Most people are familiar with forums, though they may know them as message boards or discussion boards. Forums allow users to interact with each other, discuss topics relevant to the site and exchange tips.
Information posted on forums is saved so that others can view it at any time. While most forums require a simple registration with an email address and username, there are private, exclusive forums that charge for membership. When adding a forum to your website, you can create a vibrant online community, even if traffic volume is limited due to your subject matter. Forums bring users back to check up on the status of discussions in which they're interested.
Forums Make Your Site "Sticky"
The fact that forums bring users back repeatedly makes your site "sticky." Users come back to see if anyone has replied to their posts, or to generally see the direction a discussion thread is going. Non-users sometimes look to forums for very specific information they can't easily find on websites. Having a sticky website is a goal for every webmaster because repeat when visits increase, general traffic increases.
Stickiness Has a Downside, However
There is a downside to forum stickiness, however. In forums that are not monitored and moderated effectively, a single provocative statement or question can bring people back simply to watch a flame war erupt, overshadowing the reason for the forum and the site itself. If you are considering creating a forum on your site, be aware of this possibility up front, and set down very clear terms of service from the outset. Starting out with seemingly heavy-handed rules may seem like overkill, but in reality it's almost impossible to lay down rules after a forum has turned ugly.
What a Forum Can Do for Your Website
Despite the risks, a forum can help your website in numerous ways. For one thing, CPM advertising works better on sites where the ratio of page views to visitors is high and forums tend to have this effect. Additionally, forums are a terrific way to include educational material on your site. The forum registration process makes it easy to collect email addresses of your users and allows you to build a relationship with site visitors. A well-run forum helps you build general site traffic and gain credibility in your industry.
Getting Your Forum Started: Priming the Pump
Starting a forum requires active promotion up front because people are reluctant to be the first poster or to post on an empty forum. You'll need to create a handful of interesting topics for discussion and possibly recruit colleagues in your industry to post on these discussion threads to get things going. You will have to do this for several weeks, or even months, before your forum has the traction it needs to really take off. As this happens, the time you have to invest to maintain the forum will drop off. In general, you want to start with a handful of well-curated topics so that moderation of discussions won't be overwhelming. This brings us to the important topic of moderators.
The Importance of Moderators
Moderation of forums mostly involves making sure posts are appropriate for the topic and that you're keeping spam to a minimum. Starting out with clear rules and terms of service will help you with this. Some sites deliberately create a "Promote Your Site" forum where users can post links to their sites, a practice that can keep self-serving or spammy posts away from other discussion threads.
Appointing one or more moderators to keep an eye on threads is critical. If you cannot afford to hire a moderator for pay, try offering other perks such as discounts on your products. If you can have moderators in multiple time zones to watch threads around the clock, that's ideal because an unattended thread can "blow up" in a matter of minutes if a member deliberately tries to stir things up or posts inappropriately. Hiring moderators definitely pays off over the long run if your forum has healthy growth.
Successful, well-moderated forums can work indirectly toward monetizing your audience. The high number of page views per user that forums attract can help make your site advertising more lucrative and as you establish credibility in your industry, your PageRank and general traffic should improve as well. Having a premium or exclusive forum that charges a monthly fee may work well if you have enough users to support a more exclusive, specialized forum. If you decide to add a forum to your site, be sure to make terms and rules clear from the beginning and have moderators on hand to keep spam out and keep discussions relevant and civil. Forums require work, but over the long term they can pay off handsomely for your business.