A couple months ago we examined the Minimum Traffic Requirements For A Successful Forum. The economics of forum participation are downright brutal: only a certain percentage of users will click through to your forum from your main site, and only a certain percentage will contribute. This type of “top down” analysis is useful, and a good barometer that can predict whether or not a forum will take root.
Participation Inequality occurs because “power users” are rare, only about 1 in 100. “Intermittent users” are only 9 in 100. Therefore, a “top down” analysis indicates you need 500 users to capture just five power users, and 45 intermittent users. That’s a lot of traffic for a small number of users!
By contrast, another way a for forum owners to think about starting a new forum is to examine their user base from the “bottom up.” How many prospective “power users” are in your immediate network? You can invite these users to your forum to get the conversation started. A site owner that invites 50 highly motivated contributors (i.e., working from the “bottom up”) is likely to fare just as well as the site with 500 random visitors.
A good example is a site owner that leads a small sales team of 50 people, who are geographically dispersed. The sales team members are highly motivated and willing to help one another. While there is still going to some degree of participation inequality, each salesman has something at stake and is therefore likely to contribute. Another example is members of a paid subscription service. As paying members, they are bound to be highly motivated regarding the topic at hand.
These examples indicate that forums can work well, even for small groups when there is something to be gained by participating. (E.g., respect from colleagues, approval from boss, improved sales strategies, hints/tips/tricks, etc.)
Note: Thanks to Dan Ekenberg for the inspiration for this post!