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Forums Aren’t Hard to Build. Community Is.

by Jason Unger, Founder

Over the years, I’ve built dozens of forums and message boards for clients (and even some as side projects).

The creators of WordPress have an amazing, easy-to-integrate forum software in bbPress, which can be managed simply and through the WordPress dashboard.

Before bbPress, I used stand-alone products like vBulletin and phpBB to manage forums.

Even though the software is completely different, there’s one thing that’s always consistent in building forums: it’s not about the forums — it’s about the community.

What Makes Your Forum Unique?

Even though it’s clearly in our interest to build websites like forums for our clients, it’s also our responsibility to share our experiences doing that — and in some cases, that means advising them not to do it.

The Internet is saturated with places to talk. To share. To message.

For every idea you have for a forum that could be popular, there’s already a Facebook Group, a mailing list, a Reddit forum, and more covering it.

Now look – obviously, you could have some extremely specific interest that isn’t widely discussed online … but that’s a reason why it’s not going to work. If it’s not already being discussed, it’s not because there’s no place to do it.

The technology to post and respond to messages has existed since newsgroups in the 1980s, and really took off with software like vBulletin in the ’90s.

Really ask yourself: what makes your forum unique? How is it different than other platforms that already exist?

I experienced this the hard way, when in the late ’90s, I added forum software to my baseball site, HyperBaseball.com.

I was active in a number of other baseball message boards, and when one of them started going downhill, I was able to convince a number of the members of that board to come to our site.

It was great. It was a huge influx of traffic and community. But after awhile, I stopped investing the time and resources into the site, and so the community left and went to another baseball forum to talk.

We weren’t unique enough or have the value proposition to keep people around when they could easily go some place else … which they did.

Which Came First: The People or the Community?

Here’s the biggest difficulty in managing a forum: the community.

You can’t have a community without people. And you can’t have people without a community.

It’s beyond difficult to get people to be active on a forum if no one else is.

Why would they be? Who wants to talk to themselves?

No one does.

If you don’t have people, you can’t get people.

It sounds like a Catch 22, and it really is.

How Can You Succeed With Forums?

The only thing that makes your forum unique is the community. That’s the only reason why people are there in the first place — to talk to each other.

Most of the successful forums I know started years ago, before social networking exploded into the massive force it is today. So they’ve had years of discussions to build off of, and they’re focused on specific topics with extremely interested community members.

They’re people who love to talk about gadgets, or movies, or TV shows, or web development, or whatever. And even though I like all of those things, too, I don’t have as much time as I used to to sit around and talk about them.

Real life takes people away from their keyboards, so if you’re targeting people who don’t sit at a desk all day, you’re probably not going to succeed.

If you’re going to start a forum now, you’ll find it easier to build community if you have some existing infrastructure. For example, if you have a blog that gets lots of comments, build off of that. If you have an existing website and an email list that engages with your emails, build off of that.

You can’t just say that you have a community and it magically appears; growing it takes time and effort. As I’ve said before, you can’t just build it and expect them to come.

Building a community is a full-time job, and one person can’t do it alone.

It’s just like real life … because it is.

Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

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About Jason Unger

Jason Unger is the Founder of Digital Ink. He built his first website on Geocities, and hasn't looked back since. Digital Ink tells stories for forward-thinking businesses, mission-driven organizations, and marketing and technology agencies in need of a creative and digital partner.

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