How to Build an Online Community Forum

13 minute read

February 28, 2020

How to Build an Online Community Forum

This blog will provide you with an overview of how to launch your online community forum from the ground up. For a full, more detailed version, check out the How to Build an Online Community Forum: A Framework for Successful Community Building. This blog is based on the information found in this eBook, so I definitely recommend you download your free copy to make sure you have all the tools and resources you need to succeed; this eBook is far more detailed and will provide you with access to additional recommended resources to help you get the job done.

Essentially, there are 7 phases involved in building a new online community forum, and each phase is comprised of a number of necessary steps. The phases and their subsequent steps are as follows:

Again, this blog is an overview: if you want learn more and get all the details on single step mentioned, download the entire eBook here!

A Simple 7 Phased Approach To Community Building

Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these phases.

Phase 1: Determine Your Community Concept

The first thing that you need to do when looking to build an online community forum is to actually develop a proper concept for your community. This is one of the most important steps as it truly lays the foundation for your entire community, and will lay the groundwork for long-term success.  

As you know, everything starts with a vision; the ultimate goal in this step of the process is to determine the subject of the community.

While it should tie back to your organization’s business goals, mission and vision, try not to get too hung-up on your companies goals. Too often, a community concept is too closely tied to the goals of the company; as a result, member goals tend to get sidelined. The key here is to find a healthy balance between the two. 

Some key questions that’ll help you get to the bottom of your community concept include:

  • What’s the purpose of this community’s existence?

  • What are your organization’s goals? 

  • How will this community help advance your organization’s goals?

  • Who’s the target audience, and who’s not the target audience?

  • Would members find the community helpful, and why?

A great way to help you narrow down on the concept of your community is to apply the SPAN framework. The SPAN framework illustrates the four different types of communities that organizations aim to build: support, product, ambassador and network. Your online community concept will be based on one of these types of communities, or a combination of a few; hybrid communities are actually quite common.

Next, you want to consider your concept motivations. Richard Millington argues that the best community concepts are tied to one of six key motivations: pleasure, pain, hope, fear, social acceptance and rejection. Again, this relates back to our point about ensuring that your community concept isn’t just about your organization’s goals — you need to keep your members in mind too. 

These six motivations, outlined by Millington, are illustrated as three key positive motivations, along with their negative counterparts:





Social Acceptance



All communities under the SPAN framework can support at least one of these motivations; however, most communities support multiple at the same time. For example, let’s take a look at “pain.” Most support-based communities deal with this motivation; members are motivated to join and participate in the community to help solve a pain they have, such as troubleshooting a product or service.

Let’s take a look at “hope,” as another motivator; network-based communities will likely support this motivator. Say the community is for those who are living with cancer. Hope and fear are often both motivators in a community like this. Members are fearful of their circumstances and often look for and find hope in sharing their experiences with other people living a similar situation.

Next, you want to make sure that the community concept that you’ve come up with is a solid one; you can do this by running a few short tests. When you can demonstrate that your concept already has some support from the public/ your target base, it’ll be easier to sell.

Some things that you can do to see if the idea sticks include:

  • Publishing a post about it on your social media platforms to gauge the reactions

  • Run a poll on your social media platforms about the proposed concept

  • Post a blog about the concept and collect feedback

  • Examine other communities with similar concepts

  • Create a survey and send to your mailing list to get feedback

Collect any feedback about your concept and iterate as required. You can always adjust your concept after the launch (as most organizations do); however, it is a lot easier to do this before it goes live. 

Phase 2: Secure Community Buy-In

Now that you have a concept for your community, you’re prepared to tackle the next big challenge: securing executive buy-in for your online community. For your online community to be successful, executive buy-in is an absolute must. This phase essentially involves crafting a buy-in strategy for your executive team to get them all on board. 

Some things that you want to consider when planning your buy-in strategy include:

  • What the benefits will be for each department

  • How your plan will help each department reach their goals

  • Anything you may need from the executives (resources, etc)

  • Any part of the plan that the executives would be responsible for

  • What the executives think success will look like for this plan, and any KPIs they want measured

  • What stats (if any) show that your plan is likely to succeed

The best way to secure executive buy-in for your online community is to create a solid business case. Keep in mind, however, that the purpose of this business case is to sell the idea of a community to your executive leadership team. You don’t want to begin the full planning process until you actually have executive buy-in; the nuts and bolts of the plan will come after all your MVPs have agreed to the community.

Once you have  your business case ready to go, you want to think about how to sell your business case—how you do it matters.

That’s because even the best business case in the world won’t help you if you just send it via email with a message to review and provide feedback. Don’t simply email it and wait; your internal MVPs are incredibly busy people, and your plan is definitely at the bottom on their long to-do list. 

Remember that they’re probably not bought into the idea of community yet, and they might not even know what a community is. 

It’s best to book a time to actually sit down with them and present your business case since the last thing you want them to do is just skim the report that you put your heart and soul into. Whether you present your report to all your MVPs at once or 1 by 1 is up to you. Each organization has different dynamics, so make sure you know what will work best for your executive leadership team.

If you’re looking for resources that will help you make your case for an online community forum, you should definitely check out our eBook Online Communities: The Benefits and Impacts on Organizations. This eBook aims to explore just how significant the benefits are of online communities on organizations by analyzing data from nearly 400 leaders across various industries, both with and without online communities.

This eBook addresses four key questions: 

Benefits and Impacts of Online Communities

Phase 3: Plan Your Community Forum

Once you have the green light for your online community, you need to actually create your community plan. You’ll want to build on your community concept and tackle the nine key aspects of an online community plan in collaboration with your internal MVPs.

The first step in planning your community is creating your community mission and vision statements, which will set the tone for the rest of your planning process. To help you craft your mission and vision, here are the definitions of these terms, as outlined by community expert, Carrie Melissa Jones:

A community mission is an achievable outcome statement that sums up the change you wish for your community to create in the world. 

A community vision statement is a statement of how the world will look different if you achieve that mission over the long-term.

A proper mission and vision will make it clear from the beginning what your community is about and will remind your members on a daily basis what’s important.

After you’ve created your community mission and vision, you should look to create your community guidelines and your moderator guidelines. These documents are important because they help forward your mission and vision and will help set the tone for what is and isn’t acceptable.

The next crucial part of planning your community strategy is determining your acquisition and retention tactics—how will you encourage members to keep coming back for more? When planning how your community will acquire new members, some questions that you should ask include: 

  • How do you get people to actually find the community?

  • Once they arrive, what experiences do we want them to have?

  • How are you going to craft content that members care about?

  • How will you get people to return to the community

  • Why should people care to return

  • What reminders/ touches do you have planned

  • Are there other departments you can engage to assist in retention?

Once you have that down pact, you can start to craft your content strategy, which will help forward your retention efforts. The most impactful content will focus on what matters to your customers. You should ask yourself what your community members care about and how can you provide the best value for them through your content? Additionally, you absolutely need to understand the ins-and-outs of SEO, because even the best content in the world won’t be successful if nobody can find it. Be sure to check out The Big Book of SEO to learn more about search engine optimization.

The next step in crafting your community plan involves creating a Super Fan Program. In short, Super Fans are passionate, engaged leaders of your community, online or offline, who volunteer their own time to answer questions in your community, lead discussions, keep things positive, and overall, engage more than the average member.  That being said, a Super Fan (or MVP) program recognizes outstanding community members by creating a special connection to the company; and there are two key outcomes of this program:

  1. Creating a means of aspiration that drives members to do more, connect more and engage more in the community.

  2. Reducing the overhead it takes to run the community while increasing the value of the community to everyone involved.

The best time to start a Super Fan program is right from the very beginning—so you’re in luck!

Next, you need to set goals, outcomes and KPIs. This is incredibly important as it will not only help to show the value of your community as it grows, but it will also provide you with invaluable information to help you make informed decisions.

To set your community goals, you want to take a look back at Phase 1, where you determined your community concept. Your goals and outcomes should link to your concept and the goals of your internal and external MVPs. Once you know what your community goals are, it’ll be much easier to pin-point what your outcomes should be.

After you’ve selected your community KPIs,  you’ll need to determine what tools are worth procuring to support your online community. There are a number of different types of tools out there that can make managing your community much easier; these tools fall under the following categories: 

  • Marketing automation 

  • Email marketing

  • Social (listening)

  • User onboarding

  • Alerts

  • Graphics

  • Calendar/ planning

  • Notes

  • Video

  • Survey

  • Analytics

Again, selecting the right tools for the job is very important, especially when it comes to measuring and reporting on your community KPIs.

And last but certainly not least, you need to set timelines and milestones. This will not only  keep your plan on track, but it will also allow you to assign specific people to specific tasks, adding accountability into the mix. Further, adding a timeline will help you figure out when you should start advertising for your community and plan your soft launch.

Phase 4: Procure Community Forum Vendor

Now that you have a community plan, you’re ready to select a vendor that will make your community vision a reality. Not all platforms are going to be able to provide you with what you’re looking for; each community has its own unique requirements, so make sure you carefully assess what these are and then select the best vendor for the job.

The first step in procuring a platform that’s right for your needs is to actually assess your needs. 

To help you with this step, use the Community Platform Requirements Checklist (RFP). This spreadsheet goes over a number of different features that fall under one of 18 categories, such as user interface, user experience, social and sharing, gamification, permissions, etc. This checklist will help you narrow down what you want and also provides a space for potential vendors to address whether they can accommodate your needs.

Once you know what your needs are, it’s time to do your research and then select the community platform that’s right for you. Oh, and another great tip: check out your vendors case studies—they’ll give you a good idea of what your journey with that vendor could look like.

Phase 5: Customize Your Community Forum

An important step in building any online community is literally building it. Now that you have selected your platform, you can begin to give it the look and feel of your brand; the brand that your customers love that’ll keep them coming back for more.

Here, UX and UI are important, so make sure you’ve got a good combination of developers and designers assigned to this task. Pay attention to details because your members will notice the work that you put into the community, and at the end of the day, it’ll make it a more enjoyable and attractive place to be.

There are a number of items that you’ll want to make sure are customized, depending on what your community features are. These things could include:

  • Your community itself (your vendor will likely have a number of themes for you to choose from, so start from there and then do your own custom work as needed)

  • Your community gamification (you’ll want to customize things like member icons, rank names, points system, leaderboard, badge names, etc.)

  • Your community ideation process (determine what reactions, etc. your ideation process will use)

  • Your community language settings

  • Community layout for mobile devices

Let’s take a closer look at community gamification, since this is a great way to add a little zest to your community while also boosting your engagement efforts. Gamification is a great way to encourage community engagement and participation, and many communities have seen success by adding personality to their model. When looking to customize your gamification, there are a number of things that you should consider, including: 

  • How many points will you award for a response, and further, for a correct response?

  • How many points until your members reach a new level? A new rank? How many hours of work does this roughly translate to?

  • What can you do to get an early hook on your members so they continue to participate? 

  • What types of in-game rewards will you be offering, and how do they complement the primary motivator of your community (social, achievement, or power)?

  • Will you be offering real, tangible rewards? Who is able to get this type of reward, and how?

  • How do you plan on recognizing the top members of your community?

  • What types of achievements complement your community KPIs? For example, if you’re a support-base community, perhaps members can unlock an achievement by providing the best answer to five questions.

  • What tools and elements are you going to allow your members to customize on their own profile page? How can the template for the profile page accentuate the primary drive of your community?

Be sure to check out our eBook, Strategic Guide to Community Gamification, which will provide you with everything you need to know to make your gamification the best it can be.

Phase 6: Launch Your Community Forum

It’s time for the launch! This is generally a stressful time for any Community Manager, but hold steady—trust in your planning! We definitely recommend always doing a community soft launch since it can garner a fair amount of valuable feedback, ensuring that everything’s in order when you finally go live.

Before you go for your soft launch, you want to make sure that everything is in order—you should complete a launch audit. Here’s a list of some key questions you should ask yourself. If the answer is ‘yes’ to all of these questions, you’re ready for the soft launch:

  • Are we clearly advertising the online community to our audience? 

  • Have we prepared a Community Manager introduction for new members?

  • Have we included a ‘How-To’ section within your community (if applicable) 

  • Have we written your Community Guidelines and ensured that they’re easy to find?

  • Have we set up seeded content/ categories for our content? 

  • Is there an area for community feedback? 

  • Does our internal team have defined roles? Is everyone aware of what they are responsible for and when they report on their KPIs?

  • Are we making it easy for members to sign up?

  • Are there any barriers to starting a discussion?

  • Are we engaging the community? (such as connecting users using the @mention, starting new topics/ discussions and being available to the community?)

  • Do we have a proper onboarding process for new members to be familiarized with the community?

  • Do we have regularly planned community audits?

Once you complete the audit checklist, you’re ready for the soft launch. Be sure to collect feedback and make any necessary changes before you go live.

Phase 7: Measure, Iterate and Repeat

No matter how well you’ve planned, there are bound to be a few bumps in the road — that’s why you’ve set up a system to measure your KPIs and collect feedback. The worst kinds of issues in your community are the ones that you don’t know about, so staying informed by monitoring your KPIs and listening to your members is key for long-term success.

Collecting and analyzing your KPIs will provide you with valuable insight on what is working and what’s not working, which will ultimately help guide your next steps. Further, collecting feedback will help you improve customer retention, customer engagement and your products and services. The importance of this phase as an ongoing practice cannot be understated. This phase should be repeated at least every month.

A great way to tackle the issues that you uncover through your KPIs is to follow this simple five step process:

  1. Identify the issue and the metric that’s allowed you to uncover the issue.

  2. Determine what you’ll need to do to fix the issue (create a new tactic), and identify what metric you’ll be satisfied with.

  3. Determine what resources you’ll need to make your new tactic work.

  4. Identify who will own the project.

  5. Set a deadline.

Ultimately, KPIs and feedback will let you know what’s causing your community from being the best it can be; once these issues are identified, it’s an easy fix. And if you don’t see better results the second time, just try again! Sometimes, it’s just about trial and error until you find the right solution. 

Want to learn more and get all the details on every step mentioned? Download the entire eBook for free here!

A Simple 7 Phased Approach To Community Building1

Community Marketing

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Sarah Robinson-Yu

Written by Sarah Robinson-Yu

Sarah is the Content Marketing Specialist at Vanilla Forums. Prior to Vanilla, Sarah worked in the public sector where she led and coordinated the strategic framework and operational policy development of business processes.

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