One thing that keeps popping up lately is how different people expect communities to rise up and work together. Communities are hard to build. They don’t happen over night, and you can’t force them. I have been part of many forums since connecting to the Internet, and very few have been able to sustain themselves for any long period of time.
Much like the trend I am seeing with blogs, forums rise in popularity, do well for a period of time, and then slowly decline as a new site takes its place.
Someone asked me how easy it would be to build a community forum around their site, where each person helped each other, much like happens on WordPress’ support forum, and just like with other people that have asked me, I had to tell them that it isn’t easy.
Most of the time when I am searching Google to try to find a solution to a problem, I run across forums where the problem is posted, a dozen people agree that the problem exists, but no one ever chimes in to solve it.
This is the case on a variety of forums because once you have found your answer, most people forget to come back and share it with others. This even occurs on the WordPress Support forum from time to time.
If you want to build a community, there are a few things that need to take place.
Don’t think that having one person leading a community of thousands is enough. You will want to put in place a group of around one “leader” type personality for every few hundred members.
The leaders must be strong willed individuals willing to carry conversations, and spend a fair bit of time doing damage control, polling the needs of the user base, solving issues, answering questions, and starting most of the biggest and best conversations.
You would assume that people joining a forum would have a common need, but that isn’t always the case, and this can be due to weak leadership. Think long and hard about what needs the forum is trying to fulfill, and make sure users, before they sign up, understand exactly why the forum was created.
Don’t just expect them to help each other, most people in any community are looking for ways to help themselves, not spend all day helping others. What do you offer them above a place to air their problems? What does you community do for your members?
Ease of Use
Why do most forums have multiple topics about the same issue? Because the normal forum interface is horrible for finding the information you need and want, or even just learning where the more active conversations are.
This is why many communities are trying a variety of different setups in hopes of optimizing the user experience, reducing repeat posts, and encouraging conversation.
When it comes to phpBB forums, I don’t even participate if they don’t have some form of Quick Reply hack installed.
One system that I like is the Talk section on BlogFlux. The only issues I see are the lack of a top discussions list, and the ability to subscribe to conversations in some way, but I find it much nicer to use than most traditional forum software.
Understanding of the 80/20 Rule
Eighty percent of the content on any community forum is going to come from twenty percent of the membership. This is pretty much a bankable fact. If you have all the other key factors in place, for every hundred members you have, only twenty will really put time and energy into growing or communicating with the community.
What’s sometimes worse is that out of the twenty percent, only half are there to help the community, while the other half are usually only there to help themselves. Certain types of users can be detrimental to a community, even if they are providing a wide variety of content.
A community is a wonderful thing, and can be very powerful, but if you try to force it, or manage it incorrectly, you will only be doing yourself and your members a disservice, and most likely, they will move on to a more vibrant, helpful place to get the answers or help they seek.