Community Building Primer

Have you ever heard the saying, "patience is a virtue"? Much to my chagrin, I’ve found that many Webmasters don’t practice this philosophy when it comes to community building. In this article, I’ll tell you what to avoid as you build your community, and how to gradually establish a successful community that’ll have you reaping the benefits.

Let’s say you’re building a hobby Website for model train enthusiasts. From the moment you launch your site, you’re thinking of ways to add to it, and ultimately build a loyal community around it. Obviously, if you’re member of SitePoint’s Community Forums, you’ll have seen first-hand how successful a community can be.

So is it time to jump on the community bandwagon and start your own forums for model train builders? First, we must examine the forum products available on the market today. Then we’ll consider the main challenges you’ll face as you build your community. By the end, you should have an idea of what a community takes, and whether you’re ready to build one!

Leading Forum Products

There are a number of free products available, which mimic the features of the costly commercial alternatives. If you’re just starting out and have a low budget, your best solution will probably be to begin with a free script. Among the most popular scripts on the market are phpBB, IkonBoard, and Invision Board. You can build your community from the ground up with these products, and then make the decision to move to a commercial solution at a later time if you wish.

Leading the commercial forum products is Jelsoft’s vBulletin, which currently costs US$160 for a lifetime license, or US$85 for a one-year lease. Once your community shows potential, and you’ve grown it to a decent size, you should consider moving to the powerful and feature-filled vBulletin. If you’re serious about running your community, this is the product for you.

Questions to Ask Yourself

1. Should I launch my new site with forums?

A common mistake that many Webmasters and developers out there make, is to add a forum or chat room as soon as their site opens. They expect their visitors to flood to it and become regulars form the word ‘go’. Unfortunately, communities aren’t built overnight, much to the disappointment and frustration of many Webmasters.

Community growth is a continuous process that requires effort, no matter how you look at it. If you regularly scour the Internet, you’ve most likely stumbled upon "Joe’s Homepage" which offers a barely-visible link to his forums — and once you get there, you find that, coincidentally, his boards have fewer posts than SitePoint receives in five minutes. Obviously, this isn’t a good thing — it’s no way to build a community.

Unless you have an already-established, at least marginally popular Website, you probably won’t get any significant participation in your new forum or chat room. Patience is key with this gradual process.

2. All sites should have forums, right?

Wrong. Does your Website really need a discussion forum or chat room? If the site is online for research purposes, or it’s a directory or search engine, the answer to that question is probably "no".

However, a community can be developed to complement most sites. It just depends on your site’s topic, and the nature of the content — and the decision will have to be made early on in the site’s life. Will you have the time and energy that’s needed to maintain and develop a community? In many ways, building a community is like building a second site on top of your original presence. You really need to ask yourself these questions before you start to add any community features to your site.

3. Shouldn’t I offer as many forums as I can? Won’t this make my boards look big and popular?

Bigger isn’t always better. Adding 67 forums to your new community won’t attract as many visitors as you might’ve thought — in fact, it’s more likely to drive them away. People want to see active forums first and foremost, not a rash of empty categories.

Let’s go back to our example of your model train site — do you really need a forum for every brand of model train maker out there? When you begin your community, you need to start off with three or four general forums that can act as a launching pad for discussion. So, in our case, a forum to discuss tips and techniques in model railway building, one to show off displays and creations, and a general chat forum to allow your community to bond, might be all you need at the start.

4. Design? I thought forums software came with a look and feel?

Once you’ve chosen your forums product and created your initial forums, the next step in building your community is to customize the look and feel of the boards to match your site. SitePoint has done this wonderfully, with the header on their forums matching the rest of their Network of sites.

Make your forums as attractive as possible, whether this means adding a custom logo, or changing the basic colors. Practice the same Web design fundamentals that you would on your main site, and make your forums fast-loading, search engine optimized, and easy to navigate.

Promoting and Launching Your Forums

Now that you have your new forums set up and ready to go, let’s talk a little promotion. Sticking a link to your forums on your Website can be more involved than you’d think.

If you want maximum exposure for your forums, you’ll have to be creative. For example, SitePoint not only has a regular link to their forums in a noticeable location at the top of all their pages, but various links all over the site, including in their newsletter, and after every article, as well as a list of the latest hot topics on the main page. While setting this ‘network’ of links up can be tedious, it will pay off big time in the long run.

The important thing to remember in terms of promotion is that success won’t come overnight — you must remain patient, and be an active participant and promoter of your forums. After all: if you’re not active, why should your members get involved? You must set an example.

Speaking of members, you may be asking yourself what to do about moderators. In most circumstances, moderators will become a part of a community after the community has launched. The best way to find successful moderators is to pick active, mature, and knowledgeable members from your existing user base. See Greg Berhardt’s Super Moderator Guide.

Getting Started!

So, if you’ve been admiring the successful community sites like SitePoint Forums, this article has hopefully served as a guide to lead you in the right direction and answer many of your basic questions. Remember, have patience and be creative, and you will find success!

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