When running a popular forum, there is usually a desire to create a LOT of sticky threads. Some popular examples:
- Introduce yourself here!
- Forum rules and FAQs – READ BEFORE POSTING!
- Site announcements and updates
- The Idiot’s Guide to using this site
- List of informative links
We find that some sticky threads attract few posts. Other sticky threads are simply ignored by newbies who prefer to dive into the fray immediately. This behavior makes us wonder. Does it make sense to have a long list of threads taking up prime real estate at the top of your board?
We don’t think so. We prefer no sticky threads at all. This ensures that the hottest content always rises to the very top of the page.
However, we admit there are instances when a single sticky thread is warranted and there are even times when it makes sense to have multiple sticky threads. For example, let’s say you have a FAQ thread as a sticky thread and you’re running a contest and want to promote the contest too. That’s an understandable scenario, as long as the contest thread gets demoted when the contest is over.
By an large, we have found that users strongly prefer to have the hottest and most recent content at the very top of the page. Maybe your forum has a long list of sticky threads, some of which have not had a new post in a few months. Ask yourself if they are absolutely critical to using your forum or if you would be better served by letting the hottest content rise to the top of the thread list.
Last week, we discussed how the “Like” button on your forum triggers an engagement loop. In the same way that forum communities must make the registration process for new users both obvious and easy, the “Like” experience must be intuitive.
Here are the rules we follow for the “Like” button on our forum communities:
- Make it prominent. The “Like” button must be obvious and easy to use.
- Provide visual feedback. Give feedback to the user after he or she presses or taps the “Like” button, so they know their feedback was recorded. This needs to happen almost instantly even though this can be challenging if the user has a slow connection.
- Reward and notify the recipient. Award reputation points to the content creator who earned the “Like” and send them an email notification with the good news. Chances are that user will come back and pay it forward to someone else, which will spark a new loop.
The “Like” experience is satisfying for everyone involved. It draws people into the conversation because it does not require much effort. Finally, it’s a great tool for both new and old members alike to stay engaged with the community and bring the tribe members closer together.
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.
We know that more and more users access their favorite forum communities on their phones and tablets. This trend will continue to accelerate. How should community managers react to keep their forum active? In this blog post we examine three options.
1. Do nothing.
The low cost, low stress approach. We find that a typical end user will “suffer” through a poorly designed platform if the community has achieved “critical mass” and the user generated content remains entertaining. This approach seems risky because there is so much competition for users’ attention.
2. Responsive design.
The modern approach. In this scenario, the forum platform maintains the same functionality but the page automatically responds to the size of the user’s device when it loads. Some custom programming is required but the underlying mechanics of the site can typically stay the same.
3. Build a native app.
The “app store” approach. This approach is appealing because it gives you “shelf space” in the app store. But it can be expensive and time consuming. Tapatalk is one option that exists to port your forum into its own app but a branded version of your forum requires a $99 setup fee and ongoing costs of $69 per month.
We are fans of the second option — responsive design for forum platforms. The biggest drawback to this approach is that, as a forum owner or community manager, you’re competing against apps like Facebook and Instagram that sit right on the home screen of the user’s phone. Unfortunately, a responsive forum platform does not automatically give you presence on the home screen of the user’s mobile phone.
In this day and age, such a presence is necessary to win the attention of your users. When they’re bored and looking at their phones, it must be easy for them to access your forum.
We create a shiny shortcut for Ninja Post forum communities but we typically rely on users to add the shortcut themselves. It is preferable to take steps to add your forum to Apple’s App Store and to the Google Play store, and this is a service we are beginning to offer to the website owners we work with.
Earlier this week we compared ugly forum software to the way web directories looked in 1996. To recap, web directories (i.e., early search engines) used a top-down system of categories to organize websites. Some forum platforms still use this design.
Looking back on the way Yahoo used to be, we can see why this approach proved to be ineffective: the Web is too vast and changes too quickly be broken into simple categories.
Eighteen years is a long time. Web design principles have evolved during and we are proud to incorporate some of these advancements into Ninja Post. Today, media companies like Yahoo, Twitter, and YouTube recognize the importance of showing trending content to users. We also know that search engines emphasize keyword searches that return results based on relevancy.
The takeaways with regards to forum software design are as follows:
- Emphasize trending content on the main page of your forum.
- Allow users to quickly and effectively search and filter threads.
The image below illustrates how these concepts are embedded into the Ninja Post community platform.
Most won’t admit it, but many site owners are embarrassed by the image projected by their community platform. We can’t count how many times we’ve seen a beautifully designed site with an ugly forum. While working hard to correct this problem, we identified three of the most embarrassing things about legacy forum platforms:
- Design of the forum page is not in sync with the main site.
- Forum navigation does not match the main site.
- Impossible to return to main site.
Unfortunately, most site owners have become disenfranchised and have come to accept the status quo. We’re here to say it doesn’t have to be that way; that there’s hope and a light at the end of the tunnel.
Our goal with Ninja Post is to fix that perception by correcting the flaws outlined above to create a more engaging community experience; something site owners can be proud of.
If you are the type of community manager that takes pride in your work and strives to improve then we should talk more.
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:
- The participation rate is disastrously low. At the time of this screen shot there are 13 members and 604 guests. Yikes.
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: We strive for a minimum of 10% of visitors to be registered.
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: Your brand is sacrosanct to us and we will make your forum look awesome.
- 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.
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:
- Show related threads at the footer of the page or in the sidebar.
- Encourage the user to search the forum if he or she did not find what they were looking for.
- Make the site impossibly easy to navigate so the user is enticed to view more content.
- Invite user to join the forum and explain member benefits.
- Display photos recently uploaded to the community photo gallery.
- Limit content visibility and require user to log in to view additional content.
- Include a “before you go…” popover before the user exits the page.
- 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.
In last week’s blog post we noted, “Forums are desktop applications in a mobile age.” On the bright side, we believe that many existing monetization strategies for forum communities remain applicable no matter how their users access a given forum. However, for a forum to remain profitable, its audience must stay engaged and user contributions must remain high. If forum owners offer a lousy experience to users on mobile devices, contributions will decline. If contributions decline, then so does the ability for site owners to generate revenue.
We believe that users on mobile devices are unlikely to write long posts. On the other hand, we believe mobile users are likely to post pictures while on-the-go. If the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true, then the shift to mobile represents a great opportunity to capture interesting and provocative user generated content.
This opportunity explains why one of our most important goals is to provide users with an outstanding mobile experience. Ninja Post already provides a user interface specifically designed for mobile devices and supports mobile photo uploads when users are on-the-go. The next step is to support mobile video uploads; a feature we plan to introduce very soon.