Whether you run a business website or a personal blog, one of the main reasons to build a website is to reach other people. If you want your website to become a place people regularly want to visit, then your goal should be to build a community around it.
That’s a big goal, and you can help achieve it and even go a step further by creating a forum for your website.
By enabling communication that goes more than two ways, a forum can create an active online community that not only engages with your content – but also allows users to interact with each other. In essence, a forum can become a valuable part of achieving your website goals.
5 Benefits of Creating a Forum For Your Website
A forum does require extra work, so you want to be confident it’s a good choice for your particular type of website before diving in. If done well, creating a forum for your website can yield some significant benefits.
1. It provides a place for a community to grow.
Having a website that gets visitors is nice, but if most of what you learn about your visitors is what you see in Google Analytics, then there’s a lot you still don’t know.
Getting visitors isn’t the same thing as having a community. A community is active and engages with your website on a regular basis. The members of a community feel like they’re a part of something when they come to your website. They have a higher level of investment than someone just passing through.
That makes them valuable partners in the overall success of your site.
2. It gives readers a reason to keep coming back.
Many websites struggle with turning one-time visitors into regular traffic.
Anyone who participates in your website’s forum cares about what others in the community have to say. They’ll want to see responses to the posts they make and follow conversations on topics they’re interested in.
To stay a part of the conversation, they’ll keep coming back.
3. Your readers can learn from each other, as well as from you.
You work hard to provide valuable content to your visitors. As your community grows, you’ll have a difficult time answering every single question they have. And sometimes, other people in the community will have better answers anyway.
Giving community members direct access to each other can be especially useful for any business that sells complicated products. Your customers can help each other do general troubleshooting, offloading some of your customer service burden while still resulting in satisfied customers.
We see this at work in the HostGator forums. When one web hosting customer asks a question, another often chimes in with the answer.
Newer members get the help of more experienced members, and long-term participants are able to distinguish themselves as helpful and knowledgeable in the community.
4. You can see what your followers are talking about.
If you do content marketing, then you know that coming up with relevant topics your audience cares about is an ongoing challenge. But even if you don’t, any glimpse into the questions and issues your audience has can translate into useful feedback on your website and products.
Businesses frequently spend money and time on market research to try and figure out what their audience is thinking. When you have an active forum, all you have to do is follow the conversations your members have there to gain the same information.
The forum in Carol Tice’s subscription community for professional writers helps fuel her blog posts. She can reference forum conversations and answer common questions she sees members ask.
Because of the discussions in the forum, she knows the topics her audience cares about and can make sure her website provides the answers they’re looking for.
5. An open forum can improve SEO.
Private forums can make sense for businesses that want to create a subscription community or membership website, but if you go that route you do lose out on this benefit. If you create a forum for your website that’s accessible on the open web, then every new conversation your community members have creates a new page to be indexed by search engines.
Not only is regular fresh content good for SEO, but as your forum begins to cover more and more topics (using the language of your audience, no less), those forum pages and user-generated content could begin to show up for search terms you haven’t covered yet on your main website.
How to Create a Forum on Your Website
Ready to set up your website forum? Here are three steps to get started.
1. Choose the right web hosting plan.
If you’re ready to get started and create a forum on your website, then one of your first steps is to evaluate if your web hosting provider is up for the job. If your forum accomplishes the goal of bringing a community of regular visitors to your website, then you can expect an uptick in traffic.
Make sure the web hosting plan you have now can support the forum software you choose to use and the increase in traffic likely to occur. If your current plan isn’t going to cut it, take time to figure out a better option before you start building your forum.
2. Choose the right web forum software.
Next, you’ll need software to create your forum with. Many of the most popular options are free and offer open-source software. A few of the top solutions to look into are:
Spend some time researching the different software options to get a feel for which will work best for you.
3. Create your forum.
The right forum software should make this part relatively easy. The software you choose should offer resources to help you get started. Use them to get up to speed and start getting the basic structure of your forum in place.
How to Make Your Forum Successful
For your forum to achieve your goals, you need to approach it with a strategy. These seven steps can help your forum go from a promising idea to a successful community-building tool.
1. Clarify your forum’s themes.
What is your forum going to be about? People need to know what they’ll be joining before they can decide if it’s right for them or not. Before you launch your forum, clarify the primary themes and topics that people will be discussing there.
When you launched your website, you (hopefully) took some time to figure out your unique positioning statement – what makes your website different from similar ones and why your visitors should care. Now you’ll need to do the same thing for your forum.
Think about why it’s valuable from your audience’s point of view. What topics and issues will they want to discuss? Why should they do it on your website’s forum? Obviously, your forum’s themes should relate to what you cover on your website. Beyond that, get more specific in working out what the forum’s purpose and focus will be.
2. Create a structure.
Now turn the themes you settled on into a clear structure. Decide on the main categories and subcategories to divide your forum into.
Your URL structure should be intuitive. Organizing discussions into a few main topics will make it easier for your members to find the information they need. So again here, have your target audience top of mind. What categories will make the most sense to them in helping them find what they’re looking for?
The structure you create in the beginning doesn’t have to be set in stone. As you see how people interact in the forum over time, you may find that adding new categories or re-arranging how they’re organized works better. Know that your forum structure can evolve as needed, but do your best to make it intuitive and clear to begin with.
3. Develop clear rules.
You may hope your target audience consists of nothing but the most pleasant and respectful people on the internet – but it is still the internet we’re talking about. When people can interact with others anonymously behind their screens, some inevitably show their worst sides.
You can’t just launch your forum and hope for the best. You need to start out planning for the worst. Think about what you want your forum conversations to look like, and explicitly what you don’t want them to include. For that latter question, a look at active comment sections around the web will show examples of what you want your members to avoid.
Spend some time reviewing the rules of other forums around the web as well. Their rules can serve as a jumping off point for you to develop yours. As an example, some rules you may want to include could be:
- Be respectful to other community members, even when there’s a disagreement
- No slurs or other discriminatory behavior
- No name calling
- No links to or recommendations of illegal items or activities in the forum
- No NSFW (not safe for work) material
- No spamming
Make sure you post the rules at the top of the forum where everyone will see them. Add a note that everyone who participates in the forum is agreeing to abide by the rules.
And develop a process for what you’ll do when someone breaks the rules. How many warnings will you provide before banning a user? Are there steps a banned user can take to be reinstated?
Your rules won’t be worth much if you don’t have a system in place to enact consequences when people break them. Write out what that system will be and make it accessible to your users in advance to avoid issues later.
4. Promote your forum.
For discussions to happen, people have to show up. Create a strategy for letting people in your audience know about your forum. Many of the same online marketing tactics you use for your website will be valuable for promoting your forum as well.
Announce the new forum to your email list. Create content promoting it on your website and other sites around the web. Promote it on your social media accounts. Consider investing in PPC or social media advertising to get the word out.
Once you have a decent number of members, this step will become less important. But it should make up the brunt of your efforts in the first days and weeks your forum is available.
5. Create some good discussion topics to get the conversation started.
You know when you’re at a party and everyone’s hesitant to get out on the dance floor until the first brave few souls start dancing? New members of your forum who are still getting a feel for the place are unlikely to jump right into starting discussions.
It will be your job to get the ball rolling on the first few conversations while people get comfortable. Have a few discussion topics in mind and start posting them with encouragement for others to chime in.
Some forums also have consistent weekly discussion threads that can bring people together at an expected time to get talking. Consider basing a weekly thread around industry news, new member introductions, or other topics you know your audience cares about.
6. Moderate the discussions.
Moderation is a big part of the job of running a forum. Without moderation, your forum can fall prey to spammers and trolls. If the forum messages are dominated by people trying to promote scams or a toxic culture of insults – no one’s going to stick around.
In the early days of your forum, you may be able to do all the moderating yourself. Keep an eye on all the active threads and react quickly to any that break the rules. Don’t be afraid to delete inappropriate comments and issue warnings and bans to users when needed.
Over time, if the job becomes too big, you may need to hire someone or recruit active members of the forum to help with moderation. Be warned that moderation can be tricky. If people feel like they’re being deleted or banned unfairly, you may face dissension within the community. That’s what makes having clear rules so important. As needed, you can point back to the guidelines everyone in the community agreed to by choosing to participate.
7. Solicit feedback and improve as you go.
Running a forum can get complicated and you’re not going to be able to plan for everything in advance. You can’t predict what your members will do or want, or what issues will arise as the community grows.
So be willing to actively ask your community for their input and listen when they give it. Conduct surveys or start threads in the forum soliciting people’s suggestions and complaints.
Even if your forum starts off strong, there will always be ways to improve it. Do your best to find out how you can make it better and improve the forum experience over time.
Ready to start building your forum? Choose your forum hosting plan today and start creating a forum for your website.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.