Discussion forums are based around conversations. They are typically open discussions started around a topic and category and continued openly among members that have access to that particular category. They are like the commons or quad at a university. While each member has their own identity and identifiers, the activity happens in the common area – the category and topic of discussion. This differs from a social network like Facebook in that most of the activity happens on each individual’s home or profile page rather than a common community area.
To be fair, Facebook has worked hard to make your homepage work like a forum by showing you relevant posts from other people in your homepage timeline. Previous social networks like Myspace were geared more to everything happening on your homepage or someone else’s profile page. Still though, we can say that social networking platforms like Facebook and messaging platforms like Twitter focus more on what different individuals are saying or doing vs the group community conversations that are the foundation of all activity in the forums.
A post in a forum also differs from other social networking platforms in that there are much larger limits on post size and they have additional optional features such as text markup, file uploads including inline picture additions and commenting, ability to post programming code snippets, and the like. In terms of the available features in their creation, forum posts are more like member blog posts that follow one after the other in a logical stream.
Because forums are created with conversations in mind, they are structured to make those conversations easy to locate and participate in. They are structured therefore with a defined category – topic structure for easy access to groups of conversations or comments about a specific topic. On Facebook you can’t do a search for or even find a link to all conversations about ‘XBOX 360 games’. On a Forum, you could access this through the category structure in seconds. If you want to access a conversation about a particular game, someone has probably already started one, so you can go there and join in. If not, you can start one yourself and other members will join in the conversation. The structure has been optimised to create and maintain active conversations.
The structure is further optimized to help people find discussions who aren’t yet members. Discussions have their own link structure to make them searchable/findable through search engines. Many large forums have literally millions of links that match to very specific keywords and these are a major source of traffic and new members over time.
There are three main types of members: administrators, moderators and members. Administrators have control over all aspects of a forum, including technical aspects and design. Moderators will typically have more limited administrative privileges mostly related to managing content, but in some cases also providing limited user management. Members are provided the ability to view and post content. There may be restrictions on what they can post or what types of images or signatures they can add to their profiles until they have established themselves as good actors in the forum. This gets into the concept of Roles and Permissions, which provide for exacting member roles to fit different scenarios. For example, a forum administrator may create different member roles to view and/or post to different categories or sub-forums in the forum. There could be special categories available only to paid member roles for instance.
Connections between members typically happen at the conversation or common-interest level. Members can follow a particular discussion by bookmarking it to be notified whenever there is a new comment. They might also follow another member to be notified whenever they create a new discussion or comment on an existing one. Where they wish to make a 1-to-1 connection, they will typically do it through the private messaging system.
That concludes the brief overview of what makes up a discussion forum. In the next post I will cover information related to the size of the audience for forums.
This is intended to be a seven-part series with the following parts:
- What makes up a discussion forum?
- How big is the audience for forums?
- How are forum members unique vs the general Internet population?
- How can marketers create their own forum?
- Where does a forum fit in an overall community strategy?
- What are the opportunities for marketing through external forums?
- What are some of the best practices by successful forum marketers?