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.

Posted in Misc. Forum Discussion | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How Forum Communities Defy The Laws Of Thermodynamics

One of the most amazing things about forum communities is that after they take off, they turn into perpetual motion machines. It could be argued that a true perpetual motion machine operates without any input of energy whatsoever, and forums fail this test because users input energy to make the community whirl.

Still, we like to think that our forum communities violate the Laws of Thermodynamics because they become self-propelling. Although users may come and go, activity never stops. The community keeps buzzing and evolves over time.

Regardless of whether or not the scientific community would accept forums as true examples of perpetual motion machines, it remains indisputable that watching a community spring to life and take on a life of its own is magical and one of the most gratifying accomplishments any site owner can achieve.

That’s why we love working with site owners to launch new forum communities and resurrect forums that are sputtering. If a site is getting lots of traffic but still not cranking along there are a number of steps we can take to combat low participation. When it works, it’s like the best job ever. (See comic below.)

Time and again we find that adequate traffic, plus a common sense approach to community management and a platform that is fun and easy to use provides the foundation for a successful, self-propelling forum community.


Posted in Misc. Forum Discussion | Tagged | Leave a comment

7 Ways To Gain Traction On Your Forum

For a forum to become successful we have found the most important ingredient is a critical mass of users. But if you have traffic, how do you capitalize on it to gain traction? We offer the following suggestions:

  1. Make it easy for users to find and participate in your forum. E.g., create a large, unambiguous link from your main site.
  2. Get buy-in from the highest level of your organization (e.g., CEO) and thought leaders in the community. In other words, make sure the “cool people” are using your forum.
  3. Make your forum a welcoming and hospitable place for new users. Encourage participation by ensuring users will get a reply in a timely fashion.
  4. Help users achieve personal goals (especially make money, lose weight, achieve higher job satisfaction, etc.). Encouraging users to ask for help, encouraging users to help others, and encouraging #humblebrags makes for a good mix of content.
  5. Remind users to visit the forum by sending relevant email alerts and highlighting recent activity in other verticals (e.g., monthly newsletter).
  6. Let the “network effect” take over so the forum becomes self-propelling and users visit the site out of habit.
  7. Reward and recognize users for contributing to the forum.
Posted in Misc. Forum Discussion | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Common Sense Approach To Limit Forum Trolling

Several years ago, the NY Times published an in-depth report about internet trolls, The Trolls Among Us. The article focuses on the exploits of trolls from,’s infamous /b/ board but also recaps the history of trolling, defines the word “lulz” (among other terms), and the serious consequences that sometimes result from cyberbullying and online harassment.

A few years later, the NY Times posted a similar article: In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious. This article reports the popularity of Topix, a message board popular in rural America. While Topix boards were created as sources for local news, the article reports they also serve healthy doses of unsubstantiated and often hurtful gossip.

Both platforms, and Topix, provide a completely anonymous environment for posters. Not even a valid email address is required in most cases. Complete anonymity offers benefits to whistleblowers and other dogooders. However, such anonymity is a double-edged sword and one reason why user behavior on these platforms can become inappropriate at times.

At the same time, we know from experimenting with Facebook Connect and similar services that even the prospect of allowing users to go by their real life name and identity makes them uncomfortable and less likely to participate.

Therefore, with Ninja Post, we set out to strike a good balance to limit trolling but maximize participation. We allow users to select a pseudonym or “handle” of their own choosing and we ask them to provide a valid email address. This handle is to be reused whenever the user is on the forum. We know a determined troll can easily meet these requirements. Therefore, we go a step further. We help site owners prepare a welcome message to new users so they understand the community norms and that certain behavior is not tolerated. This approach has kept our forums civil, relatively fair, and inviting to those who are respectful. If a user does act out, we have mechanisms in place to flag and remove abusive content, and either warn or ban the user.

Posted in Misc. Forum Discussion | Tagged , | 2 Comments

I Hope This Is Not Your Forum! Three Reasons Why This Forum Might Embarrass You

From time to time, we stumble across forums on prominent sites that are, shall we say, underachieving. When neutral observers are asked to comment on the design and usability of these boards we hear things like “painfully embarrassing,” “not professional,” and “wow… that’s really bad”. These are not my words; they are comments from impartial observers. But we admit: we tend to agree with such assessments and these examples serve as motivation for us to do better!

Let’s take a look at one such example and see if we can explain why it might be embarrassing to some people. The purpose of this analysis is not to insult anyone but to examine ways to improve performance of your forum community. For this reason, the name of this particular company has been obscured to prevent any undue embarrassment.


Here are three reasons why this forum platform might embarrass you:

  1. The participation rate is disastrously low. At the time of this screen shot there are 13 members and 604 guests. Yikes.
    • What we do: We strive for a minimum of 10% of visitors to be registered.
  2. The design leaves something to be desired. The words “aesthetically pleasing” do not exactly spring to mind. This design is a poor reflection on the company’s brand.
    • What we do: Your brand is sacrosanct to us and we will make your forum look awesome.
  3. There is limited support for mobile devices and rich media. In this day and age, allowing users to quickly share photos from their phones is an absolute must.
    • What we do: Rich media support and mobile access are among our specialties.

It drives us bonkers when we see forum communities that accept mediocrity (or even less). We will never claim to be perfect. However, we are committed to achieving excellence and we will never quit in this pursuit.

Posted in Forum Architecture & Design | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Instill Confidence In Visitors To Lower The Bounce Rate

Earlier this week, we asked ‘Why’ five times in a row to understand why the bounce rate is high on a forum. We concluded that highly personalized and accurate advice is hard to come by because people with the expertise necessary to answer certain questions are rare. Furthermore, users with questions often require an answer customized to their unique circumstances. This makes sense. If the knowledge needed was readily available or widely understood, it is unlikely the user would have a question about the topic in the first place.

So how does this insight help us solve the high bounce rate problem? Well, it could be that users find what they’re looking for and bounce right away. Or, more likely, they don’t find what they need but they don’t have enough confidence that posting a new thread or follow up question will garner a better response.

We need to do more to instill confidence in the user their question will be answered accurately and in a timely fashion. Specifically, we think that by (1) showing related threads; (2) encouraging users to “ask our experts” and (3) showing the average response time for getting a reply, we can lower the bounce rate and instigate more activity on the forum. These steps should help us overcome shyness and/or lack of confidence and, in turn, lower the bounce rate.

Posted in Misc. Forum Discussion | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Misc. Forum Discussion | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Lower The Bounce Rate On Your Forum

One reason popular forums have high bounce rates is because they draw in so many users from Google. We theorize that many users who land on a forum after a Google search leave the forum without clicking around because they’re in a narrow-minded “search mode” instead of a relaxed, open-minded “browse mode.”

Put another way, “searchers” are looking for something specific. Whether they find what they’re looking for or not, they’re likely to bounce quickly. By contrast, “browsers” are seeking entertainment and they’re more likely to stick around if anything at all tickles their fancy.

Although it is extraordinarily challenging to convert someone from “search mode” to “browse mode”, we propose the following techniques to lower the bounce rate on your forum:

  1. Show related threads at the footer of the page or in the sidebar.
  2. Encourage the user to search the forum if he or she did not find what they were looking for.
  3. Make the site impossibly easy to navigate so the user is enticed to view more content.
  4. Invite user to join the forum and explain member benefits.
  5. Display photos recently uploaded to the community photo gallery.
  6. Limit content visibility and require user to log in to view additional content.
  7. Include a “before you go…” popover before the user exits the page.
  8. Use a Hello Bar or WOAHbar to appeal directly to the user and ask him or her to stay longer. Employ cookies to craft specific messages just for the user.

We’ve noticed that forum bounce rates are particularly high for users on mobile devices. This makes sense because users are already low on patience thanks to the small screen, longer load time, and other obstacles wrought by mobile computing. We don’t have a good solution for this scenario. At least not yet.

However, we think the best way to get a “searcher” to stick around (no matter what device they’re on) is to show related content. Proving your forum has high quality content is a great way to introduce the user to the breadth and depth of the knowledge your community has to offer.

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

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.
Posted in Marketing Your Forum | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Marketing Your Forum | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment