Should we start a forum community?
This is a question we get asked a lot. The answer varies depending on your circumstances but this post should help you figure out the following three things.
- Whether you need a forum
- If so, how best to go about it
- If not what alternatives there are
Does your organisation need a forum?
What is a forum?
A forum is a place for discussion. In its broadest sense, this includes any place where people can not just consume content but also contribute in some way. So the most popular forums on the planet right now are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. These are places where people both consume content and respond.
But when charities ask us about forums they are normally thinking about a dedicated forum. A place where the discussion is controlled by the charity or is dedicated to the area in which the charity works. Typically the charity is thinking about its users and how it can help its users to interact more effectively.
When do dedicated forums work well?
For a forum to work well there is a simple formula:
People With Questions + People With Answers = Useful Content
If you get those two types of people engaged then you will start to build an audience who find their question has already been answered and this audience drives a virtuous cycle because it establishes the forum as the place to ask questions and it rewards those who answer with attention.
When either side of the equation is lacking, the forum will fail. And when forums fail, they fail hard.
How do I know whether I need a forum?
It will come down to demand, so the better question is: 'how can I measure demand?' You can measure demand for either questions, answers or the resulting content. The best way to gauge demand for a forum is to explore alternatives to a forum first and graduate to a full dedicated forum only when demand has been proven.
How to add a forum to my website
Forums require some complex functionality (spam moderation, user accounts, status ranking, etc) so it’s best to use one of the many pre-existing platforms rather than try and build anything custom. Here are the best options:
Website Toolbox - this is a totally standalone and hosted product which means it is very easy to set-up and always improving. These factors justify the monthly fee, which starts to £7 per month.
PlushForums - another standalone hosted option. It has a very modern and refined interface and is, therefore, a more premium option, starting at £39 per month.
phpBB - this is a standalone product but open-source which means that rather than paying a monthly fee for the service, you instead need to pay for website hosting and someone tech savvy enough to install and maintain it for you. Installation and maintenance aren't hugely complicated and some website hosting services will offer this as part of their paid hosting packages. If you choose this option it's worth noting that a number of providers offer free website hosting for charities.
bbPress - This is from the makers of Wordpress and another open-source option. It is the best option if you need to integrate the forum with your Wordpress website. This gets complicated quickly so make very sure you have proven your need for a forum first.
How to get more people to use your forum
So if your charity already has a forum you may be asking ‘how do I get more people to use my forum?’. The first step is to understand which side of the equation is lacking.
- Are questions going unanswered?
- Are questions lacking in the first place?
If the answer to both is ‘yes’ and you have made a bit of effort to publicise the forum to your audience, then you probably didn’t need a forum in the first place. Consider pausing and trying an alternative instead. If the answer to only one question is ‘yes’ then there may be some action you can take to kickstart your forum into action.
You can test if there are people willing to answer questions by asking them yourself. Your staff team can invent questions to see if there are people willing and able to respond.
What to do with a lack of answers
If there are questions going unanswered this is a promising start because it demonstrates a felt need among your audience. To respond you need to find people, ideally volunteers, who are willing to start taking ownership for (a) answering questions and (b) generating an online community of ‘power users’ who take responsibility for ensuring all reasonable questions are answered. Forums live or die based on this group of users and all good forum software will have tools to reward these users through public status (different membership levels, star rating, etc).
What to do with a lack of questions
If you can prove there are people willing to engage with answering questions but no-one is actually asking them in the first place this can be harder to solve. Your subject matter could be sensitive, the privacy level of the forum could be hard to determine or it could just be a lack of momentum. You can try offering the option to remain anonymous when asking a question or breaking some taboos by asking difficult questions to get people started.
As mentioned above most forums follow a rough discussion format where a question is posed and then others respond. A simple way to gauge initial interest in a forum would be to work with your charity’s audience (the potential users of a forum) to formulate a list of sample questions and answers that cover the kinds of things people may go to within a forum. You can then monitor the traffic to these pages to measure interest. If you place each question on a separate page you may also be able to glean insights into the topics that would be of most interest.
If your staff are already investing time to write updates or thought pieces on your blog then one way to open up discussion without a forum is to enable comments on your posts. This can be done easily with a third party plugin like Disqus.
Facebook, Google and Yahoo all offer online groups that can be open or invitation-only. Members can post to the group and others can respond. Members can set their own preferences on when they are notified about group posts, e.g. receiving an email alert for every post, only those in which they have taken part, or no email alerts at all. One additional benefit of this is that most people already have accounts on these sites which lowers the barrier to engagement.