5 Things All Successful Forums Have

Last week we kicked off our series about discussion forums with 7 benefits of adding a forum to your website.  I hope that for some of you it piqued your interested and got you thinking about the possibility of adding forums to your site.  This week we’re going to look at 5 things all successful forums have.  If you’re considering adding forums to your website, it’s vital that you ask yourself whether you can bring all 5 of these elements to your forums, because if you can’t, they are probably doomed to fail.

1) Purpose
All successful forums have a purpose.  They exist for a specific reason, to accomplish something. Maybe it’s to connect people with a specific common interest, to facilitate conversation on issues related to the site, or something along those lines.  Beyond that, the primary purpose is for the good of the people who participate in the forums.  Forums will not be successful if their sole purpose is to build traffic for the main website.  If you’re considering adding forums to your site ask yourself, “What is the purpose of my forums?”

2) Uniqueness
All successful forums have something that sets them apart from all the rest, and it’s not the topics discussed on them.   For example, it could be the unique content of the site, the underserved demographic niche they target, or the personality of the site administrator.  If you’re considering adding forums to your site ask yourself, “What will people get at my forums that they can’t already get somewhere else?”

3) Updated, Secure Software
Forums are prime targets for hackers.  Security flaws are discovered on a regular basis, administrators are often slow to upgrade when patches are made available, and their public nature means hackers get a lot of notoriety for successful exploits.  If you ask web administrators about the best or most secure forum software, you’re likely to get a lot of different answers including commercial applications like vBulletin  and Invision Power Board  (IPB) as well as open source applications like phpBB  and SimpleMachines Forums(SMF).

My intent is not to endorse a specific forum application, because at some point every forum is going to require a security upgrade.  It’s not a matter of if but when.  Therefore, regardless of what forum software you use, you’ve got to be informed about security threats and able to make upgrades immediately.  First, that means subscribing to receive security updates from the software developers.  Second, that means someone – you, your staff, your web hosting company, or a developer – must be available and capable of making upgrades as soon as they are released.

If the thought of downloading a patch, FTPing it into your account, unzipping it, and executing the upgrade script makes your eyes glaze over, that’s OK.  Many hosting companies like OurChurch.Com include a tool called Fantastico, which can install and manage phpBB and SMF with just a few clicks.  When phpBB or SMF releases a security upgrade, within a day or two a new version of Fantastico is made available.  At that time anyone who installed their forums with Fantastico can upgraded to the new secure version in a matter of seconds.

If you use Fantastico, you’ll want to be subscribed to receive announcements from the developer.  When you receive a security alert, disable the forums immediately so they don’t get hacked while you’re waiting for an upgrade to be made available through Fantastico.  Then, after you’ve upgraded, you can re-activate your forums.

If you’re considering adding forums to your site ask yourself, “What’s my plan for security upgrades?”

4) Active Moderators
Forums are also prime targets for trolls, spammers, instigators, and flamers.  Almost sounds like a virtual fantasy world, doesn’t it? In a sense it is.  Some people visit forums with an agenda of their own which is counter to the purpose of the board.  Some want to promote their own site, to inflate their own ego, to goad people into personal attacks, or to hijack the discussion to another topic.  Successful forums are monitored regularly, inappropriate posts are quickly removed, and problem users are warned, suspended, and even terminated.  If you’re considering adding forums to your site, ask yourself, “Do I have the time and patience to adequately moderate the forums?”

5) Critical Mass
You know what it’s like when you arrive at a party or reception, the place is packed, you see people talking and smiling, and several people welcome you and make you feel at home?  Excitement is in the air, and it’s contagious.  Compare that to awkward feeling of being one of the first people to arrive at a virtually empty hall.  You start thinking of excuses to leave and come back later.  Just as a good party requires a critical mass of people, so does a good forum.  Having a lot of regular visitors to your website, can be a big help, but even if that’s the case you have to have a plan for getting people to visit your forums regularly to create that critical mass.  At OCC, we post our announcements in our forums and link to them on our homepage, we include a forum post in every newsletter.  This month we’re doing an avatar contest and entering everyone who posts in our forums into a drawing for free hosting.  If you’re considering adding forums, ask yourself, “How am I going to get that critical mass of regular participants?”

Those are the five things I believe every successful forum has.  In my opinion, four out of five just won’t cut it.  Unless you can bring all five to your forums they will probably fail.

So, what if you want the benefits having forums on your site, but don’t think you have the time, ability, or traffic to achieve all five of these critical elements?  Well, you can receive many of the same benefits by being a regular on existing forums that are related to the subject matter of your website, like say OCC’s Christian Forums (pardon the shameless plug).  So, next time we’ll talk about how to make use of others’ forums to bring credibility and visitors to your website.

About the author

Paul Steinbrueck

Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck and add him to your circles at Google+ as +Paul Steinbrueck.


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