User niche just started an interesting thread here about forums, and more specifically why you should want to run a forum.
I happen to agree with just about everything he said. Forums are great to own. They do not bring in, in general, as much revenue as other types of content sites. The reason is that, as outlined in the thread, a forum is not always attractive to advertisers due to their high page views per unique. Advertisers in general will pay more to reach a large number of uniques rather than to reach a smaller number of uniques multiple times. Its just the way things are.
However, that issue aside, forums are the most stable type of content site you can own, with the most potential for longevity. The reason is that your forum is completely unique, no competitor can ever supplant you. Even if someone has a forum on the same topic it does not matter since it is the individual aspects of a community, ie the personalities of your members, that make a forum, and no one is ever going to get the exact same combination as you have. In fact the only real thing that can kill a forum is gross mismanagement.
Forums can be hard to start, as I discussed here, however once they do start they grow exponentially. The reason is that users tend to be loyal supporters of your forum and they will recruit people to come and join. Additionally as your total number of threads & posts grows you will get more search engine referrals. It is an ever increasing cycle of growth, a cycle that can continue for decades.
Being self employed is never without risk, you always need to worry about something changing and your business going under. Diversification is key to long term survival, but also running such stable web properties as forums can help you sleep at night. Every serious website publisher should run at least one forum, this is especially true if you have a content site you can pair it with.
As for profiting off of forums, its not really as hard as some people believe. Sure, ad networks have traditionally loathed forums, but they are starting to come around and if your forum is particularly popular and or in certain industries you can get accepted into ad networks with it. Additionally Google Adsense is always an option for forum owners. Sure, forums traditionally get low click-through-rates on advertisements and so using a CPC program like Adsense might not make a whole lot of sense, however this is not always the case and with Google now including CPM based advertising with Adsense you might be suprised at how much you can make.
Of the 4 decently active forums I run, 3 regularly get CPM based advertisers through Adsense, two of which run nice CPM ads around 90% of the time. In fact, one of my forums from about August through December of last year seemed completely sold out with ads for artsy movies (specifically “A History of Violence”, “Bee Season”, and “Memoires of a Geisha”). When you’re getting movie studios dropping bucks on your forum the earnings can’t be all bad. They were nice classy looking ads too (most Google Adsense CPM ads are), no “Smack the Monkey to Win an Xbox”.
Undoubtedly the first comments to this post will be along the lines of “How do I get CPM ads from Adsense?” so I figured I might as well give a preemptive answer. So in short, you don’t pick CPM ads, they pick you. Certain topics are more apt to get them than other topics, and larger more professional looking and or popular sites probably get more too.
So, go out there, buy a license for vBulletin, and start a forum. 5 years from now you’ll thank me. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the high profile purchase of blog networks by major media companies lately. Well, if you ask me, I think its only inevitable that major forums will be gobbled up eventually as well. A forum could just be your ticket to a 7 figure payday.