Many people want to run an online forum. Most believe it to be as easy as opening one of the free forums found online and letting it run itself. This isn’t generally true. First of all, there are thousands if not millions of forums online. Why should anyone frequent yours? Of course there are those who want their own forum as something of an ego boost. Not a good reason. If one thing is going to beat the tar out of your ego it’s owning a forum.
I’ve owned my own forums as well as moderated the forums of others for over 10 years. In those 10 years I’ve pretty much seen and heard it all. All of my forums are still up and running and running well. I decided to put together this little guide to running an online forum so that those without any experience in this area can benefit from what has worked and what has been a total failure for me. At the end of the guide I’ll show you how it all fits by telling you about one of my oldest forums.
Decide on a Focus to your forum
You have to have a target audience. The human race doesn’t qualify as a target. You need to be a tad more specific. Some go for a local forum, say a specific town and allow it to develop topics as the community shows an interest. There are a few that are targeted towards religion, with specific areas for each religion to chat and interfaith areas were all the religions meet up and post messages.
The possibilities are endless, but it does require some thought.
Decide on Moderation…and STICK WITH IT!
Moderate or don’t moderate. It has to be one or the other. Drawing the line at criminal behaviour is not considered moderation, it’s considered smart. If you are going to actively moderate then do so from the beginning and do so evenly. Forum posters are much like a 4 year old: they can smell it when you are biased and will call you on it and then leave.
Over the years I’ve found that if you are going to use moderators, select them the way you would any job applicant. I know of one religion forum that uses a moderator for each of its religions. The owner uses a member of that religion as the moderator. It works well.
Of course I also know of one owner who had more trouble with his moderator than it was worth. That person was fired and the forum is going strong.
This is especially important if you are going to moderate. Spell out every aspect of behaviour in this and then apply it across the board in an even manner…even if it’s your mother who violates it!
If you choose to host the forum yourself, using your own domain, try to do so from the start. I once moved a nine-year-old forum to my own domain and it was harder than herding cats! Pick a spot and try to stay with it. It will save headaches later. I’m not going to give you a list of free forum hosts, run an online search. All of them have their good points and bad points. You have to decide what restrictions you are willing to live with.
If you are hosting your own forum, you will have many options in interface that are not available in free forums. Still, pick one and try to stick with it. People get used to a look and feel to the forum and do not like it when they change. Changing the colours is fine from time to time. It’s the basic format that they want to remain the same. People like their reply button in the same place it’s always been!
Decide, right from the beginning, if you are going to allow avatars, users to post pictures…etc. I have never had an issue with these but others have had their forums crash due to bad code on a foreign site. Watch your step.
Decided on your level of participation. I generally advocate creating an Administrator account and a user account. Then you can post like everyone else and, when necessary, post as the administrator.
On most forums, people will not debate a moderator or administrator. No matter how much you tell them it’s ok. So I find it easier to just create an account where I’m on an equal footing with everyone else.
Opening the best forum in the world doesn’t mean squat if no one knows about it and so no one posts on it. There are services that you can hire that pay people to post on forums. That’s fine, if what you are looking for is some base content to get things started. The problem is that when they are no longer paid to be there, they are usually gone. Of the more than 50 forums I’ve been paid to post on, I’m still a member of only one.
You have to get the word out about your forum. Stick it on your webpage, in your signature and anywhere else you can. Go to similar forums and post with your forum in your signature line or on your profile.
Now that I’ve covered the basics, here is how it all fits together for one of my forums. I’m not trolling for more posters so I will use the smaller one. It’s a local community forum I set up using the free SMF.com forum software on my own domain. This is the one where I moved people. I set up the forum and then announced on its former site that the move was to take place. Then I moved topics…. and announced the move again. After two weeks, a few people showed up. So I took the other one offline for 24 hours and the rest followed.
I don’t actively moderate. In fact, the lowest post count of anyone belongs to the site administrator. The rule on the forum is simple: Don’t Irritate the Admin. That’s it. I post as a normal user even though everyone knows it’s me and that it’s my site. As long as I’m posting as a user, they treat me the same as everyone else. When I post as Admin then my word is law (I think that’s happened 4 times in 10 years). I don’t ban people unless they commit a crime. A real, police are knocking at the door, crime. Or a civil action that is likely to result in the forum being sued. In the past decade, I’ve banned one person. His crime? He posted libelous statements on the forum. I’ve never been sued and I intend to keep it that way!
At least 4 times a year I change the graphics and colours to reflect the seasons and I will alter the banner to reflect the holidays as I feel like it. It’s a laid back and relaxed atmosphere.
Running an online forum is much like running a tiny little country with you are the benevolent dictator. If you own it, your rules are the laws. No one is forced to be there but without people actively posting, the forum has no reason to exist.