I recently read an interview with Sanjay Sabnani of CrowdGather, who had some excellent insights into forums & building communities. To give you some context, here is Sanjay's summary of CrowdGather & their goals:
In a nutshell, CrowdGather is purchasing communities, and then (it appears) taking a hands-off approach with respect to management - allowing the existing admin & moderator structure to remain & continue to thrive, and they simply work to increase advertising revenue. It's a costly endeavour, but they seem to be getting great results - recently raising a financing round of about $8 million. Also, just last month, they purchased pbnation.com: one of the most popular forums on the internet.
Being at the helm of a company that boasts 135 million forum-specific pageviews per month affords Sanjay some great insights into what's happening on forums on the web. For example, one of the most common questions we get when telling people about Vanilla is: "Aren't forums dead?", or "Haven't Facebook and Twitter killed forums yet?". When asked if Twitter & Facebook have eaten into any of his forum traffic, Sanjay's response is, "We did not see a decline in uniques in any way."
When asked about the delicate nature of making changes to a purchased community, Sanjay mentions that forum communities are absolutely averse to change, citing one example of a CrowdGather-purchased community in which he decided to change the logo, and saw immediate abandonment of the membership because the old logo was designed by a highly valued member of that community.
We are all too familiar with trying to get communities to view their community software as more than just a "forum". People hear the word "Forum" and immediately have some assumptions about what that software is, how it should function, and how it should appear (ugly). Taking that a step further, advertisers have an expectation of the type of content that is present on a forum (ie. dangerous, possibly NSFW content), and so forums have one of the lowest CPM rates in advertising online. For all these reasons, Sanjay has coined the phrase:
A clever pun referring to "Forums" (not the other F-word), implying that the old ideas of forum & community are outdated and wrong. We agree! There are measures & tools in modern community-building software right now that help to drastically improve both the quality and value of community contributed content, and the presentation and integration of that content into the social fabric of the web.
These are topics that we are fascinated with at Vanilla, and we are working on initiatives to build upon these ideas for the benefit of forum users & forum owners around the world. Interestingly, when asked about Vanilla, Sanjay's response was that while he had heard good things about us, he didn't think that these were the kind of problems we were working on at Vanilla. He went on to talk about how they are building a new forum platform at CrowdGather that deals with these problems (and more).
It will be interesting to see how all of the CrowdGather communities respond to being moved from their cozy homes on outdated software into some new platform that benefits them. The customer is, after all, always right - even when they're wrong.
As for the future of Vanilla: as I mentioned, we are pushing forward into the areas that we believe will be the future of discussions online. Along with the groundbreaking work we've already been doing in community integration, over the next few months we will be tackling tough issues like quality control, social capital & currency, and enabling rapid growth in online communities.