Building an online community can be quite a challenge — especially in those early days when you’re just getting off the ground.
All the cool software and groovy avatars in the world won’t turn lurkers into users — or get users to post. And without posts, your members won’t have a reason to return, and your community will fail.
Recently we got together and came up with our top 5 hot tips to encourage guests to join your membership, and elicit posts from forum members on your boards.
1. Welcome and Help New Members
Some popular forums seem to be not so newbie-friendly — and in some instances, new members are automatically given a virtual hazing. "Hi I’m new!" posts are considered spam in some forums, and are therefore given cold treatment, or are subjected to a huge flaming.
But it’s only natural that users will want to introduce themselves, and get to know others in the community.
That’s why an "Introduction" forum is such a good idea. Not only does it help break the ice and make newcomers feel welcome, but it also keeps repetitive "Hi I’m new!" posts from popping up in random places across your forums. (Andryanv)
For lurkers and new members, it provides a way to test the waters without having to post in an established thread. The lower the perceived "risk" of making a post (and, potentially, making a fool of yourself!) the more likely you’ll be to post. Even a "Lurkers Introduce Yourself" thread can draw in many new members, and is a great way to push users over the hurdle of signing up to the community.
Also, be sure to respond to any newbie posts within 2-4 hours — make this a standard across your site, and ensure your forum staff carry the policy out. Let’s face it, when we contribute to a conversation we want to be acknowledged. It’s the kiss of death to ignore the first post of a new poster: who wants to risk being ignored a second time? (Mfarmerhi)
And it doesn’t end there! Treat newbie questions with respect and attention. In many mailing lists, especially, there is a "Didn’t you read page 633 of the manual?" attitude that isn’t any fun at all. Make your new members feel comfortable and at ease, answer their questions in a fast, polite, and friendly way, and they’ll be more likely to post again. (Samsm)
2. Stay in Touch With Your Members
Unless you have a big announcement (like a giveaway) you might refrain from emailing all members (unless it’s a list they knowingly signed up for). You don’t want people to think you’re spamming them: nothing will kill your community faster.
There’s a VBulletin hack that lets you send out a "community bulletin" each week. It lists the most active threads, birthdays, new members, forum activity, etc. That’s something else to consider. (Kilcher)
But no matter what forums software you use, email communications can be an effective way to generate fresh interest in your forums.
It’s not difficult to send out an alert that tells members what topics are currently being discussed, or (if your message boards allow you to post a poll), to let users know about current polls. Something is bound to pique you community members’ interest. Include alongside each topic a link to that particular thread, so it’s easy for members to give an opinion on-the-spot. (Palmer)
Consider, too, creating a little "enewsletter" into your updates — a quick, relevant editorial can help you draw attention to important news, while building a more personal, friendly atmosphere around your community.
3. Run a Contest
A contest to encourage posting can be a good idea, but watch out — there are a few snags involved!
Any contest that rewards people for a number of posts is going to encourage people to post pointlessly just to get the prize. Remember at the end of the day the quality of your forum will bring in new members. Every new community wants posts, but you want them to be quality posts! (Cloughie)
Here’s a case in point:
"A couple of years ago someone wanted to promote his forums and came to me. I made the same mistake you make now: I organised a contest where there would be 3 prizes for 3 different types of winners: we had a big prize for the member who posted the most in one month, a random drawing, and a prize for the most original post (as voted by forum moderators) .
The results? Because of the first contest, someone posted 2500 messages in 3 weeks. I had written an extensive post with the rules and the conditions as to what constituted a ‘valid post’, but people didn’t care. They thought we wouldn’t check them." (Bruno Delpierre)
So what’s the secret to running a good competition? Provide good prizes that are relevant to your audience and forum topic, and award the prizes on the quality, not the quantity, of members’ posts.
One idea that might spark your imagination is to theme your contest around a particular hot topic that attracts a lot of attention in your forums. Offer sponsorship to providers of products and services that are related to the topic of discussion — these sponsors provide the prizes and, in return, are allocated advertising space on your site or in your newsletters.
Once your community becomes more established, you might be able to augment this kind of approach with "guest appearances". Ask the sponsor company if one of their experts can make guest appearances in your forums to answer user questions and add to discussion for the duration of the competition. Maybe the expert will be willing to judge the contest results and award prizes, too. Again, this can add to the personal, friendly feel of your forums, and spark valuable member interest and posts.
4. Use Conversation Starters
If it’s a slow day in the forums, so why not seed a few discussions?
Of course, you don’t want your entire board swamped by chatter — you need good posts that are related to the subject of your Website.
But you also want you users to talk about other issues. When they begin to talk about their favorite movies, songs, or books, they start to make online friends and form relationships. And relationships are really the key to a strong community. (Pgowder)
So, create a couple of fake accounts and seed the board with interesting topics. By baiting the users, you encourage activity — they’ll starting to post more frequently.
You can actually buy books of questions and conversation starters. Select a few interesting questions and post them in your forum, then mention them in your newsletter and on the front page of your site. (Divamissx)
Of course, target the questions toward your audience… younger posters might not be easily baited with politics, older posters won’t care as much about video games. (Samsm)
The controversy card works. Not only does it get members to chime in with their own opinion, but it proves to your members that the board is used a lot, and gives them an incentive to start their own threads! (Gladding)
5. Make Membership a Must-Have
There are many ways to tap into the immediacy of community — ways to convince lurkers to bite the bullet and spend a few moments signing up and getting on board.
For instance, consider adding the last 5 posts from the forums to your site’s main page. This way, every time someone surfs to your site he or she is confronted by the postings from the forum. As they encounter something they find interesting, they click through… and what happens? They want to react and start posting! Instant membership! (Bruno Delpierre)
Or, if you’re using vBulletin, there’s a hack at vbulletin.org that will allow you to display ads to guests but not members. Next to the ad there’s a message that says "register now to remove this ad". It’s an easy way to provide a "member benefit" that’s real, tangible, and appeals to the vast majority of today’s Web users. (Kilcher)
Turn that Lurker!
Lurkers are a lot like "the new kid in school" — they’re standing around on the sidelines, watching how their classmates interact, and trying to find a place where they’ll fit in and have fun.
Of course, each time they approach a group, the new kid risks the threat of rejection, and "seeming dumb". Online, lurkers can watch from a more distant perspective, but the basic dynamics are the same.
You have to show lurkers that your forums are a great place to be, that this is the spot where they will have their questions answered, and be welcomed and respected. Once you’ve achieved this, you might need to kick-start them with a few incentives that make them take the time to sign up. And of course, be sure to have a good strategy in place to encourage repeat posting: once you’ve got those valuable members, you’ll want to hang onto them!