Does your Website Need a Forum? Problems & Alternatives

screenshot of homepage

Gaia online, an anime forum, said to be the largest forum on the internet.

Web forums, at their best, can create remarkable communities that could never have existed before the internet. They bring together a large number of people from all over the world to focus on a specific topic or interest.

Also known as message boards, forums are among the best things about the internet. Questions are asked and knowledge is shared. Relationships develop among participants. A sense of community develops. The discussions, or threads, are preserved online in perpetuity and available through search engines.

You name it, there’s a forum for it. There are forums for gardeners, refrigeration technicians, owners of diesel-powered Volkswagens, players of particular video games, and cat lovers. Webmaster forums have helped me to develop my skills and solve problems, and also to feel part of a larger community. Forums on specific products, digital or otherwise, enable users as well as the producers to help each other.

Forums go back to the earliest days of the internet. They evolved out of newsgroups and email lists popular in the dial-up era. Forum software, such as the open-source phpBB, has become more sophisticated and more user-friendly over the years.

The most successful and useful forums have huge numbers of active participants. They are also well moderated so that discussions remain on topic and civil.

Forums take work to keep them spam-free and relevant.

NationStates.net screenshot

Nation States, built on phpBB3, has over 100,000 active users from around the world, playing geopolitics and making friends through roleplaying. Some of its threads read like novels.

I have set up two forums for small organizations, using the phpBB3 software. Both forums fizzled for lack of participation, while creating a disproportional amount of work for the meagre results obtained.

When I compare these situations with forums that are thriving, I draw the following conclusions about forums:

1. Forums attract a lot of spam. Most of this unwanted traffic is robot-generated. As soon as you install a forum and open it to the public, bogus “users” from all over the world, particularly Eastern Europe, will try to register. If you haven’t closed the door to them, they will start posting irrelevant offers for prescription drugs or whatever.

Forum software has a variety of mechanisms to block spam, and you should use them. It makes a lot of work for your moderators to keep out spammers and their posts. Spam posts that slip through will turn off your genuine users.

2. Forums need constant and ongoing moderation by web-savvy people who are dedicated to the topic and willing to make the forum a major component of their lifestyle. Not only must they watch for spam, they must monitor legitimate discussion threads, keep people on topic, and sometimes move a thread to a different part of the message board where it fits better. When necessary, they must remove members or ban them completely.

3. Forums are relatively hard for digital non-natives to learn to trust and to navigate. This ability is partly correlated with age. (Mind you, I know some technically-minded octogenarians who can mouse circles around some tech-averse younger people.)

Size matters

cat forum screenshot

Proof that cats are achieving world domination through the internet.

Forums are not a great choice for small organizationsunless:

  • everyone involved is very comfortable using the the forum software as the group’s primary platform of discussion, and
  • the forum is kept private and not open to the public.

The first point is important. If your organization is small,  all your participants must be both willing and able to participate fully for a forum to be a successful organizational tool.

If you still want to use the power of forum software to create a place for archivable discussion in a small organization, then keep the settings private. Without the power of a large number (thousands) of people involved, including several who can share moderation tasks, the work involved in running a public forum can become onerous and not worth the trouble.

Alternatives to forums for creating discussion and participation

google-groups

Google Groups

For small or local groups, there are alternatives that are easier to run, and that your people may be more comfortable with.

Groups

Facebook, Google and Yahoo! offer groups which can be open or closed. They are easier to set up and manage. They can operate through either e-mail or through threaded discussions online, depending on each individual’s preferences. The results are somewhat harder to archive and reference, however, than a forum is.

(When you set up a new Google Group, you are now given some options as to how the group will operate. At one end is a basic email group. At the other end you’re getting into paid features through Google Apps for Business. They could be very useful if your team learns to use them well.)

Facebook in particular has lowered the barriers to participation on the internet by making it easy and comfortable for people to comment and share information.

Wiki

For creating a knowledge base for a business or organization, check out enterprise wiki software or some of the premium Google Groups options.

Blog with comments

Another option for generating discussion is a blog-type website with open comments (like this page). Some moderation is still required, though spam filters are fairly effective.

WordPress allows you to have many users at several permission levels. You can make certain posts private (visible only to logged-in users) or password protected. Various plugins are available that enable all kinds of access and permission levels, even paid.

Your new job?

message board closeup

Tens and hundreds of thousands of threads and posts on just one section of WebProWorld

Running a forum is a lot of work, and there is a lot to learn. You’ll want to do a lot more research before you jump in.

IF you have a global community in mind that is not already being served by an active forum (do your research first!), IF your passion is strong enough, IF you have an entrepreneurial streak, and IF you have a technological mind in your corner, you may be able to create some income through advertising revenue.

More likely, your forum will remain a labour of love.

Do you participate in forums? Have you ever run or moderated a forum? Do you agree with my points? Please feel free to share your experience in the comment section below.

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