Managing Online Communities With Patrick O’Keefe

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This video was recorded at SXSWi where SitePoint Co-founder Matt Mickiewicz caught up with Patrick O’Keefe, owner of the iFroggy network and author of Managing Online Forums.

In the interview, Patrick explains to Matt:

  • Why forums are here to stay.
  • Monetization methods for forums.
  • What to look for in forum software.
  • Solving the chicken and egg scenario of starting a forum.
  • The do’s and don’ts of paid posting.
  • How to manage multiple forums

For those that don’t already know Patrick, he’s been a regular on our forums for over 7 years and now co-hosts the SitePoint Podcast.

He’s one of the most experienced forum managers in the world, with an impressive list of active and vibrant forums in his portfolio.

When it comes to managing forums, there would be few who could match the credentials of Patrick.

Full Transcript:

Matt: Hi this is Matt Mickiewicz from SitePoint, I’m here with Patrick O’Keefe, the author of “Managing Online Forums”. Patrick, tell us about your new book.

Patrick: Well Managing Online Forums, a practical guide to managing online forums, communities and social spaces and deals primarily with the people management aspect, it’s not really software, programming, technology but actually managing people, setting guidelines, enforcing policies, infrastructure as well as some marketing and monetization.

Matt: Aren’t forums a little bit “old school”? Everyone is talking about this “Twitter” thing

Patrick: What, on the SitePoint forums, right?

Matt: Exactly

Patrick: No, but the thing about forums and really Forrester Research did a really good survey where they asked 10,000 US consumers if they used social networking sites, do they post comments on those sites, do they visit forums and popularity of forums are right inline in those types of sites, like Myspace and FaceBook, these? And Twitter and so on and so really to me, when you look at Myspace or FaceBook, you see a part of the forums, the functionality that’s like forums, there is a lot of forum-like function there. And also, you know, to me it’s text-based-communication in a threaded environment and as far as I’m concerned, in my lifetime, we won’t see a time when you won’t want to talk to someone without seeing them, or hearing them. I think that will always be the case so forums will have a place as long as I’m alive.

Matt: What about monetization of forums? Clickthrough rates are very low.

Patrick: Yeah.

Matt: Ad networks aren’t generating much revenue, how do you make money from a forum?

Patrick: I was barely able to come (to the event) … so forums are a web site, right? And how you monetize a web site is similar to how you monetize forums so they’re content sites, generally free to access, subscription works for some but not for many and as well as pro memberships where you get extra benefits, that’s kind of something that a lot of forums do as well. But you know for the most part it is advertising or some form of advertising; display advertising, you know like Google but also ad networks that work with forums and direct sales. You can do that, obviously that’s the way you can make a lot of money as you at SitePoint know. And also the example I give a lot is the SitePoint marketplace and the classified ad system that basically grew out of the SitePoint forums to where it’s generating a good amount of money. I always give that as an example; if you have that market, like a niche audience, that’s a really good way to sell some ads on a cheap basis but the bulk raises it up.

Matt: What about software? What do you like for forum software,? vBulletin seems to be the standard, is that what you’re using? Is there something better out there? It seems there is a lack of competition in this space.

Patrick: Well the thing is, what’s the best forum software? That’s such a question that pops up on the SitePoint forums many times, as well as on other communities, so the thing about it is, I always think there is no “best” forum software; vBulletin’s great, I use phpBB — it’s good. There’s also Vanilla, vbPress, Envision Power Board, and many others and they’re all good options really. To me, you find the software that works well for you that you can work with, that fills your needs. And really, at the end of the day, it’s not so much technology as the people that you have running the site that are kind of driving the activity, at the start at least. So it’s the people who are behind the site that determine the success more so than the software.

Matt: So if a company is running a brand , has a big brand web site and they want to build an online community around that and launch the forums, how do solve the chicken and egg scenario? No one wants to participate in a forum where there’s are only 5 registered members and 10 posts, how do you solve that problem?

Patrick: Well ok, especially for a company, for most company forums, I would think the benefit for someone to visit would be to interact with company, at least at first. So I think it’s always important where some companies throw up a forums and then leave them there, and you can’t do that and you know if these are your company forums then company employees, people of interest, everyone from the lowest employee to the even maybe the CEO occasionally should be able to pop in, post a message and it creates kind of a cool factor, and depending on your brand, if you have a cool brand that people love… I mean, they are coming to interface with the company on some level and it all starts with you, so if you can get your employees starting activity, their friends, you tweet it out, people that you know in the industry start talking, that activity will help you generate more activity and create interest and then at some point you’ll have members talking to members but everyone has to be a part of the overall community effort, you can’t just throw it up an leave it there.

Matt: What about some of these services where you pay people “per post” to come into your forums and generate activity and make it seem all busy

Patrick: The thing about paid posting is that I don’t mind it as long as one person is paid to post as one person, what bothers me is when it’s misleading and you have someone acting as 2 people because at the end of the day I believe that you should never do anything that you would be embarrassed about should it come out in public. So for example, if you have someone posting as multiple accounts, and then they have to stop posting because the money’s gone, it’s all gone, what if someone really liked that person and they say “what happened to that person?” Are you going to lie? Or are you going to, you have to be truthful, and is that going to be good when you say “I paid this person to post as 5 people and now it’s over”, I mean that’s an embarrassing thing to say, so if you’re going to pay for posts, and in general I wouldn’t think that’s a good idea, I think there are better ways. You can contact your friends, your family, people you know that are interested in the subject and start some activity. Communities grow one at a time. Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s slow but really it’s 1, 2, 3 and you go from there.

Matt: You manage over a dozen web sites and forums, how do you find the time? How do you manage? Such a large user base, so many diverse people asking you for help, how do you find and recruit the right moderators and staff to help you out?

Patrick: Yeah, I mean moderators and staff definitely, I have some great moderators, some great volunteer moderators on my staff that help out that keep the communities on track and on focus with the vision for the site. But as far as my personal time, [it’s] something that I’m continually working on because it’s tough when you have so many sites to maintain and have new ideas. You have to spend time maintaining the current ones — you can’t start doing something new. I like to say that you need to have a routine; that’s a program that you do every day or whatever it is. Forums are kind of a daily management task, you need to have someone there keeping an eye on them, managing moderators even, you know, you can’t have moderators and not have someone overseeing them certainly so I have a daily routine of what I do every day and just getting it down and tightening it up , when you do something over and over again you get better at it, you get quicker at it and that helps you to maintain some sense of time. I also just read “The Power of Less” by Leo Babauta and I’m going to try to do some of that to my life as well.

Matt: OK, so thank you for your time. And if you want to catch more of Patrick, listen to the bi-weekly SitePoint Podcast.

Shayne TilleyShayne Tilley
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