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So You Want to Launch an Online Forum

Posting Date: May 28, 2008

Every day, millions of users log on to their favorite online forums to share advice and discuss everything from their favorite (or least favorite) products to world news and politics. In his new book Managing Online Forums: Everything You Need to Know to Create and Run Successful Community Discussion Boards (AMACOM, 2008), Patrick O’Keefe (who manages seven communities), outlines the basics to get your online forum up and running.

(The following excerpt is adapted from O’Keefe’s book.)

Laying the Groundwork
To start your community off right, you must have your mind in the right place. You should know what your community is, what you are trying to accomplish, what you'll need to do to accomplish it, and you'll need to ensure that you can provide the community with the stability that it needs to flourish long into the future. This following information gives you an idea of what to expect and will help you to make some of those important, initial decisions.

Fundamental Decisions
Before launching your community, inevitably there are some decisions to make or, at least, some things that you should think about that will help determine your community's existence. Some of them will affect most everything that you do from this point forward, from decisions you make to any work that you do.

What Will Your Community Cover?
Although a general, discuss-basically-anything community is always an option, chances are that you want to focus on some specific subject or niche, even if it is fairly general. Whether it's programming (or just a specific programming language), sports (or just football), writing (or just nonfiction), you'll need to determine what subject will be the focus of your community. You don't want to try to be everything to everyone. You want to do what you do—and do it well.

Whatever the subject, it is usually not important that you be an expert on it or even know it all that well—the most important thing is that you are committed to it and to your community.

For instance, I own KarateForums.com (an active martial arts discussion community) and PhotoshopForums.com (an active Photoshop help and discussion community). I've never done any martial arts, and when I started PhotoshopForums.com, I had never even used Photoshop (a kind user sent me a—yes, legal—copy of Photoshop Elements a bit later). Again, you don't need to know about the subject matter as long as you are committed to the idea. I started these communities for various reasons. Besides random revelations, I sensed a need, saw that a good domain name was available, and thought that I could do it better than anyone else—and not just talk about it but actually do it.

You can surround yourself with smart people (or people smarter than you) on your staff of whom you can ask questions relevant to the subject of your community, on those (perhaps rare) occasions where it will be needed. Don't get me wrong, being passionate about the subject of your community can be very helpful and may help ensure your passion for the community itself (and, as such, your long-term interest and enjoyment in your work, which is very important).

But, I'll say it again: Have passion for the community. If you have it, you can succeed. If you have passion for the subject, but no passion for the community or for running the community, you really don't have very much at all and you're in for a struggle.

Whom Do You Want to Attract?
Even a community that is for "everyone" really isn't for everyone because by nature, a community for everyone will turn certain people off. Make sense? What type of users are you after?

This doesn't have to be that specific. But visualizing it can help you to make decisions and plot a course. For instance, you can simply target anyone interested in having a baby—or you can target pregnant mothers under the age of twenty-five. You can target baseball fans—or fans of the New York Yankees. You can target computer users—or you can target users of a certain operating system. Does your community target a specific age group or gender? Are you looking for users who are experts in your subject matter? Or beginners? Attempting to bring them both together? Whomever you target, you'll want to develop your community with them in mind.

You will probably (and naturally) attract people outside of your targeted audience, and chances are that'll be perfectly OK with you. But having your primary audience or audiences in mind will help you to make appropriate decisions about your community.

What Will the Benefits of Your Community Be?
How will you attract people to your community? What will make them come? And stay? These can be few or many—tangible or intangible. You can help people or provide them with useful information, you can provide a friendly atmosphere or an exclusive atmosphere, you can give them direct access to your company—you can do a lot of things. The things that make you interesting, unique, different, and special—those will be your key benefits.

Assuming it exists, you can learn from your "competition." What are they doing well? What are they doing poorly that you can improve on? What are they missing that you can provide? How are they different from you? The limitations of your competition can be inspirational.

How Will You Support the Community Financially?
Before you jump headfirst into anything, you should think about the money it will take to support your community and keep it online. Sit down and figure out how much it will cost you to keep the community running at an optimal level for the foreseeable future, and plan for that figure to increase. Simply put: Will you be able to support it?
If you would like the community to pay for itself or even turn a profit (or a great profit), how are you going to do that? Advertising? Affiliate programs? Donations? Will you eventually embrace some sort of subscription model where people pay for enhanced options in your community? Chapter 9 will assist you in your efforts.

The bottom line is that you do not want to start your community only to realize in a few months that you are not comfortable with the amount of money that it takes to maintain it.

What Skills and Characteristics Do You Need to Have?
What is the most important piece of the initial cultivation and development of your community? You. You, as the community administrator, determine a lot. You will be a major factor in the success or (hopefully not) failure of your community. You don't have to know everything and you don't have to be God's gift to community administration. You do need to be open to new ideas, open to learning, and committed to doing the best work that you can. Nothing is handed to you—you will have to work.

You need to have good people skills and good communication skills. You need to be able to communicate clearly to users and staff. To that end, you must also be able to understand people and not discriminate based upon the way people type or communicate online. It helps if you have a healthy knowledge of Internet lingo and lingo related to the community's subject matter so that you can understand as much of what people say as possible. However, if you don't know what someone is saying, you can usually look it up, pick it up as you go, and/or ask for further clarification.

You need a great deal of patience. You'll be dealing with idiots and, if your site is large enough, plenty of them—people who, quite frankly, love to and even want to cause trouble, upset you, or rattle your cage. Nasty messages? Venomous hatred? Get ready—they are now a part of your everyday life. You need to accept this, laugh it off, and stay on point.

You need to be accessible to people (via private message, email, and/or otherwise) and be comfortable with it. You are the boss, and any communication method you list on your community profile is fair game. You can't be angry when people use them. For example, an administrator should never, ever have "no private messages!" in his or her signature. If you don't want to be contacted, don't be the administrator. If you put your instant messenger name on your profile, expect people to contact you. You can't get angry at people for using contact information that you made available to the public. You're on twenty-four hours a day. Your mistakes are magnified. Don't forget it.

The best administrators that I know are active participants in their communities. It's a good thing for people to see the administrator posting along with them, welcoming them to the community, and so forth. It helps to lower the disconnect—it helps them to think of you less as some higher figure of authority and more as a person. It also gives you the opportunity to set a posting example that others can follow. Even on KarateForums.com, I still participate actively where I feel comfortable, despite my lack of martial arts knowledge.

You need to be able to avoid taking things personally, otherwise people will easily offend you. Respond without thinking and you will damage your community. You are held to a higher standard than your users, and you should hold yourself to one, as well.

Although you shouldn't take things personally, you still need to care. You need to care about what happens in your community; you need to care what people think, how they feel, and how they are. Caring about what you do is important, and you have to know when to care and when not to care—when things are really important and when they are not.

You have to be able to make hard choices. Sometimes, this means deciding between what is right and what is easy. Don't do the popular thing unless the popular thing and the right thing are the same thing. You will have to make choices that will make you lonely. You will have to make choices that may cost you users and may cost you staff members (that, hopefully, can be minimized through explanation and through involving your staff members in the process). But part of being a good manager is the ability to make these tough decisions—to step up to the plate when it's not fun or pretty.

Technical knowledge is one thing you don't need. You do not need to know how to program (I don't), although if you did, it would serve you well. However, there is no reason you can't pick up small details here and there in the course of your work. It's not a good idea to be so reliant on someone else for all of the technical aspects of your community that you are completely helpless because you don't know how to do simple things like upload a file, repair a corrupted MySQL database table, and so on and so forth. It's not a good place to be when it's 11 p.m., your site has been hacked, and you have absolutely no idea how to get it back online. You should continue to learn every day.

Everywhere you go and everything you do will reflect on you and your community. Do not ever forget that—always carry yourself with this in mind.

Learn more about Managing Online Forums.