re like social networks centered around specific interests, without the requirement that you use real names or images for your profile. They’re slower paced, in general, though they can be explosively huge. Some of the largest forums in the world – Reddit, Gaia Online, Bodybuilding.com – receive thousands of posts every day.
For the rest of us who own forums, we can only dream of the success of those larger sites. What can we do to increase the number of visitors to our sites? Forums don’t really have as many opportunities for SEO as traditional websites, and because the content is user-generated, it’s outside the bounds of Google’s traditional quality control measures. On the flip side, since forums require significant investment from a user, it’s hard to get casual advertising to work.
Here are some ideas, some of which may work for your forum, some which won’t. There’s no way to tell which is which until you test them out.
Unless you have a staff of full-time moderators, it’s generally a bad idea to open your entire board to guest posts. There’s a sort of Internet-based cosmic background radiation of bots crawling around, looking for forums and guest-enabled comment sections to target. If your entire board is open to guest posts, you’ll end up with dozens or hundreds of spam posts per day, coming from all sorts of spoofed IPs. For some boards, this even happens if you have basic, non-protected or verified registration.
That said, a small section open to guests, where they can ask questions and the users can respond, can be a great incentive to get people to register. They can get a peek behind the curtain, and what they see should entice them.
This only works if you have premium content or memberships. The Something Awful forums operate on this principle; an account costs $10, but most of the board is visible to the public most of the time. However, the paywall will occasionally close down, displaying a message to unregistered users and encouraging them to register rather than wait for the paywall to lift. All it takes is a paid member’s section to make this work.
One of the largest forums online, Gaia Online, centers around games and anime. Users have avatars and posting earns them currency, which they can use to buy customizations for those avatars. Before the pay systems were implemented, user participation was the only way for Gaians to earn that currency, making it highly valued. Users love games, even simple games that reward posting.
For small forums, particularly those just starting out, it can be daunting to be the one to bring up a topic first. Therefore, to encourage participation and discussion, you should monitor trending topics and create threads for those topics. When you start the discussion, you encourage users to jump in to leave their opinions.
When a guest visits a forum and makes the choice whether to register, they will often look for the most recent posts in various threads and subforums, to make sure they aren’t trying to join a dead forum. If you have entire subforums dedicated to topics no one posts about, it’s probably a good idea to merge them with your existing subforums, or hide them entirely. This way, guests won’t get the wrong impression and will see a smaller, but more lively, forum to join.
If you’re trying to start a small forum based around, for example, marketing, you might consider finding some of the larger marketing forums that exist and participating on them. When people ask about other resources, you can bring up your forum. You can even include the link in your signature or in your profile on those boards.
If your forum is one part of a larger website, you can encourage forum participation by holding contests with relevant prizes. The idea is exactly the same as holding contests on Facebook, for example, only it requires that users participate on your forum rather than like your social media pages.
Another reference here to Something Awful; the creator, Lowtax, has a Twitter account. He often uses it to keep users up to date on when the forum is experiencing downtime, but he also uses it for a variety of other reasons. It’s a good example of how you can use a forums-related social media account to attract users to your particular brand of social commentary.
Mentioned above, registration for a forum – particularly one needing admin approval – can be a large investment for a guest just looking to read a single thread or ask a single question. There are plugins for BBS software suites you can use, however, to enable third part registration and posting. A Facebook account or a Google account might suffice to allow a user quick access for participation.
Users like to be recognized for their contributions, so you could implement a monthly recognition program for the best contributors. You could also include a once-per-six-months limit on recognition, to avoid the same person taking over the recognition month after month.
Many people avoid forums for casual, everyday discussions because they’re limited in what can be posted, typically to just text and images. However, forum code can be upgraded to allow video embeds and other media formats, so having a modern forum is not out of the realm of possibility.
Many marketers scoff at the idea of forum marketing as a route to success, but it can be very potent. Therefore, to attract a certain type of user, you can allow free advertising in one dedicated section. As long as you keep it moderated, you should have no trouble with it.
If you have any limited quantity items or forum bonuses to give away, you can track referrals and reward users who spread the word most effectively. Simple and easy.
This one works best if outside users can’t see the content of the bonuses forum; give away bonuses to forum users. A simple 10% discount or a free ebook that usually costs money can be adequate incentive to get users to register and participate.
Okay, so it’s not one weird trick you can use to make marketers hate you, but you might be surprised at how effective some well-targeted advertising can be.
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