I’ve written about driving traffic with forums before, but what about running your own forums to keep traffic and build your business?
This week, I’m pleased to bring you an interview with social media thought leader Patrick O’Keefe. As the recent author of Managing Online Forums, and founder of the iFroggy Network, Patrick has a decade of experience developing and managing community websites.
Preface: Online Communities as a Web Strategy
If your visitors can discover consistent and new information daily, they’re more likely to return. If visitors form relationships with each other conducted through your website, they’re more likely to return. If they can use your site as their own platform for success, they’re more likely to return.
Online communities of all stripes can achieve these goals, from mailing lists to social networks. But forums are at the center.
The golden egg of web success is getting your visitors engaged to the point that they become invested in your success.
A key benefit of running a forum is the creation of “user-generated content” that builds on top of your own content, agnostic of your bottom-line costs. Your visitors can expand your site for you
And consider the opportunity for reaching customers.
In your business model, there is probably a wide net at the top of your sales funnel for “leads” or “awareness”. You probably reach those people by advertising where they congregate: on other people’s media platforms.
Maybe it’s about time you built your own?
Patrick O’Keefe on Building and Managing Online Forums
Josh Klein: What’s the business case for running an online community? Is it only a tactic for ad-supported content networks?
Patrick O’Keefe: There are different ways to look at a community from a business perspective when revenue is one of the goals. The first is the one that you refer to, an ad-supported model. There are display ads, of course, in various shapes and sizes with numerous ad networks accepting communities these days.
But, advertising can take different forms. For example, a classified ad system that requires people to pay a certain amount of money per thread. An example of a system like this is the SitePoint Marketplace, which charges for each thread or listing posted. One thread may not add up to much, but when you consider the volume that they are doing, you can see that they are adding a solid amount to their bottom line
A majority of communities tend to be focused on a particular niche, very specific or fairly general. Sports, a specific sports team, the martial arts, programming, PHP, parenting, health and fitness, model airplanes, television, a particular TV show, and most anything else you can think of that people can discuss or receive help with.
There are companies out there that sell products to that niche and would like to reach your audience. Advertising on your site has value.
You can also sell premium memberships and merchandise. Premium memberships allow members to contribute a nominal amount per month or per year and receive various community related benefits, like enhanced profiles. Depending on what you do or how big your company is, you could offer other discounts, like coupons, advance sales and things of that nature.
But making money directly from the community isn’t the only way to generate revenue. There is value in the community itself, in creating a community around your brand or organization. If you sell products or services, having an established community of fans can help you to sell your products. If they are on your site, they are generally interested in what you do. They are interested in your products.
You have a captive audience, ready to look at your products and hear your announcements. SitePoint can be an example again here – I’m sure they sell many, many books to community members.
If you can create a community where not only you are interacting with your customers or fans, but they are interacting with one another, it can be highly beneficial to you, can create a sense of loyalty to your brand, and give people more of a reason to hang around your website.
Josh Klein: So you invest your time and resources to build a community, and you expect your customers and fans to interact with each other. But suddenly, your community members are talking about things you didn’t expect them to discuss. Maybe they’re discussing your competitors, or even saying bad things about you. What happens if your brand “loses control” of the conversation?
Patrick O’Keefe: It’s important to have good guidelines that are evenly and fairly enforced, to ensure that you don’t lose control. You’ll want to figure out things like the discussion of competitors or critical comments about your company, before you actually launch.
You can go in different ways, but generally speaking, when you launch a community for your company, you tend to be launching a community where people will discuss your industry. Blocking competitors from mention, on a wholesale basis just because they are competitors, isn’t usually a wise thing to do.
If you are going to run a community where people can discuss your product, you have to be ready for not all of that to be positive.
Josh Klein: The forums you run didn’t spring up as components of a larger brand; they are their own brands. What got you involved with forums in the first place? When did you decide, “I’m going to quit my day job and create a network of online communities?”
Patrick O’Keefe: It’s probably important to note that I started managing online communities when I was 15, so I didn’t really have a day job to quit. I don’t know if it was any particular moment or thought. My first site with a domain name was iFroggy.com, which was a web portal. It was a lot of static content and I felt that an online community was a natural extension of that. As I got into it, I discovered that I liked it, and that led to me refining my efforts, creating more communities and gaining more experience.
Josh Klein: Compared to the way most established businesses build their web presence and online brands, your approach was cavalier. Yet your network is as strong as ever. Do you think there is too much “planning paralysis” for people considering building an online community? Do you recommend to “just do it” (then iterate and refine)?
Patrick O’Keefe: Yes and no. If you have seen the episode of The Show with Ze Frank on brain crack, that’s what I mean by yes.
But before you launch a community, you do want to give it proper thought. You want to ensure that you have specific goals of who you want to be and want to attract, as all of your decisions should fall in line with that. You also need to make sure that you are able to support the community financially. Proper planning is important, followed by execution and action.
Josh Klein: Say you’ve planned your perfect community, you’ve executed on your plan, and your community is thriving. Actually, it’s growing like kudzu or a really bad rash. You weren’t ready for such wild success. How do you scale the community and extract yourself from the minutia so you can continue to build the business?
Patrick O’Keefe: It’s important that you develop a solid community staff, so that things can be pretty much taken care of when you aren’t around. You do this through picking good people and training them. You want to be able to leave your community is good hands, so that you can go away on vacation (for example) and not have to worry (too much) about the community.
Josh Klein: Where do you find a staff? Are they volunteers brought up from the community, or outside hires?
Patrick O’Keefe: Generally speaking, staff members come from the community and they are volunteers. You want your most exemplary members to join your staff. Not the most popular members, necessarily, but the members who are following your guidelines, kindly helping people and setting an example that all members would do well to follow.
Staff members represent you and your site, so it is important that they be good. Don’t promote people thinking you can fix them and don’t promote people that aren’t already setting that example.
When you are just starting the community and don’t have a member base to choose from, you may want to bring on good people that you know who have an interest in the subject that your site is based around.
Josh Klein: It seems like there is a real chicken and egg problem with any organization relying on so much user-generated content: if the only attraction were the thriving community, there would be no reason for the first members to join. You need to get an online community past that difficult stage before reaching critical mass, or it will die before it has a chance to live.
How would you advise someone with no previous community to leverage get those first ten, fifty, then hundred active members?
Patrick O’Keefe: I think it’s all about appreciating any and all growth you have and working to keep it, if those numbers are that important to you. Start with a few people – even if it’s just you, a family member or coworker, and a friend or two who have an interest in the subject.
Just keep talking, keep fostering discussion, and keep promoting the site. And, with work and some luck, it’ll attract more people… and more people… and it’ll grow that way.
You have to start somewhere. You start with one, then you add one, and then you add one and… it goes a little like that. Don’t expect it all in one day, but don’t be discouraged by supposedly slow growth.
Josh Klein: Thanks Patrick.