Business Advice Forum: How to Build a Forum from Scratch – with Fergal Crawley

Fergal CrawleyBuilding an active online community is often a tough nut that many entrepreneurs fail to crack.

In this interview, Fergal Crawley, the Owner and Community Manager of Business Advice Forum, shares the lessons he learned from building an active forum on the Internet.

Do you own a community or forum that is nothing but a ghost town? Are you finding it hard to promote your community because of a low budget? Are you staying away from building a forum simply because it looks hard?

Grab a pen and paper immediately because what Fergal is sharing in this interview are going to be useful for any of you who is considering about building an online community or forum from scratch.

Introduction to Fergal Crawley and Business Advice Forum

Wayne: Today, I am glad to have Fergal Crawley, the Owner and Community Manager of Business Advice Forum for an interview on how to build a forum from scratch.

Fergal: Thank you very much for taking the time to interview me. I hope that your readers enjoy the interview and find something of benefit in it.

Wayne: Fergal, can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what Business Advice Forum is all about?

Business Advice Forum Logo

Fergal: I’m from Co Louth in Ireland and after having spent a few years living abroad, I’m currently living back in my hometown. My career background is in the areas of management, marketing and enterprise development, and I have worked in the customer contact centre, enterprise development, property development and Internet industries.

Fergal: After finishing school I did a degree in marketing and I have recently completed a higher diploma in computer science. I’m self-employed, and I work hard to develop and grow a small number of websites.

Fergal: Business Advice Forum is an online community of small business owners and those who are planning on starting their own business. Many of our members are working on online businesses but we also welcome those who are interested in traditional and home-based businesses.

Wayne: In this interview, we are going to focus on how to build an active forum or community online but first, how did the idea of creating Business Advice Forum come about and how long has it been since you started the forum?

Fergal: The forum opened in November 2007, so we are just over six years old. Business Advice Forum has grown slowly and steadily over that time, to our current level where we have almost 35,000 signed up members.

Wayne: Do you mind sharing with us the current growth rate of the forum?

Fergal: The forum is growing very well at the moment. In Dec 2011 we had 31,000+ unique visitors, 45,000+ unique visitors in December 2012 and over 48,000 unique visitors in January this year.

Social Networks vs Forums

Wayne: With so many social networks popping up and getting all the attention, why do you think forums are still a better way to host communities?

Fergal: Social networking sites are a great way to maintain contact with people that you know. For example, I enjoy using Facebook to keep in contact with people I know locally, people I know from college and people I worked with in the past. However, the strength of forums is that they provide an excellent way for strangers with a common interest in a particular topic, to come together to share their knowledge and to help, support and advise each other.

Signing Up New Forum Members

Wayne: Setting up a forum is easy but once everything is up and running, the question of how to get people to sign up comes. How did you manage to get the first group of users to register?

Fergal: When I first launched Business Advice Forum, I ran a contest with a cash prize for our most helpful member, in the first month. The contest was promoted by way of forum posts on other forums, related to the topic. This contest was very successful and attracted members who were both active and quality contributors to their fellow members.

Wayne: What do you think has been the most appealing element of Business Advice Forum that attracted new visitors to sign up?

Fergal: Members join the forum for a broad range of reasons. From my experience, the three main reasons they decide to join are the following:

  • They have a question, and they want to get opinions and information to help them decide on an answer.
  • They have an area of knowledge, and they want to share that knowledge with others so that they can help others but also improve their own knowledge by using it and the learning that evolves from discussing a topic with others.
  • To promote their own website or small business.

Fergal: We endeavor to do everything we can to make it easy for our new members to do all of the above and we have careful moderation in place to help ensure that the community is helpful and friendly at all times.

How to Drive Traffic to a Forum?

Wayne: Forums are great search engine traffic magnets. Apart from having key search engine optimization elements in place, how do you drive traffic to Business Advice Forum?

Fergal: Thankfully Business Advice Forum is ranked very well in Google and we receive a substantial amount of traffic from them.

Fergal: I also own a forum admin community at ForumPromotion.net. This community is an excellent place for forum owners to discuss forum ownership, get advice on forum administration and to promote their own forums. Business Advice Forum is promoted on Forum Promotion, and we do receive traffic and members from there. Other than that we don’t really do any other advertising to promote the community.

How to Get Forum Members to Participate Actively?

Wayne: One of the most common ways that I see many forum administrators recommend for boosting the number of posts on forums is to pay professional forum posters to seed or add to existing and new discussions. What did you do to maintain the activity on Business Advice Forum?

Fergal: As all forum owners know, stimulating and maintaining activity on a small and growing forum is a great challenge. We achieved this mostly through the contests we run on the forum and by being as helpful to our members as we possibly can. We provide our active members with opportunities to promote their business or website on the forum and this encourages them to return and maintain their activity.

Running Low Budget Forum Contests

Wayne: There are a number of member contests on Business Advice Forum. Is it a must to have these contests? Do you have any suggestions for starters who might be a little tight on their budget? Perhaps rewards other than cash might work?

Ring a Duck Pool

Fergal: That’s a great question and the truth is that other types of contests could be even more successful than contests with cash prizes. Members like to be recognized for their positive contribution to the community and there are lots of prizes that forum owners can use, to give this recognition that don’t cost any money.

Members like to be recognized for their positive contribution to the community. – Click to Tweet!

Fergal: Prizes to consider are a special rank or badge on the forum, an advertising slot on the forum or other extras such as free premium membership or a colored username. These prizes don’t cost the forum owner anything, but can be highly valued by the members.

Fergal: Another option to consider is getting outsiders to sponsor a contest. For example, if you own a webmaster forum, new and smaller hosting companies will sometimes offer one of their hosting packages as a prize. The benefit to the forum owner is that they get a free prize and the hosting business benefits from the publicity they gain with their target audience.

Fergal: The webmaster forum is just one example, but the same concept can apply to almost any type of forum. Think about who is targeting your audience and ask if they would be willing to give a prize in return for the publicity and goodwill they will receive from a community of people in their target market.

How Active Should a Forum Administrator Be?

Wayne: Fergal, I noticed that you are actively participating in the discussions too as an administrator. How crucial is this in building a successful forum?

Fergal: My experience is that forums are just about the most difficult types of site to establish and grow. No one wants to join an empty or inactive forum, and that’s what you start out with when you first launch. It’s difficult enough to convince people to join and participate in a new community and I can only imagine that it must be next to impossible to achieve this on a community where you are not active yourself.

Fergal: Building a community takes a lot of work over a long period of time, to use a cliché, it’s a marathon not a sprint. As with anything else, it’s a lot easier to find the motivation to put in the work required, if you are interested in the subject yourself and keen to be an active member of the community.

Choosing the Right Moderators for Your Forum

Wayne: As an active member on a number of small business and marketing-related forums, I understand that having a great team of moderators is important to keep a community active. How did you come across your current moderator(s) and what are your selection criteria?

Fergal: Our moderators on Business Advice Forum do a fantastic job at controlling spam, helping to manage the community and keeping it moving forward. Our moderators are chosen from our member base and they are all people who have shown the following:

  • Committed to the community.
  • Believe in what we are doing.
  • Polite and friendly.
  • Always willing to help their fellow members.

Fergal: Those four things are what we look for most in our moderators and we don’t really have other skill sets that we necessarily require.

Handling Forum Spam

Wayne: Spam, especially SEO-related spam, is a huge problem for any forums and online communities. How much resources, time or money, are you spending on taking out spam? Do share with us if you have other mechanisms in place that are in place to help reduce spamming activities.

Fergal: Dealing with spam is indeed a constant battle and challenge. Spam comes in never ending waves – spammers post their junk on the site, we remove and find a way to block it, the spammers find a way round that block, they start posting again and so the cycle continues. It takes a huge amount of time to keep a step ahead of the spammers. We use a number of spam blocking mods and the one that has been most successful for us is Stop Forum Spam.

Future Plans for Business Advice Forum

Wayne: Moving forward, what are some of the plans that you have to boost Business Advice Forum’s growth?

Fergal: Business Advice Forum has grown by being as helpful as we can to our members and by making lots of small improvements along the way. It’s a process of constant adaptation and improvement. My plans are to continue with that approach, as opposed to making any radical changes.

Wayne: How can readers reach out to you if they are interested in learning more about building a forum or just to say thank you for doing this interview?

Fergal: Thanks again for taking the time to interview me. One thing I love about the Internet is the ability to meet and connect with others that have similar interests. I’d be delighted to hear from any of your readers through either Business Advice Forum or Forum Promotion (my username is Fergal on both of them), or via Twitter or LinkedIn.

Have You Tried Building a Forum?

Do you have any questions for Fergal? If you tried building an online community, do share with us your experience together with problems that you encountered along the way.

Are you part of a forum or online community? Take some time to share links to your profiles in the comment section below.

Image courtesy of kevin dooley

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Comments

  1. says

    Hi Wayne, this article is just what we needed to start our own community. Our forum is currently nothing but a ghost town and we were thinking of making a contest to create the community.

    I have a few more questions that bug me and for which I did not find an answer.

    1. If you’re just starting a specialised forum, how do you find the people that might be interested in contributing to your forums.

    2. What is the best way to create the contest announcement ? I am thinking that just a prize without additional benefits won’t attract too many people.

    3. If your forum is new and specialised, what is the optimal number of categories to start with ?

    Regards,
    Andrei

    • says

      Hi Andrei, thank you for the questions.

      1. I would normally advise new community managers and forum administrators to visit other communities where the users who are interested in the specialized topics spend time. Due to the non-existence of a proper forum or community website, these individuals may be spending their time on Facebook Groups, LinkedIn Groups or Google+ Communities. Reach out to them (usually it’s a lot of cold emails) and come up with an incentive for them to participate in your forum.

      Yes, they might come and go but as soon as you have a head start in terms of the volume of topics and discussions, new members will start stumbling upon your forum via search engines.

      2. Prizes work wonders but as an admin, you need the prizes to fit your budget too. For example, if there are bloggers within your specialized niche, offer these bloggers a spot to promote their blog, which you are not incurring any costs. If you are wondering about what type of prizes are enough to entice your members, send an email to them and ask them about it. Most of the time, if your forum is still new, receiving one or two emails is sufficient to know what to offer in your contest.

      3. If there are not enough topics and discussions, start with the broadest categories in your niche. Having a high post count in a general category is more convincing for potential members than having a lot of categories with low or zero post count.

      Hope the answers above help. :)

  2. George says

    Hi Wayne,

    I recently found you in google and had a read and found it really useful. However, I have always been stumped by one thing, and I need it elaborating on extensively.

    That query is, getting people to your forum, because other forum owners do not like other people promoting their forums on their forums. So how do you get people to your forum?

    I have heard that you could use articles from article sites to fill content, but that would feel false to me as it is not really good enough content to put on.

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