7 Reasons Why Email Lists (A.K.A. Listservs) Suck And How A Forum Saves The Day

Email lists (also known as “listservs” or “email groups”) are one of the most annoying holdovers from the ancient days of the web. Back in the 1990s, Yahoo Groups, Majordomo, and other mailing list managers provided a convenient way for like-minded people to find one another and communicate. But that was 20 years ago. Much has changed since then.

Here are 7 Reasons why email lists suck:

  1. Too many emails. You might be interested in the answers to your question but you don’t need an email with every post to every other topic. Subscribing to a “daily digest” cuts down on the amount of mail but still requires the user to sift through lots of junk and in the rare case when there is a post that merits a reply it is too late to chime in.
  2. Repeat questions. How many times have you been subscribed to an email list where a newbie pipes up with a question that has already been addressed countless times? This causes longtime members of the community to disconnect and disengage.
  3. Rich media? Forget it. Most mailing list software was designed to handle text only—no images allowed. Most attachments are stripped away from new posts or (at best) are cumbersome to download and access.
  4. No profiles, rep score, or badges. We don’t like to use the word “gameifcation” when we talk about forum software but it’s a helpful way to describe the instinctive need for users to show off their rank and contributions to the community and to say ‘thank you’ to those who have helped them.
  5. Where the $#% is the archive? Typically, the archive for a mailing list is buried on an external site that is difficult to access.
  6. Limited search. The search box should be built into the interface. This simple step would cut down on #2 on this list – Repeat questions – and help solve #5 – Where the $#% is the archive? – but obviously the email-only format makes this virtually impossible to correct.
  7. Harder to create excitement. Without any ability to integrate this content with your URL and brand, the activity is hidden from plain view. An exciting and vibrant community might look stale and boring.

While some forum solutions are stuck in the past alongside email list technology, modern forum software solves the complaints described above.

Easy to manage email alert options make gives control to the user so their inbox is not overcome. An archive that is quickly viewable and searchable cuts down on repeat questions. Support for rich media and engaging user profiles are more and more crucial as users strive to create a persona specifically for their community.

Finally, making new friends and finding like-minded souls is exciting, invigorating, and motivating. The platform that hosts this type of activity should reflect this atmosphere. That’s exactly what we do with Ninja Post.

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Apply The “5 Whys” To Lower The Bounce Rate On Your Forum

The Five Whys is a technique for understanding the root cause of a problem. The premise is to ask ‘Why?’ five times in a row to discover the real problem. Let’s apply the 5 Whys to a problem faced by many forum owners, a high bounce rate.

1. Why is the bounce rate high?

2. Why are users “in search mode, not browse mode”?

  • Because they’re looking for an answer to a specific question.

3. Why are they looking for an answer to a specific question?

  • Because they have a problem and the solution is not readily available elsewhere.

4. Why is the solution not readily available elsewhere?

  • Because sound, trustworthy advice is hard to come by.

5. Why is sound, trustworthy advice hard to come by?

  • Experts in any field are rare and answers are often need to be personalized based on unique circumstances.

The answer to the 5th Why in this series is where forums excel: connecting users who seek knowledge with those who have it. Understanding this lesson helps us devise ways to lower the bounce rate. If we can convey to visitors that we can provide sound, trustworthy advice personalized based on individual circumstances, we should be able to lower the bounce rate on our forums.

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Funneling Users From Your Main Site To Your Forum

We recently discussed why users from your main site are likely to become contributors to your forum. Therefore, effectively targeting these users, and shaping their path from the main site to the forum, is essential to growing a vibrant forum community.

The goal we set for our clients is to achieve a 10% click through rate from the main site to the forum. Here are some techniques and tips to guide users from your main site to your forum:

  • Link to the Forum in the primary navigation at top of page. (Well, duh!)
  • Insert a “Call to Action” advertisement in the site’s side bar. A small rectangular graphic 300px wide by 90px tall works just fine. For the text, “Got Questions? Visit the forum!” is a simple and effective nudge.
  • Using the ad slot mentioned above, rotate 2-3 “Calls to Action” to appeal to different types of users:
    • Attract people with questions: “Answer guaranteed within 24 hours”
    • Attract people with experience: “Share your story”
    • Attract people with expertise: “Others need your help”
  • Add a Hello Bar (or the free alternative WOAHBar) to the top of the main page and link to the forum.
  • Display recent activity (thread titles, avatars, uploaded photos, etc.) on main page side bar or in the footer of the page.
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Achieving Critical Mass: How Lessons From The Civil Rights Movement Can Be Applied To Forum Communities

In The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg analyzes how social phenomena evolve from nothing into powerful movements. There are three phases:

  • Start. A movement starts because of the strong ties between close acquaintances.
  • Growth. A movement grows thanks to the habits of a community and weak ties that bind members of a group together.
  • Durability. A movement endures because it gives participants a sense of identity and/or a feeling of ownership.

“Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass,” Duhigg writes. In the book, he uses this framework to explain why Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience changed the course of history while others jailed for similar offenses prior to Ms. Parks did not lead to protests, boycotts, or sweeping social change.

Ms. Parks was unique because her friends and acquaintances spanned diverse social and economic circles. “She had what sociologists call ‘strong ties’—first hand relationships—with dozens of groups throughout Montgomery that didn’t usually come into contact with one another,” the author writes. Thus, when she was arrested many different people were upset.

As outrage over her arrest spread, peer pressure kicked in which unleashed the power of weak ties. “Peer pressure on it’s own isn’t enough to sustain a movement. But when the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge, they create incredible momentum. That’s when widespread social change can begin,” according to Duhigg.

The author goes on to explain how Dr. Martin Luther King helped convert participants in the Civil Rights movement into self-directing leaders. This created social patterns that, over time, “expanded to other places and groups of students and protesters whom King never met, but who could take on leadership of the movement simply by watching how its participants habitually behaved.” King and other leaders instilled a sense of identity and a feeling of ownership to participants in the Civil Rights movement (most notably through non-violent resistance) which strengthened the movement and helped it endure over time.

We believe this same frame work is applicable to forum communities. A successful forum often starts with a small close knit group of friends, grows into a larger and more diverse community, and eventually becomes a self-propelling “knowledge machine” that lives on its own accord, even after its earliest members move on.

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Traction Suggestion: Trivia Night

One way to get a lot of users interacting on your Ninja Post forum at the same time is to schedule a weekly trivia night. This is an excellent way to leverage Ninja Post’s chat-like functionality since threads update in real time without the need to constantly refresh the page.

Plus it’s a great incentive to get users to try Ninja Post in the first place, especially if there is a small prize up for grabs. Once users try your Ninja Post forum and get a sense for how fun and interactive it is, we expect them to revisit your site on a regular basis.


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Engaging Users And “Homefield Advantage”

Today Mashable posted “4 Easy Ways to Engage Your Facebook Fans”. This article refers specifically to Facebook, but the concepts are applicable to any online community and dovetail with yesterday’s post to the Ninja Post blog, “Traction For Your Forum”. The four methods to engage users described in the Mashable blog post are:

  • Ask Their Opinion
  • Test Their Knowledge
  • Pair Promotions with Content
  • Thank Your Fans

However, this does beg the question: if you can engage with your users on Facebook, why bother creating a Ninja Post forum? Well, Ninja Post is not designed to replace your Facebook fan page — it’s supposed to complement it.

By channeling users from Facebook to your site you will obtain a “home field advantage”. For example, user content generated thanks to a forum on your own site will increase your presence in organic search results which will drive more users to your site. In addition, there are other benefits to “holding the conversation” on your own turf: advertising revenue, user statistics, and control over the look and feel of the site.

In sum, continue to engage with your users on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere on the web. However, don’t underestimate the importance of “home field advantage.”

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Traction For Your Forum

Getting traction is a major hurdle for most online communities. One of the most effective methods we utilize with our clients to draw in quality traffic is to feature the forum prominently on the main page of the client’s site. Instead of including a small link to the forum in the main navigation, we recommend a large link accompanied by a catchy photo and a promise that users’ questions will be answered in a timely fashion.

Here are eight more strategies to garner users, gain traction, and develop your community:

1. Seed content. Remember: no goes into an empty restaurant. Therefore add “seed content” to give life to your community. Do what it takes to keep the seed content fresh.

2. Invite friends to contribute. This is the easiest and cheapest approach. And most obvious. Start by asking friends and colleagues to contribute. This may require a personalized invitation. Perhaps even repeated invitations. But friends are generally willing to help, especially if the topic is of interest to them.

3. Use social media. Use Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks to invite contributors that you don’t know personally. Ask these users for feedback on your product and/or service. Couple this with a interesting content such as a contest of some kind. (See #5 below.)

4. Advertise. Consider advertising as a way to draw in users. Just be careful to target the right audience. For example, seek a complimentary website or mailing list on a related topic that you could partner with to advertise your site.

5. Be interesting. Entice people to join the conversation by making things interesting. For example, create some provocative threads. You can also offer discounts or coupons or hold a contest as incentives for people to get involved. The contest would not necessarily requires prize per se. However, inexpensive prizes for the top three winners could be enough to get people involved.

6. Obtain celebrity endorsements. I use the term ‘celebrity’ loosely. Think: bloggers or Tweeters that can give you a good word and drive users to your forum.

7. Highlight user contributions. People generally love to see their name in bright lights. Therefore, highlight user contributions to the forum on your main site. To help achieve this goal we developed a WordPress plug in that displays the most recent threads on your blog. If you have a print publication in addition to your website, that’s even better. Use your print publication to highlight user activity on your forum and vice versa.

8. Stay persistent. It’s not easy to build a vibrant community. It’s something that takes time to develop. However, stay persistent. Continue to seek new users using social media. Continue to reward users for their contributions. Continue to seek endorsements from popular bloggers and other luminaries in your field. Continue to keep your content fresh and interesting.

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