Forum launch
First, you’ll need an enormous rocket…

Launching a new forum community can be daunting. This is true even for those of us who have done it before, but increasingly communities are being launched by people with no prior experience of the medium. Forum communities are increasingly becoming a vital part of product marketing, and I find I’m more likely than ever to meet with people who know they need a forum but don’t know how to launch one successfully. Every community is different, but there are a few important things that need to be in place before a forum launches, and they’re often overlooked.

Proper theming

Your forum theming is the first thing that new users see when they enter your community. They’ll make a decision about how they feel about your community’s look before they’re even aware they’ve noticed it. Some questions you need to be able to answer include:

  • Does your community match your website? With a proper theme, your community should be indistinguishable from the rest of your branding.
  • Is your layout clear and simple? Your users should be able to find what they want quickly and easily
  • Do you have a custom domain properly set up? Your URL should be as uncomplicated as possible

Making your forum easy to find

I once managed a community for a company who wanted two things from their forum. Firstly, that it should have high traffic and be extremely active. Secondly, that it was not linked from any of their sites and could not be found on search engines. Needless to say, the community was not a huge hit. For your community to be a success, you need to show enough faith in it to link to it from as many sources as possible. Most commonly, a business will link to its Twitter and Facebook pages at every opportunity and neglect to do so for their forum community. This is despite the fact that the most dedicated fans will always eschew social media in favour of a well run forum. The many benefits of a forum community bring are meaningless if your customers can’t find it. To ensure your community is easy to find for prospective members, make sure:

  • It’s linked to from your social media
  • It’s mentioned and linked to in your email newsletters
  • It’s linked to from your main website
  • Your forum categories are SEO friendly
  • If your site already requires a login, install seamless SSO to make it simple for existing users to start posting without a separate registration

A Clear Sense of Purpose

When I first meet with a business that wants a forum, there’s one big question that determines whether their community will succeed: do they know what they want? If a business only wants a forum because they’ve heard they should have one, my first job is always to find out what they really need. A common problem is a lack of focus. This often manifests itself in the way that categories are set up. A new forum shouldn’t try and be all things to all people, and a list of thirty categories covering every possible thing that a fan could want will be overwhelming. To use Penny Arcade as an example, we have distinct sub communities based on art, games, comics, debate, writing, chat and advice. We also cover four large conventions, and promotional categories for our products. The reason we were able to build up to that level? We started with chat and art, then built up from there. There are a number of great uses for a forum community, but it’s important to focus on one or two to start with. A few ideas with proven track records for businesses are:

  • Product forums, where fans can gather to talk about your products. These are great for creating brand evangelists and increasing customer loyalty.
  • Support forums, offering help and advice to customers. These can dramatically reduce support overheads and show prospective customers they’ll be cared for
  • Lifestyle forums, where enthusiasts can chat about particular topics without feeling like they’re being sold to. These are great “perks” for loyal customers, and can generate revenue on their own using banner advertisments or subscriptions
  • Knowledge base: Where you can mobilise the wealth of knowledge and experience in your community to build a great, crowd-sourced learning resource.

Whatever your focuus, it has to must align and enable the objectives of your business. If the community managers can’t link the forum initiative to a measurable business objective, the project is probably doomed.

It’s not as hard as it looks

Launching a new forum community is daunting. If it were that difficult though, I wouldn’t be able to do it. If you have the right mindset and the right strategies in place from the start, the myriad benefits of a forum community will come easier than you think.