Every forum community is different. The random nature of how people bump up against each other ensures this, but it’s also a function of the wide variety of purposes that forum communities are being put to. This variety is great, (and speaks to the versatility of the platform) but it can make it harder to figure out what a given community really needs. For example, does the advice given for an enthusiast community apply to a support community? Can I learn from how internal communities are run if my primary goal is generating sales leads?
The answer is a resounding “kind of”. Building and running communities is a nuanced affair, and there aren’t any One Size Fits All solutions. Everyone needs something a little different. However, there are a few things that every community should use. These are easy wins for your community strategy, no matter what the purpose of that community is.
Fast, Easy Sign-Up and Onboarding
No matter what the goal of your community, your prospective members need to be able to access it quickly. People are busy, and the internet is full of distractions. The longer sign-up takes, the less likely they are to bother. Features like social sign-on make it much easier for members to sign in, and integrating your community into any main site login you have makes the experience seamless.
Some communities try and get a lot of data out of their customers right away by adding a bunch of profile fields. This doesn’t just add to the time and effort it takes to sign up, it also immediately puts the notion into the member’s heads that they’re in the community to provide information and value to the company. That’s not a great way to engage people. Make it simple, make it quick. Let them get posting right away.
Moderation doesn’t have to be a hassle, but it does have to be present. Community members need to know that they can contribute to your community without being attacked. This isn’t just a matter of installing a word filter or banning people for overt insults. Moderation is a huge part of how you create the culture of your community.
That doesn’t mean that you have to be constantly laying down the law, but it means the managers of the community need to be active. You can moderate simply by posting along with the community members. Show people what the community is about by your example. Encourage the people that are contributing well, and make it clear what behaviour is unwelcome.
A Clear Purpose
If people are selecting a bar or restaurant to go to, they use a number of cues to tell whether it’s what they’re looking for. The decor, the name, the other patrons. They make it obvious what kind of experience they’re going to offer. A sports bar doesn’t want to attract a biker bar audience. A wine bar doesn’t want to attract a sports bar audience. The purpose of the venue is clear.
A community isn’t any different. I’ve seen communities with huge potential audiences flounder because no one could figure out what they were supposed to be doing. Sometimes these communities have dozens of categories for every possible purpose, but no content in them. Sometimes it’s not the number of categories, but vague, all-encompassing titles like “General Discussion”.
Before a community project gets going, it needs a purpose. That purpose should be clearly communicated to your audience. Think about what you’re trying to achieve and how you can make that clear to your audience within a few seconds of them glancing at your home page. There are enough distractions available online that your audience won’t feel the need to stick around and figure out what your community is trying to achieve.