3 Reasons Why Unpopular Forums Require So Much Effort

Earlier this week it dawned on me: running an unpopular forum requires more effort than running a popular forum. This seems counterintuitive because a popular forum requires lots of effort so it follows that an unpopular forum would require less effort. But hang on. Let me explain why an unpopular forum requires so much effort. Here are three reasons:

  1. Content generation by large crowds is easier than content generation by a single individual or a small group.
  2. A forum that is unmonitored is a haven for spammers and bots.
  3. It is difficult to attract new users to an unpopular forum.

This list reflects the importance of making sure your site has sufficient traffic to support a forum community. It also underscores the importance of staying vigilant to keep the forum protected from spammers. And it demonstrates the empty restaurant problem which is that it’s difficult to attract people to a place that seems deserted.

Posted in Marketing Your Forum | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Forum Trends: Access By Device (Desktop, Mobile, Tablet) From 2012-2014

Thousands of users visit our forums every day. Incredibly, about half our traffic is users on a mobile phone or tablet device. The increasing popularity of mobile devices and tablets cannot be denied.

In just a few short years, traffic to our forums has shifted dramatically from primarily desktop visitors to a split between desktop and mobile users with a small slice of tablet users.

In 2012, 74% of our traffic was from desktop users and the remaining 26% of traffic was made up of mobile phones and tablets. Today, in 2014, only 48% of our traffic is from desktop users, and mobile phone users represent an astonishing 45% of our traffic. The remaining 7% of traffic is from tablets.

Tablet usage has not changed much. In 2012, 4% of our visitors visited on a tablet. Today, that number has increased to about 7%. Over the next few years, we expect to see an increase in tablet usage as these devices become cheaper and more prevalent. Our development team is planning accordingly.

The table below shows the how the landscape has changed over the last three years:


Forum visitors: Desktop, Mobile, Tablet

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Pros And Cons Of Facebook Groups Vs. A Hosted Forum Service

We’ve had several clients switch to a Ninja Post private forum after starting with a Facebook Group.

No matter what subject matter, their stories are similar. They started using Facebook Groups because they’re easy to set up but limitations regarding control and data ownership surfaced over time. Eventually they were compelled to find a more robust solution for their tribe.

In this post, we examine the pros and cons of Facebook Groups for building your community.

facebook-group-or-hosted-forum-community

PROS

  • Free
  • Simple set up
  • Many users already have Facebook
  • Email alerts
  • Privacy options: open, closed, or secret
  • Good for small, closely knit groups (e.g., family)
  • Easy to embed rich media such as photos and videos
  • Mobile support

CONS

  • Many people don’t have Facebook, no longer use Facebook, or don’t check Facebook routinely
  • Content “disappears” after user scrolls past it
  • Group content competes against other content in the user’s Facebook stream which is often more provocative
  • Limited control over functionality
  • Limited control over the data (e.g., data cannot be exported)
  • Does not integrate with your website or URL
  • Users are confused between a Facebook page (typically large and public) and a Facebook group (typically small and private)

In summary

Facebook Groups’ greatest strength is their cost (free!) and ease of set up. However, we’ve found that engagement tends to be lower, less serious, and short term on Facebook Groups compared to forum communities. Perhaps that’s because it’s easier to scroll through Facebook mindlessly rather than actively engage. Facebook does a great job with rich media and mobile support but a good forum platform offers similar functionality.

In our experience, the biggest drawback to Facebook Groups is that, without fail, prominent members of the tribe do not use Facebook. This might be hard to believe for Facebook power users but we’ve seen it happen many times! We’ve also talked to users who say they prefer to post sensitive information on their own site instead of inside of Facebook’s walled garden.

A Facebook Group is a simple, low friction option to create a new community. But “free” services often have hidden costs. We believe this is true with Facebook Groups because people tell us they feel “locked in.” For increased community engagement—where both site owners and users have a strong sense of control—a hosted forum seems to provide more flexibility over the long-term.

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3 Reasons Why Country Flags Improve Community Engagement On Your Forum

We recently implemented a suggestion from our users to insert the national flag for each user’s country of origin next to their user name after they add a post.

When several users advised us to implement this feature, we had not seriously considered how or why flags would enhance the forum community.

However, after implementing this feature, several benefits became obvious:

  1. Diversity & Tolerance. Flags emphasize the diversity of the forum and this seems to make people act more tolerant toward one another.
  2. Background Information. Knowing where a user hails from gives clues about their circumstances. This background information makes it easier to empathize with the user and understand what it’s like to be in their shoes.
  3. User-To-User Connections. Practically, knowing a user’s general location helps users connect with people from their own country and can signal whether a person is awake or asleep at a given time.

In sum, flags make the forum community experience more engaging. They’re not always useful — e.g., if your community is clustered around a specific physical location and everyone’s from the same locale, flags won’t help much.

But on boards where the user base is spread across the world, flags create an extra dimension that helps users engage with one another.

country flags for forum users
Posted in Misc. Forum Discussion | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Top 10 Things To Look For In A Forum Hosting Service

Whether you are considering hosting your forum with your traditional web host or if you’ve migrated to a service that provides forum hosting in the cloud, it’s critical to understand what to look for in a forum hosting service before you get started.

This checklist will help you determine if the provider you’re considering for your forum community is trustworthy and reliable.

1. Tech Support

What level of tech support does the service provide? Most forums run smoothly but every once in a while, the s*** hits the fan and an immediate resolution is required! Get a sense for the level of support available to you by speaking with the provider to determine their availability and ability to help you solve unexpected problems.

2. Content Delivery Network (CDN)

In this day and age, rich media support has never been a bigger part of the forum experience. When a user uploads a photo, that photo should automatically be ported to a content delivery network (CDN). This approach keeps pages loading fast which keeps users happy and compels participation. Ask your prospective service provider how they handle rich media like images and videos.

3. Automatic Software Updates

There is nothing more tedious than downloading, unzipping, and installing software updates manually. Many people don’t even bother… until there’s an emergency and by then it’s usually too late. We advise you to ask your service provider how software updates to your forum are deployed.

4. Uptime Guarantee and Service Level Agreement (SLA)

Find out how your forum host monitors and guarantees performance. If your potential forum host is unwilling to provide historical reports that demonstrate the company’s uptime history or enter into a specific guarantee regarding their service, this could be a red flag.

5. Statistics and Analytics

Understanding how users behave on your forum and what topics generate the most interest helps you create new content that appeals to your audience. Does your forum host provide sophisticated statistics and analytics that show trending content? Find out before you sign on the dotted line.

6. Performance and Scalability

Over time, forums grow like wildflowers. But wildflowers eventually wilt and wither and return to dust. On the other hand, forum content never dies. This means that forums become more complex when they grow: more users, more posts, more rich media, etc. You need a service provider capable of handling such complexity; one that will allow your community to flourish while protecting and preserving your content.

7. Automatic Backups

Right behind manually running your own software updates, backing up your forum data is one of the most critical-but-still-overlooked tasks. Make sure your forum host does this automatically. We advise backing up data on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

8. Mobile and Tablet Support

Find out what the mobile and tablet experience is like on the platform you’re testing. Is the default site design responsive to different devices? Is there a mobile app for the forum? Answers to these questions will reveal if the company understands the importance of catering to mobile users.

9. Platform Lock-In And Data Ownership

There is nothing more insidious than data lock-in. Ask about the forum host’s policy with regards exporting data should you decide to migrate later on. If you wait until after launching your community to learn about this policy, it might be too late.

10. Advertising policies

If you’re considering a “free” forum hosting service beware that your forum might be covered in ads that you have no control over and generate no revenue from. You deserve the right to include ads at your own discretion. Think twice about working with a forum host that does not give you this control!

Whew! So there you have it: 10 steps to take to ensure you find the best host for your forum community. Some of these questions may be difficult to ask. But don’t be bashful. It’s better to ask the hard questions now so you don’t get burned later. Hopefully, Ninja Post’s answers to the above questions are already obvious. But if you ask us or elaborate, we certainly won’t be offended! We want to make sure we’re on the same page before we proceed.

Posted in Misc. Forum Discussion | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Greatest Thread Topic Of All Time?

We previously examined some creative ideas to add seed threads to your forum. And once your community is self-propelling and people know each other, it’s still a good idea for site owners to chime in from time to time. If you’re a site owner, what should you say?

One of the all time great conversation starters/icebreakers is as follows:

Name one thing you’re grateful for.

This topic generates replies all over the map from humorous to sincere and from “inside” community jokes to general items that anyone would celebrate. Chances are you will be blown away by some of the comments. Some users will follow the rules and list only one thing while others will list many more.

In many forum communities the most popular topics often revolve around hotly contested debates, “attention whore” drama, and scandalous gossip. If it’s salacious, it sells. While such topics are always intriguing, they become cloying after a while.

By asking this simple question you can make your community a happier, more positive place. We like to say that “gratitude begets gratitude.” And which forum community wouldn’t benefit from a little more gratitude?

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3 Strategies To Test Your Forum Community Concept

Assuming you have enough traffic to make a forum viable, what steps can a webmaster take to test their concept prior to investing too much time or money into a new forum?

After all, galvanizing users to contribute to your forum can be challenging. Overcoming the empty restaurant problem, getting users to make their first contribution, or simply finding likely participants is often easier said that done. Even when done correctly, this process can be tedious and slow moving.

In this post, we identify three techniques to test your community concept and generate more activity in less time.

  1. Lighting rod. This strategy involves bringing in a well known, well respected, and possibly even controversial figure to the forum. Think of this person as a high powered influencer, like a company’s CEO or a special guest brought in to entertain questions from users. (Note: mature forums often have a handful of “power users” that serve as de facto lightning rods.)
  2. Magnetic force. This strategy relates to the subject matter of your forum. How is your forum positioned? We have found that if your forum can help people get laid or make money, users will flock to you. In cases where the forum topic is mundane, we advise altering the topic to be more appealing or employing the lightning rod strategy described above.
  3. Anchor. The “anchor” strategy refers to common interest that brings people together. For example, an anchor could be a physical location such as an office building or college campus or it could be a cause that binds people together (such as those afflicted by the same disease). Another example of the anchoring strategy is bringing together people who share the same goal.

If you have adequate traffic and feel prepared to employ at least two (if not all three) of the strategies described above you should be in good shape to proceed with your forum community. If not, take a step back and consider how you can make your concept more provocative.

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3 Types Of Badges To Gamify Your Forum Community

When it comes to forums and gamification we prefer to keep things simple. Allowing users to give out reps to other users for adding valuable content is the best example of forum gamification because we want to reward constructive contributions without being too distracting.

At its core, the concept of badges as they are commonly used around the ‘Net today is basic as well: the user achieves some goal, and in turn the user gets a shiny piece of flair for their profile.

Computers are perfect for detecting certain milestones: it’s been one year since you joined the forum; you achieved a rep score of 100 points; or you created a thread with 1,000 views.

But in the context of forum communities, where user-to-user interaction is king, this purely automated approach seems rather boring and difficult to customize.

Besides, there are plenty of other tasks worthy of shiny profile flair that are more nuanced. Does the user go out of his or her way to help newbies? Did the user donate to the latest forum fund raiser? Is the user a leader in the community? Is there an inside joke with the community that we can pay homage to? It is much harder for a computer to create, judge, and reward such feats.

Bearing this complexity in mind, we designed the Ninja Post badge system to accommodate three scenarios:

  1. Badges automatically generated by the system. For achieving a milestone…
  2. Badges only created and awarded by Admins. For going above & beyond the call of duty…
  3. Badges users can award to one another. For impressive accomplishments and perpetuating inside jokes…

Most badge systems stop at the first item on the above list. But our goal is to maximize user engagement and user-to-user interaction. We believe that allowing users to create badges and award to one another is a novel way to make your forum more fun and engaging. See some examples in the chart below.

Forum badges

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A User’s First Contribution To Your Forum

Last week we examined 8 Reasons Why People Don’t Contribute To Your Forum. Of course, that research prompts an obvious follow-up question: what steps should you take to increase participation?

Readers of this blog know that one of the things we obsess about is the participation rate. How many visitors are on the forum? What percentage of visitors are logged in? How many users are active in the last month? To improve these metrics we need to understand what compels users to make their first contribution.

When it comes to a user’s first contribution, we call it the “foot in the door” technique. In a famous example, researchers asked property owners to place a small, safety-oriented sign in their front yard. Later, the researchers returned and asked to replace the small sign with a much bigger sign. They found that those who agreed to the first request were more receptive to the follow up request. Similar studies have been done to study recycling efforts and to reduce drunk driving.

Researches who conducted one of the earliest FITD studies back in 1966 summarized their findings as follows:

“Once someone has agreed to a small request he is more likely to comply with a larger request.”

This is a lesson we keep in mind when building a forum community. We keep the registration as fast as possible and we ensure that adding a new post is fast, fun, and obvious.

But a user’s first contribution does not have to be a post or a new thread. Therefore, we offer many other simple ways to participate: upvoting a post, adding a photo to the gallery, or awarding a badge to another user. These activities still have the effect of “loading the trigger” for subsequent participation.

Oh, and of course, we create a friendly, positive, and constructive atmosphere so that users feel comfortable participating. After all, if the researchers in the experiment described above had gone door-to-door with a mean or condescending attitude, we presume that most everyone would have refused even their first request.

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8 Reasons Why People Don’t Contribute To Your Forum

Most forums fail because they don’t get enough traffic. We call this the critical mass problem. However, some forums have lots of traffic and still fail. Other forums have lots of traffic and simply underperform.

We identified eight factors that stop users from participating in your forum community:

  1. No Evidence of Activity. No one goes into an empty restaurant and no one posts to an empty forum. People are reluctant to post because they’re afraid they will not get a timely response.
  2. Lack of Experts. Newbies ask questions that require expertise. If the experts in your community are not visible or accessible, newbies are unlikely to participate. Put another way, newbies need confidence that they will receive a good answer.
  3. Bad User Experience Design. If users can’t figure out how to register or submit a reply then participation will remain low. We remain puzzled by forums that lack obvious cues to register.
  4. Snobby Atmosphere. If users are afraid they will be ridiculed by “cool” users on the forum they become less likely to participate. Arguably, an elitist attitude can be a good thing because it cuts down on the volume of “stupid questions.” But we believe there’s a difference between having high standards and outright arrogance or rudeness toward newcomers.
  5. Stuffy Atmosphere. Forum participants want to feel like they can express themselves freely. If the atmosphere is too “corporate” or if there are too many rules prospects will shy away.
  6. Lack of Anonymity. If users feel like their content could be traced past their handle to their actual identity they will not chime in. Even in cases where the subject matter is innocuous, we have found that users relish the opportunity to develop a persona specifically for their favorite forum.
  7. Crippling Self-Doubt. Many users refrain from participating because they’re embarrassed about their question, they lack confidence in themselves, or they’re afraid they will somehow appear weak.
  8. Easier to Consume Than To Create. Users don’t participate because they prefer lurking, they’re on their phone and it’s difficult to reply, or they lack sufficient incentives to participate. It’s easier to consume content rather than generate content so it makes sense that many users default to this mode of operation.
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