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Does My Forum Need A Community Manager? (Hint: Nope!)

Many people ask us if they need a dedicated community manager to run their forum. While it certainly helps to have buy-in from people within the organization, the answer to this question is almost always the same: No.

I can hear you now. You’re probably saying that some large companies that have someone (or a team of someones) in place to manage all their social media accounts. Why would a community forum be an exception to this rule?

Well, even in cases where companies have a person or team in place to manage Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Vine, etc. we have found that after critical mass is achieved and community norms are established, forums become autonomous, self-propelling machines.

This is a welcome relief because content generation is demanding and unglamorous work. But it becomes easy and fun when you “outsource” it to your users. As long as there are mechanisms in place to deal with basic help requests from users, the need for a dedicated person to manage your forum drops significantly.

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Six Key Topics To Seed Your New Forum

Starting a new forum can be daunting. Your job is to build something out of nothing and creating something out of nothing is not easy. But we know that no one goes into an empty restaurant and no one posts to an empty forum.

Therefore, it makes sense to seed the board with some topics that are sure to get people talking. Here are a few classic techniques and seed topics to jump start the conversations on your forum!

  1. Introduction thread. Get the ball rolling by encouraging members to introduce themselves. Ask users to answer a few specific “icebreaker” questions, such as “Your location?” or “State one interesting fact about yourself”. (See screen below for an example.)
  2. Inspiration and motivation thread. As the site owner, you have a strong understanding what inspires and motivates your users. Post some success stories that will excite users. Users will instinctively add their own sources of inspiration and motivation.
  3. Social media links thread. Some people prefer to keep their social media profiles separate because they want to project different images on different sites. However, when there is significant overlap between a user’s social media accounts, their true passion, and the forum topic they will share their social media links to gain more followers and exposure.
  4. Help, feedback, and suggestions thread. People love to provide useful and constructive feedback. And when we say that, we mean that people love to complain. Make it easy for them to air their grievances. This feedback is very helpful for us since we are always striving to improve and it proves to users that their voices will be heard by the powers that be.
  5. Funny pics thread. The say laughter is the best medicine. We know that hilarious meme pictures create laughter so it’s safe to say that funny pictures are a great way to cure boredom and get users to actively contribute.
  6. Mobile instructions. One key to running a forum these days is to have outstanding support for mobile. It is crucial to be “in the pocket” or “in the purse”. When your users are bored and scrolling through the apps on their phone we want them to click on the icon for your forum.


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Forum Communities And The Magic Number

GORE-TEX, the maker of water resistant jackets and outerwear, famously caps the number of employees per factory at 150, even if that means building two factories right next door. The company adopted this policy because they discovered that when the factory gets too big, people working for the company become much less likely to work hard and help each other out. When that happens morale goes down, and so do profits.

Research by anthropologist Robin Dunbar supports this rationale. Dunbar correlated brain size of different primates with the size of their social groups and extrapolated these results to humans. His research indicates that 150 represents a “magic number” for humans and the number of meaningful relationships they can maintain at one time.

We have spent many years studying online communities and believe Dunbar’s number is applicable to online communities as well. If a group is too small there isn’t much interaction. But as the group hits the critical mass of more than 100 visits per day, activity starts to pick up. As traffic exceeds 200, 300, 400, or more visits per day then it becomes necessary to institute more restrictive rules.

A bigger forum is usually better because it benefits from the network effect but there is something to be said about small, close-knit communities. Benefits from the network effect typically offset the loss of intimacy but we also note that engagement on a per user basis tends to drop as a forum grows in size. Our experience suggests smaller communities have more camaraderie and users offer each other more support. We doubt that Dunbar would be surprised.

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Community Building: Knocking Down Silos And Connecting Fragments

People within the same organization tend to face similar problems but may not know the best method to resolve such problems or how similar problems were resolved in the past. Chances are that an employee in one department knows how to help an employee in a different department but is unaware that a fellow employee needs help. This situation is problematic because the knowledge is there but there is no way to convey it.

It seems that communities tend to be fractured in two ways:

  1. Divided into silos. Departments do not communicate well with one another.
  2. Broken into fragments. Individuals are unable to communicate with one another.

You can think of silos as isolation at the department level and fragments as isolation at the personal level. Recognizing the opportunity to better connect both departments and individuals is the first step to building a better connected community.

We previously described Ninja Post as a “round table” for your organization. We like this analogy because our platform dissolves barriers between departments and connects individuals across organizations.

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Harness The Power Of Your Forum This Holiday Season To Adopt-A-Family

People who gravitate toward forum communities possess an instinctive understanding about helping one another. On a good forum:

  1. It is no sin to ask for help.
  2. If you can help someone, you should try to help them.
  3. Those that dispense help in one instance often need help in another instance.

Help is in no short supply because forums are usually reciprocal in nature. What goes around comes around. Circle of life. Mi casa es su casa. That sort of thing. The desire among users to help one another is a powerful force, especially when members are called into action to aide a cause bigger than themselves.

We have found that organizing an “Adopt-a-Family” campaign during the holiday season is rewarding for members of community, the site owner, and the family in need. A classic win-win-win. We truly believe that every forum with a reasonable number of users—no matter what platform it runs on—should take steps to give something back during the holidays. An “Adopt-a-Family” campaign is often the perfect avenue for members to collaborate and share their good fortune with others.

In tomorrow’s post, we will discuss the steps a forum owner/community manager can take to organize an “Adopt-a-Family” campaign on behalf of their community.

Update: Harness The Power Of Your Forum This Holiday Season To Adopt-A-Family Part 2

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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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Finding Contributors For Your Forum – They Might Be Closer Than You Think

Participation inequality is a tough nut to crack. Tough, but not impossible. In fact, contributors (and possibly even some “heavy contributors”) might be closer than you think.

We have found the best users—those who we can count on to register and contribute in meaningful ways later on—are often funneled into the forum from the parent site. At least, that’s how they discover the forum for the first time.

In a typical example, most visitors in a given day come in via Google and other search engines. A small percentage of these users register, but most bounce. They’re in search mode; not contribution mode. It is very difficult to convert this type of visitor into a contributor.

Another cohort of users—most often users with existing forum accounts—enter the forum via a direct link. E.g., they have the forum’s URL bookmarked in their browser, they’re prompted by an email alert, or they enter the URL directly.

Finally, a third significant set of users enter the forum from the main site. It is this third group that is especially interesting because these users are likely candidates to become contributors.

We can think of several reasons why this is true:

  1. The user already trusts the site and knows the brand.
  2. The user is fascinated by the subject matter and wants to engage with like-minded individuals.
  3. The user browsing for entertainment (as opposed to actively searching).
  4. The user has a question about the subject.
  5. The user has knowledge to share about the subject.
  6. The user wants to share an accomplishment.

While users that land on the forum via Google (who are most likely to bounce without registering or posting) meet the fourth criteria listed above—that is, they have a question about the subject—they often do not have enough trust, spare time, or fascination to compel them to participate.

Users who are already browsing your main site don’t suffer from these same limitations. They have a different same mindset. For this reason, we recommend directing visitors from your main site to your forum because, once the hit the forum, they are likely to participate.

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Forum Software And The Power Of Weak Ties

Thanks to inspiration from the book, The Power of Habit, we recently examined how strong ties, weak ties, and a sense of identity can be used to understand how forum communities start from a small group, grow to achieve critical mass, and eventually become self-propelling knowledge machines. Perhaps the most interesting and surprising part of this framework is the power of weak ties.

You can think of “strong ties” as your closest circle of friends. People you see all the time and interact with most often. Weak ties are more like casual acquaintances or friends of friends. This might defy expectations but it turns out that weak ties are extraordinarily important when it comes to sharing news and novel information.

To illustrate the power of weak ties, Habit author Charles Duhigg cites research by Mark Granovetter, a pioneer in the field of social phenomena. In the 1960s, Granovetter studied how a group of 282 men found their current job. Granovetter determined that weak ties were crucial to finding employment because “weak ties give us access to social networks where we don’t otherwise belong.”

Weak ties are absolutely critical for news of job openings to spread from one clique to another. However, the power of weak ties is not limited to news about job openings. It is equally relevant to the way habits, schools of thought, and social patterns permeate through the world at large.

The power of weak ties is especially pertinent to forum communities. Forums excel at creating weak ties for many reasons. For example, forums connect people who:

  • …are likely to be friendly due to a shared interest.
  • …would otherwise never meet in real life.
  • …possess different levels of expertise.
  • …come from different social circles and parts of the world.
  • …are keen to share knowledge with one another have an eye toward self-improvement.

We know that weak ties are like bridges that shuttle novel information from one group to another. While it could be argued that forum communities are prone to isolation, more like an island in the middle of the Pacific than a diverse and well connected city-state, we believe that open platforms which foster civil discussions, even among users with unique viewpoints, allow weak ties to flourish. When weak ties abound, we like to say they bind together to create a motivational force field.

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