If you don’t have a decent amount of traffic (150+ visits/day) or a good sized list of emails (150+) don’t bother starting a forum. Nothing looks worse than an inactive forum. It is best to have around 500 leads and a $400 budget to start a forum. If you don’t have the traffic, or you can’t afford to buy the traffic required to start a web form, don’t spend the time setting one up.
What Forum Software Should I Use?
It is important to choose a software that will allow your forum community to grow. I have the most experience with Invision Power Board and I recommend using it in almost all situations.
If you can spare a few bucks, buy Invision Power Board(IPB) or vBulletin. They are both excellent web forum programs and in the end they will be worth the investment. Invision Power Board is more complicated to use, but it is full featured and more end user friendly. vBulletin is cheaper and easier to administer but offers less usability. Both vBulletin and IPB have excellent documentation and support.
PHPbb and Simple Machine Forums are both free solutions with excellent support. They don’t have all the features vBulletin and IPB have, but they are both easy to use and administer. While both of these forums are potential solutions, they tend to cause more problems than they are worth.
How Do I Jump Start My Web Forum?
Starting a web forum isn’t at all like building a website. Web forums need a lot of traffic in a short period of time in order to get started or else they flunk. Before releasing your forum to the public make sure everything is setup to perfection. Things can be changed later, but it is best if there aren’t any drastic changes during the release stage. Here are a few ways to help jump start your web forums.
1. Write articles and submit them to Article Directories. At the bottom of the article, mention the web forum. Continue to write at least one article a week. Do this before the opening day of the forum and continue to do it for a few months after the forum is open. Article submission will help boost your Google Page Rank and traffic will continue to trickle in to help maintain new user sign ups.
2. Format several very professional HTML messages to send out to your email list. I recommend having a list of at least 150 active relevant leads before starting a web forum. On opening day send a “Grand Opening” email to everybody on your list. Five to seven days later send another email to everybody on your list reminding them about the forum. Three weeks after that, remind them about the web forum again. Each time you send the reminder you will see an influx in forum activity. Its not necessarily important to send the messages out in that time frame just send the messages out as you see traffic die down on the forums. If your list contains over 500 leads, email 100 leads at a time every couple of days. Your leads will continually visit and post on the forums and you might not see a decrease in post activity if you email market correctly.
3. Create a “community newsletter” with a newsletter software like Aweber. There are a million newsletter softwares out there, but Awebers is definitely one of the better ones. If you are looking for a free solution open source solution, look at PHPList.
4. Setup a Google AdWords, AdBrite, Microsoft AdCenter and Yahoo Search Marketing accounts. Try to predict when user activity might decrease. Drive traffic to the forums on the day you predict the forum activity will simmer down. Definitely drive traffic on the first day the forums open.
5. Set the forum software to notify users when replies have been posted in threads they are active in. This is the most important tip. Often times people will post questions and forget to check back. If they are emailed when a response is posted, they are more likely to reply to their own post and then reply to another post.
6. Post articles on the forums in a locked section and email them to your list. Make sure the information in the article is high quality because the feelings associated with the article will also be associated with the forum. If the article is helpful, the user will come back to the forum in the future for help. When starting a forum, I normally post all my articles on a blog, a locked area of the forum and in Article Directories.
7. Create an off-topic forum. Allow general discussion in one forum or another. While this might not directly help drive relevant traffic to the website, it will help keep visitors active and entertained and in the end it will increase the relevant content.
8. Play devils advocate and ask questions. Web forums are known for creating debates. There isn’t a need to create a full fledged brawl, but try to create some sort of controversy. Politely try to point out multiple viewpoints on an issue and ask questions to spark user engagement. In the end, the discussion on the board is what will decide if it will take off.