For any platform with user generated content, a “Like” button generates lots of reward for little effort, which is crucial. Given the ongoing surge in mobile usage among forum communities, it’s more important than ever to give users an easy way to participate. By comparison, writing a reply requires time and patience and brain power, three commodities that are always in short supply.
For one user to acknowledge another with a single click or tap is a simple but powerful act. It’s gratifying for the “Liker” because they get to display gratitude and give their stamp of approval by attaching their name to the post. Likewise, it’s gratifying for the content creator to be recognized in such a way and it encourages him or her to return to the forum to add more content. After all, most people love to garner approval from their peers.
On the Ninja Post platform, “Liking” something starts the feedback loop in the Hooked Model because “Likes” are connected to the user’s reputation score. So when a post gets lots of “Likes”, the reputation of the person who made the post improves. This approach forces users into a symbiotic relationship where users need to be friendly and helpful toward one another to improve their reputations within the community.
The above image shows a popular post and a popover window that displays everyone who “Liked” the post.
Earlier this week, we examined why unpopular forums require so much effort. One reason is that it’s easier for large crowds of people to generate compelling content than for a single individual or a small group. Let’s explore this notion in more detail.
We know that compelling content is usually controversial, provocative, or extreme in some way. However, many site owners simply don’t have time to create provocative content or they prefer to remain neutral because of their status as leaders in the community.
In other words, the court jester can entertain crowds in a way that a king cannot. It is exhausting to play the role of king and court jester at the same time. And, successful forum communities usually a have a large number of “court jesters” operating at the same time.
But it’s not just the court jester-types that make forum communities spring to life. In actuality, popular forum communities are filled with all types of people. It’s the variety of viewpoints, personal experiences, and character traits that make forum conversations so compelling. Large groups generate the best forum content because it is impossible for a single person or small group of people to emulate this vast array of personalities.
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:
- Content generation by large crowds is easier than content generation by a single individual or a small group.
- A forum that is unmonitored is a haven for spammers and bots.
- 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.
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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- Badges automatically generated by the system. For achieving a milestone…
- Badges only created and awarded by Admins. For going above & beyond the call of duty…
- 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
As a follow up to Thursday’s post about forums and email alerts, we offer some thoughts on the practice of sending “daily digests” that summarize content from your forum from the previous day. On the plus side, daily alerts are a way to keep users engaged (especially those lazy lurkers) and get them in the habit of thinking about the site. On the other hand, many users find daily email alerts to be overwhelming. If not right away, then eventually the daily crush just gets to be too much.
Generally speaking, we think users should have the option to select the types of alerts they prefer. Subscribing to alerts for a particular thread is just one example that shows how alerts should be sent on a case-by-case basis. In terms of sending “daily digests” there are three factors to consider:
- Volume. Is there enough activity to warrant a daily email summary or does it make more sense to simply subscribe to all threads as they are posted.
- Private or Public. Is the forum is for internal use (e.g., a company-only forum) or is it a public forum? The email alert settings for organizations can be a little more aggressive than for a public forum because the content is work-related. However, it’s still best to let users choose how they manage email notifications.
- User Behavior. Ideally, email alerts are customized on a user-by-user basis according to their interests, demographics, etc. For example, a male from Colorado might be interested in different topics than a female from Florida and email alerts should account for such differences.
In summary, as long as the content is both fresh and relevant to the user it makes sense to send summary alerts. If not on a daily basis, then 1-2 times per week seems to make the most sense. Sending a monthly newsletter is a nice touch but we do wonder if the frequency is too low to get users in the habit of returning to the forum.
Email alerts from forum communities come in different shapes and sizes. Or to put it more accurately, email alerts can be short bursts that are sent instantly or they can be a bit longer and contain a summary of hot content from the day, week, or month.
1. Examples of instantaneous alerts are:
- When someone adds a new thread to the community.
- When someone replies to a thread you’re participating in.
2. Examples of summary alerts are:
- A monthly newsletter.
- A daily digest.
Sending too many emails causes users to unsubscribe and disengage completely. If you don’t send enough emails, users will forget your forum exists. It’s necessary to strike the proper balance. We have found that it’s crucial to let users choose how they consume content like email alerts because each user will have a different preference.
In any case, we believe email alerts are opportunities to encourage users to participate. Sometimes users need an extra nudge to share their $0.02. Our goal is to inspire more activity and spicing up the email alerts with an ask or a trigger is an easy but often overlooked way to get users to contribute to the forum.