Forums generate valuable content, provide a home base for users, and help build relationships between staff, sales clients, and an involved audience. One of the goals of any organization should be to build up new community to add the strength that a vibrant forum can bring to a site and service. With this in mind, I’d like to walk you through a few of the typical challenges presented in building a new community out of whole cloth to provide better insight as to how a new community comes to live and breathe.
The Third Place
A Third Place is an anchor spot you head to when you want to check out what’s new and being discussed, or what your friends are up to, usually in-between Work and Home. Starbucks long ago adopted the Third Place philosophy for their coffee shops to great effect. Make it comfortable, low-stress, welcoming, and warm and people will come to associate your venue as an ideal spot to chill, have an informal business meeting, relax or just hang out in-between work and home. If someone just so happens to buy an $8 coffee as a result, all the better!
The iconic Third Place is Norm’s barstool at Cheers. He’s not there for the drinks – not really. Ideal forums should be set up as a Third Place with a welcoming attitude burnt-in from the get-go, because building up a critical core group of users like Cheers’ Norm is essential to success. Reach out and encourage hardcore power users, enthusiast, and early adopters eager to dish on all the news or info about your product and service. Moderators should be empowered to enforce a warm, safe, open environment to all levels of expertise and involvement. The Rules of Conduct and all community policies should always, always be crafted with the Third Place philosophy firmly in mind.
All Community is Stolen
Whether it’s a band of steppe-dwelling nomads that settle a river valley in search of migrant herds or a broken forum feature on Acme Inc. that drives curious users to the sandy shores of new user registration on Widgets ‘R Us, community always originates elsewhere.
For some communities, starting from zero isn’t necessary, as extant community from sister sites or services might serve as a jump-starter, borrowing a branch from another community’s tree. In these optimal cases, relevant forum content can be ported over so when users visit for the first time, they don’t encounter a barren wasteland. It’s also possible to “fake it” with seed content and initial discussions prompting the first rounds of engagement. The jump-start is made in the same vein as the already half-full tip jar right at the start of a shift at your local takeout joint. The money is real, the reason is fake, but the momentum effect is proven and apparent. Social gravity is a major factor, and no one wants to be the first to toss a buck in, or the first one to arrive at a party. Keep the tip jar at least half-full and you’ll have a party kickin’ in no time flat.
Infrastructure, Maintenance, Growth
Infrastructure is the bones of any new community, the forum software, threads, tags, and categories. A community can only grow as large as its infrastructure can reasonably handle, like a bridge rated for a certain number of cars. Build your forum in a way that can handle a sizable number of users and threads for quite a while, and include potential areas cordoned off for future growth. Maintenance is the basic housekeeping, eliminating spammers or trash threads, keeping users on topic, ensuring the forum is clean, safe and secure. To start, borrow any moderators you can from where you can get them (in-house hires, staff doing part mod duty, or hire a skilled third-party like Pishgar Community Management [shameless self-plug]). For the element of Growth, which is the qualitative and quantitative expansion and improvement of the forum’s content, consider contracting for the construction of relevant category seed-content, whether FAQs or sticky-worthy threads. On top of all of this, kick off things with a contest or giveaway and add a strong motivation for users to get their feet wet in the new community.
For news media, developers, and publishers, authors and devs who respond to users help build an audience for themselves and establish a rapport with top-tier influencers within the community as it coalesces. These users then go on to actively share those articles or relay information on the issue where they are involved, soliciting feedback from their friends and building a self-sustaining cycle. Responding to questions, comments or constructive criticism from users can be incredibly impactful in propagating a community, increasing the views and viral potential of stories or feature updates. To improve this, make sure your team has access to a list of pertinent community Do’s & Don’ts for engaging with your members. Not only do best practices help build a bigger, better audience, but you can stave off and proactively prevent incidents of community road-kill.
With these points in mind, you’ll be off to a wonderful start. Give your users a spot to congregate, share ideas and generate content of their own and this will add tremendous value to your site or service.