Forums – Should You Have Them On Your Website?
by Anne Moss
|Forums have become a common feature in many websites. With good free scripts available, and paid scripts being relatively cheap, it seems that every new website has its own forum(s). But is it wise to add forums to your website?
In this article I'd like to take a look at the pros and cons of adding forums to your website. The largest of my websites, www.TheCatSite.com boasts one of the largest online forums on pet related subjects. In fact I have yet to see a larger forum dealing with pets. As of the writing of this article (Summer 2004), we have over 7,000 members and nearly half a million posts. In the past four years I have struggled with the hardships of community management and learned what works and what doesn't. Let me share a few insights that may help you decide if you want to take the forums path yourself.
The Pro Side of the Equation…
Forums Generate Content
Large, active forums generate content for your website. Google now has literally tens of thousands of pages indexed for TheCatSite.com's forums, and people looking for some of the more esoteric subjects related to cat health and cat behavior are very likely to meet one of our forum pages in their search results.
Forums Make People Return to Your Website
Forums are truly a "sticky" element. Most people come back, at least to check on developments on their threads. With a good community, you get some real addicts who have to get their daily fix. TheCatSite.com's forums run on Vbulletin Forums , which means members can opt to receive an email whenever someone replies to their thread. Most people use it and that little email sends them right back to the forums…
Forums Create a Sense of Community
Reaching from behind their computer screens, people from all over the world join together, get to know each other and create a community. This is actually happening! Members connect with each other, offering support in time of needs and some of them even meeting each other in real life. For you as the webmaster, this means loyal visitors that keep coming back to a place they consider to be home.
And Now To The Cons
Forums Can Take a Lot of Time to Take Off the Ground
I remember how I could feel my posts echoing in the empty board four years ago… It can take a long time before your forums pick up. An empty forum can actually drive new visitors away. It's a vicious circle – when they see that no one else is posting, they don't post themselves, and move on to the next website. It can take weeks and even months of hard work to get your forums off the ground.
Forums Need A Lot Of Ongoing Management
You need to constantly monitor your forums to make sure that they are clean of spam, troll posts, and just keep everything where it belongs. Once your forums are large enough, you have to have a team of quality moderators to help you run the place - the task being too time-consuming for one person. This is the place in this article to say "hi!" to any TCS team members reading this – thank you guys – you're the ones that make it all happen!
For the webmasters reading this article, I will say that managing a team is a task in its own right. Finding the good mods can mean the difference between success and failure. And it doesn't end there. You have to put your heart and mind to it – all the time.
Forums Take Up a Lot of Resources
Forums are database-type applications that generate web pages on the fly. Every time a user views a page, it's being created from scratch. As the forums become more active, this can take a heavy load on the web server's resources. When our forums reached 2,000 members, we had to switch over to a dedicated server. When they reached 7,000 members, we had to upgrade to a new dedicated server… With several other websites stored on our server, the forums are the big resources hoggers, taking up bandwidth, disk space and, most importantly, CPU resources. This brings us to the next point…
Forums Do Not Make Lucrative Advertising Stock
You think that with successful forums, generating millions of targeted pageviews each month, you would do well financially? Think again. Forums not only cost you a lot to run, they also don't bring in a whole lot of revenue, compared to regular web pages. Advertisers don't like to run ads on forum pages. So much so, that most CPM based ad networks won't even let you place their ads there.
Our experience with CPC ads shows that they may have a good point. Click-through rates on forum pages are significantly lower then on other types of web pages. There are ways to make your forums generate revenues, but trust me, it's not that easy. I will be writing a separate article on how we got our forums to pay for their keeping.
The Bottom Line
Forums are not for every website. Don't just put it up there and hope for the best. If you can't or don't want to put a lot of time and effort into creating a viable community, just leave it. Having no forums is better than having dead forums. Having dead forums on your website may actually drive people away.
Research your field. How easy will it be to create a community geared towards the subject of your website? Is it something that people want to talk about with each other? Are there other forums on this subject? How are they doing?
Get your feet wet. Join several forums and become an active participant. If possible, become a team member or a moderator in a large forum. Big forums often have secret team forums, where you can learn a lot about community management.
Think ahead. Where do you see your website in a year or two? Is this your main project and passion? Will you have the time and energy it takes to maintain a forum? Above all: Will you enjoy it?