What Online Community Managers Can Learn from Successful Discussion Forums

Online discussion forums have been around since the Internet’s early days and they’re still a gathering place for like-minded community discussion. Plenty of forums on the web have thousands of active participants and have been around for many years.

Successful online communities also have

  • Mutual respect

  • Appropriate, on-topic conversation

  • A high number of participants

  • A positive environment

Many people land on forums during a web search or receive recommendations from other members of a community. As the average person stays on a web page for only a few seconds, you want him to see at first glance that your community is the right place for him.

The following are signs of a thriving community:

  • Fresh content served daily: If the posts on the front page are months or years old, with very little current content, move on. The most engaging forums have daily discussions geared toward all members.

  • Respectful disagreement: When each comment is met by pile-ons, personal attacks, and rude disagreements, it’s a sign that the community is poorly managed community. No one should be afraid to voice a respectful opinion. In a thriving community, the members respond to comments with pleasantly worded responses and points of view, even if they don’t particularly agree with the original poster’s point.

  • Clearly posted comment policy: Most forums have a clearly marked starting point that includes a welcome message, information about the community, and rules for commenting. Keeping the rules on the top page ensures that everyone is aware of them.

  • Welcome page: The best online communities are welcoming to all new members. Most have a folder where all members are invited to tell a little about themselves and read about the other participants.

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  • FAQ page: A community’s FAQ page allows the community manager to answer the same questions one time, rather than over and over through the course of time. Read several different communities’ FAQ pages and note how they cover all the bases. The best FAQs cover everything you need to know about a community and a brand, in one fell swoop.

  • Positive tone: If a community is a hotbed of negativity and tension, it’s immediately apparent after reading only a few posts. Good discussions are good natured, productive, and respectful. Members are helpful with their comments, positive with their criticism, and know how to disagree without getting angry.

  • Very few technical issues: Successful online forums make sure that everything is running smoothly. If it’s slow to load, has frequent “board burps” where posts magically fall off the forum, or if it’s often down for hours at a time, participating in the community isn’t going to be an enjoyable experience for members.

  • Positive buzz: A true sign of success is when a community’s members sing its praises, even when they’re offline or at another online haunt. If they mention the community to their neighbors or on social networks and recommend that others join them, it’s a good indication that things are going very well.

  • A visible community manager: You may not see a community manager, but there’s no mistake she’s there. Most managers are not an “in your face” presence in their communities, but they’re participating enough to interact with the community and enforce their rules. A successful online community can run itself in the community manager’s absence, but most managers and moderators don’t stay away for too long.

  • An element of fun: If participants aren’t enjoying themselves, there’s no need for them to stick around. Making sure that there’s a good mix of serious topics and light-hearted fare keeps a forum from being a downer.

  • Loyalty: Most online community members are loyal in that they choose their current community over others. They participate in discussion topics, share content, and invite others to join in. They may even defend their communities and community managers when there’s negativity directed toward them.

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