How To Start an Online Forum
This article was created by Wild Apricot, providers of membership management software for associations, nonprofits and clubs. It is designed to help the staff and volunteers of small non-profit and membership organizations that are just getting started with supporter communications and engagement.
What is a forum?
A forum is an online discussion site or place on your website where your members or supporters can post messages and others can view and reply to these messages.
A discussion forum can be an effective engagement tool. It can build your online community by providing a place for your community to congregate, collaborate, discuss and share their ideas. It offers member benefits and can also provide your organization with insight that you can use to better serve your constituents. However, running a successful forum involves much more than just setting up the technology. Creating real engagement in a new forum can take a lot of work, especially at the beginning as it may be difficult to get people to start posting and sharing their thoughts. However, an active forum can be a real boon to your organization.
Would your organization benefit from having a forum on your website?
A forum can benefit your members, volunteers and/or supporters by providing a way to:
- connect and network with other members or supporters
- share information
- offer feedback or opinions
- ask questions
Benefits to Your Organization:
There are many benefits to building and maintaining a successful forum, including:
- attracting members or supporters to your website
- having an additional means of interacting with members/supporters – e.g., asking their opinion or highlighting new resources
- receiving insightful feedback and information that you can use in your planning or decision-making
- differentiating your organization
- increasing member satisfaction and retention – by enabling conversations and information sharing on your website, you decrease the chance of these occurring on LinkedIn or Facebook and increase the benefit of membership for those who want to network with peers.
Is a Forum Right for You?
What’s your objective?
First and foremost, you need to figure out if a forum can help with your engagement or communications plan goals. If, for example, you’ve realized that many of your members or supporters are having lively discussions through LinkedIn groups, Facebook or Twitter, you might want to create a forum to move the conversations over to your own website. If you are hosting, actively participate and even moderating a lively forum, this will be perceived as a valuable member service. Like any communications channel, be sure to establish clear and measurable objectives before you get started.
Do you have the resources?
Another key consideration is whether you have the resources available to create and maintain a forum. There are two types of forums:
- moderated forums where posts are submitted through and approved by a moderator (or administrator)
- non-moderated forums, where visitors post messages directly
Obviously one requires much less admin time than the other. However, since this forum will reside on your website, you’ll want to have someone monitoring the forum regularly to remove inappropriate messages and ensure all is running smoothly.
There are administrative options you could consider, such as having one volunteer or Communications Chairperson or even a group that could act as “community moderators” starting online dialogue and monitoring discussions. You may want to have some volunteers and staff participating actively in the conversation, especially when you first start your forum to get conversations going. Just be sure that someone is monitoring the forum to ensure that any questions are answered and comments are addressed.
What’s Involved With Creating a Forum?
If you are a Wild Apricot client, you can easily create or add as many forums (e.g., individual forum pages) as you need as part of your Membership Management Software. Your forum pages can be made accessible to the public, or hidden and restricted to specific groups of users. Wild Apricot also allows your members to subscribe by email to discussion forums or specific forum topics and to automatically receive email notifications about new posts.
For organizations whose websites are not powered by Wild Apricot, check to see if you can add a forum or if there is a compatible software add-on. You could also check out some other software options for forums through a software review website (we found http://www.forum-software.org/forum-comparator). If you are looking at additional software, keep in mind the level of sophistication of your average user and what features you’ll want now and down the road (e.g., ability to notify visitors of forum postings via email, etc.)
Establishing Forum Policies:
Ongoing Forum Management:
As noted above, you’ll need to identify a forum moderator or administrator who will be responsible for regular forum monitoring and maintenance. But you may also need to initiate conversations and encourage participation to build a robust online community through your forum.
Your members or supporters may be a little shy or reluctant to participate at first. So you need to have your moderator or forum team identify topics to engage members and get the forum started. If you don’t have a group of contributors you can call on, consider asking your Board members to get involved – you can even make suggestions as to questions they can ask or issues they may want to raise with the membership. Don’t forget, you can also link members with new resources, research, helpful articles, etc., and ask them to comment on the forum.
You can’t assume that your members or supporters will stumble upon your forum – it needs to be promoted. Here are some ways you can publicize your forum:
- On your Home Page – your website visitors need to be able to easily find the forum.
- In your newsletter – remind members that they can ask questions or comment on an article through the forum and be sure to offer a clear URL or online link so they can find it quickly.
- On your blog – start a discussion on a blog post and ask members to continue the conversation on the forum
- In targeted emails – include messages re your forum in the footer of emails
Managing Your Forum’s Success:
The good news is that once your forum reaches a critical mass of participants, you can step back and simply keep an eye on discussions. The only downside may be that you’ll need to do some administrative clean-up to archive old messages or you may even realize the need to create sub-forums for topics that emerge.