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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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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Overcome Participation Inequality With A “Bottom Up” Approach

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!

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Ninja Post: The Usain Bolt Of Forum Software

We are fanatical about speed. Why? Software that is fast and responsive—especially on the web—makes for a better user experience. When pages load quickly, users are more likely to stick around and participate. This is one of the ways that we combat participation inequality.

Forum software can be a resource hog. If you’re hosting your own forum, it can slow down (or sometimes crash) the rest of your site. Since Ninja Post is a cloud-based service that integrates with your URL, it not only ensures that your forum keeps moving quickly but it frees up resources on your own server to ensure that other aspects of your site load rapidly too.

Instead of saying that Ninja Post is insanely fast, we say that it is Usain-ly fast.

Usain Bolt

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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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The 90-9-1 Rule

The “90-9-1″ Rule states:

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

Participation Inequality Pyramid

One of our goals with Ninja Post is to achieve a more equitable participation distribution in online communities. To combat this phenomenon, known as “participation inequality” we have made the following items cornerstones of Ninja Post software:

  • Make it fast and easy to sign up.
  • Make the site fast and responsive.
  • Send email alerts when one a user’s thread is updated to draw users back to the site.
  • Allow users to vote a post up or down as a way to get involved without having to compose a reply.
  • Reward and recognize users for their contributions.
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