On some sites, blogs and forums seem to go hand in hand. For example, this site manages to have both a very active blog, complete with active coments, and a very active forum. Other well-known blogs, such as Smashing Magazine, also manage to pull it off as well.
But is a forum right for you blog and what should you expect if you open one? I sat down with Patrick O’Keefe, the owner of the iFroggy network of sites and the author of the book Managing Online Forums to ask him what he thought bloggers should know before considering a forum.
As he points out, forums are not right for all blogs, probably not even most, but for some it could be a very valuable resource and a great way to add a new community element to their site.
Why Have a Forum?
The first question most bloggers need to answer is why they want a forum in the first place. Blogs, by their very nature, act very similar to a traditional forum, only the blogger is the conversation started for each topic.
However, for some sites, that may not be enough. Often times, comments tend to go off topic or introduce new stories that the blogger(s) can’t cover on the main site. This can create a problem for other commenters and can cause the conversation to go astray. However, a forum may be able to fix that.
“On a blog, a blogger or a team of bloggers tend to control the topics introduced – a forum would allow those people who want to discuss other issues a place where they can start their own topics,” Patrick said.
In short, a forum is an ideal place for visitors to talk about the issues that are related to your site, but aren’t or can’t be discussed on the blog itself. It lets commenters, who would otherwise be forced to go off-track with their replies, have a place to put their thoughts while keeping the flow of the site clean.
However, not every site has that problem, including many with very high traffic. Some, by design or by nature, are more one-way. As such, it is important to look beyond the reasons for having a forum and see if it might actually work.
Would a Forum Work?
The ugly truth is that most forums are started and then go nowhere. Very few community sites grown to become very active in any way and most shut down after making barely a blip on the radar.
When determining whether a forum could work on your site, the best indication is the comments section and how much people are participating now. However, according to Patrick, “If you have traffic that you feel could support a forum and you are committed to the idea of one, it’s worth considering. You could always poll your readers to ask them if they’d participate, as well.”
In short, the best way to ask if a forum might do well on your site is to simply ask your readers if it is something they would be interested in and, if there is enough of them to keep the community alive, it is likely a good idea. That is, so long as you’re willing to invest the needed work into it.
What is Required?
Unfortunately, a forum can be a major headache. As anyone who has been a moderator or administrator on a busy forum knows that it involves constant vigilance and, at times, a firm hand. In addition to trolls and spammers, which are a part of blogging life now, one also has to deal with the personal interactions between members, managing a new application and creating a whole new set of rules and regulations.
According to Patrick, “A forum is a committment and a responsibility. Too many people just throw a forum online and then leave it. You just can’t do that. It takes time to manage – from setting up to enforcing policies, to posting (if appropriate) and dealing with trouble makers, it is something that becomes a part of your life. It doesn’t have to take up hours a day, but generally speaking, you’ll probably want to visit on most days.”
Because of this, a forum is not something you should add lightly to your site. It is a major addition that has the potential to be both a big draw and a compete nightmare.
What if the Forum Doesn’t Take Off?
Sometimes, even with the best efforts and most positive signs, a forum on a site may not take off. If that happens, there may be a few things you can do to help jump start it. According to Patrick, they include the following:
- Increase your own participation, post items there for discussion and respond to whatever is posted when appropriate.
- Tightly integrate your forum with your blog, make it feel that it is one site, not two separate ones.
- Use discussions from your forum as starting points for blog entries, see Darren Rowse’s Digital Photography School for an example.
However, if these things fail to generate any serious interest in the forum, there is a chance it wasn’t meant to be and it could be time to pull the plug. Having an empty and abandoned forum is dangerous for many reasons, the biggest being that they become targets for spammers, especially when they are on the same domain as a popular site.
If the end, if you’re considering a forum for your site, you have a lot to think about. A forum can bring a new dimension to your community element but it brings with it a lot of work and it is not right for every blog.
If you think it’s right for you, definitely consider giving it a go. It’s a great way to make your site “sticky”, increase pageviews and build a more loyal readership.
There are risks that come with running a forum but, if you’re smart about how you go about it and your site is a good candidate, the risks almost certainly outweigh the rewards.