Has your brand ever considered setting up a forum on its website for visitors?
The benefits to a brand of a successful online community can be considerable. It builds visitor loyalty, helps generate inbound links and can let you rank for really niche and long-tail keywords and phrases. If it’s successful, a forum can work wonders for a website – but this success depends on it becoming a sociable and useful space. And, among other things, that means no trolls!
So how does one achieve that? Building a successful forum is far from easy. It takes time, investment and enthusiasm. If you’re considering creating one for your visitors, there are things you can do to make it a pleasant online environment – it won’t become a success if it’s antisocial or slanderous.
Here are my golden rules for helping your brand’s forum become a genuinely sociable place.
Set out a specific moderation policy
Although there are many benefits to a forum, there are also real dangers. The main one is that the content is beyond your control, putting you at risk of hosting slander or even negative comments about your brand.
On the other hand, you risk alienating visitors by excessively heavy-handed, biased or inconsistent moderation.
That is why it is so essential to establish a policy on moderating your forum and to stick to it. If you crack down hard on someone insulting your brand but ignore personal attacks on someone else, visitors will question your integrity.
Remember, the way a forum is moderated will set the tone. Make sure you only impose rules that you’d be happy following if the forum was on someone else’s website.
Ensure everyone’s read the rules
Invite everyone to read the moderation rules you’ll be using and post regular reminders. There are plenty of examples available on existing forums, so don’t worry about taking some inspiration from those.
Some of these rules will be obvious – no personal attacks, no spam, no commercial links, for example. However, it’s also worth getting your brand’s legal adviser to take a look at your first draft. These rules are to protect you from legal threats as well as to make your forum a more pleasant place to post.
Ensure that everyone who posts on your forum has been invited to read the rules as part of their sign-up process and then make sure you enforce them consistently.
Reward positive behaviour
You want members to stick around and help one another, even after they have got whatever it is they originally wanted from the forum.
A successful forum is usually based around a core few individuals who support other visitors and provide help, advice or conversation to new members. You need to encourage that kind of core in order to give your online community a backbone.
One way to do that is to reward positive behaviour, for example, people who respond to questions. One way to do that is to give people points for useful replies – inviting other community members to score posts and award points.
By earning points, members could earn additional privileges, such as a greater selection of avatars or more freedom than other members, perhaps to post links or create polls. You should show you value members who are trustworthy and who enhance the community.
Enlist the community
While it’s a good idea for any brand-affiliated forum to moderate the comments being made on its pages, it increases the forum’s integrity if the users themselves are involved in policing it.
This can be done in a number of ways. For example, you can give members the power to flag up posts for moderation – perhaps with a clause that enough votes automatically remove the post. You could also give trustworthy members the power to moderate other visitors. A self-policed community is less likely to be accused of having a corporate bias.
This can also free up some of your time, as moderating a forum can be an endless task. But it’s a good idea to retain top level control. For example, perhaps don’t allow your community moderators to ban other members without your approval.
Don’t allow anonymous posts
Some people may disagree, but I think that the most successful and friendly forums are the ones that require you to register with a valid email address.
Anonymous comments invite trouble, as individuals can respond and comment without any real thought. Yes, requiring visitors to register can take some time and yes, that will put some people off.
However, by demanding visitors invest a few moments supplying an email address before they can participate, you deter them from making snide or flippant comments off the cuff.
This reduces the risk of the forum becoming a hotbed of spam and slander. It also gives you an opportunity to invite them to sign up their email address to a newsletter or marketing email. Don’t automatically enrol them, though, as this could affect their loyalty. As Rand Fishkin advised at SearchLove 2011, keep the self-serving stuff to an absolute minimum and ensure your online community meets the needs of your target audience first and foremost – the rest will take care of itself.
*Image credit: Kicki on Flickr.