Running an active online community or forum isn’t easy. The natural tendency for forums is to start strong when everyone is new and excited, but to dwindle over time as people lose interest and move on.
We know first hand. Before the Fizzle community, we had this exact experience. We started three different online communities (two private, one public) that followed this same pattern. Strong start… slow fade to ghosttown.
The Fizzle community is a different story. Now after about two years in, our forums remain vibrant, engaging and useful to our members.
People who join Fizzle like to say they “come for the courses and stay for the community.” We have over 79,000 total posts from a community of around 1,350 current active members. Many of our members check in multiple times daily. The community is the watercooler of conversations for so many people who have no one else to talk to about the ups and downs of self-employment.
When we started Fizzle, we knew an active communtity needed to be at the center of things. We were also worried about how we would keep the community strong months and years into the project. So we studied other active forums and talked to people like Steve Kamb (who runs the massive Nerd Fitness forum) to find out how to make the Fizzle community as strong as we could.
We learned a lot from other forums, and from experiments along the way. Here 10 of the most important things we’ve learned you should do to make your online community or forum more active:
1. Create an onboarding process for your community
If you want people to participate in your community, you have to hold their hands and show them why it’s so important to you.
The best way to do this is with an “onboarding” process for new members. Your goal is to create a series of touch points (probably an email campaign) that tells people why the community is important and guides them through creating a profile and posting their first message. An “introduce yourself” forum is a great place for people to start.
If you can, give people hard numbers. For example, we know that people who participate in our forums are more likely to succeed at building a business, and more likely to earn higher incomes from their businesses than people who do not participate in the forums. Basically, tell your new members what’s in it for them.
2. Create a guided video course about how to use your forums best
Most forum software packages (we use IP.Board) have advanced features that are key to getting the most out of participating in a community. Notifications, search, private messaging, signatures and other features might seem self explanatory to you, but many people have never used forums before.
You’ll also likely have unique forum features and sections you build in over time. We have sections for progress logs and finding mastermind group partners, for example. You’ll want to explain these sections to people so they know why they matter and how to use them.
A guided video course is a great way to do this, and it doesn’t have to be difficult to create. All you need to do is record your screen and voice, explaining the different features of your forums.
Bonus lesson: here’s a full video lesson from inside Fizzle on how to record your screen to create a guided course like the one I’m talking about here.
Note: join Fizzle for $1 and get all 16 lessons of this course along with the 100s of other lessons inside. We think you’ll like it. And if you don’t, cancel anytime.
3. Encourage progress logs or other types of forums that require regular interaction
One of the hottest sub-forums inside the Fizzle community is the progress log section. That’s where people check in regularly to talk about what they’ve accomplished and what they’re working towards in their businesses. A progress log is a great way to hold yourself accountable and get feedback from other people about what you’re working on.
This type of forum is great for building activity and engagement in your community. Create some kind of section for ongoing threads, where people are reporting on something over time. For example, if your forum was about losing weight, a daily or weekly progress log would be a great way for members to record and share how they’re doing.
4. Spend time in the community yourself
This one might sound simple, but you might be surprised how many people expect to install forum software and poof! have an active community just spring up without any additional work.
In the beginning especially, it’s absolutely crucial that people feel like it’s worth their time to participate in your forums. When someone posts in the forums and doesn’t receive a reply, it’s like your community gets a little cut. One cut doesn’t matter too much, but if this continues, your forum will eventually suffer death from a thousand cuts.
Before you have top contributors in your community, it’s your job to be there to answer every post that goes unanswered. Obviously, this strategy won’t scale, but right now you’re concerned about bootstrapping your community, not scaling it.
Then, as you find people rising up and taking leadership roles within your community, you need to be there for them even more, nurturing your relationship with them and showing how appreciative you are for the participation.
5. Promote members of your community to special positions
Eventually, a handful of members will stand out as leaders and daily active contributors. A great way to reward and encourage this behavior is to recognize it in front of the whole community.
We have a special “Fizzle Wiz” title bestowed on our most active and respected members. It’s a title and an open line to us, and an expectation that our Wizzes will help us keep our finger on the pulse of the community by sharing ideas and alerting us to anything that we should be paying attention to.
Some people will take this special title pretty seriously (see the wizard hat in this photo? Our wizzes Darlene and Dee brought it to an in-person meetup and insisted I wear it during a talk I gave). That’s a good thing. You want members to take ownership of the community when possible. It ensures your long-term viability.
6. Send weekly “what’s new in the community” messages and give shout outs to people doing great stuff
We brought Barrett Brooks onboard earlier this year as our Director of Member Success. Barrett has become our eyes and ears in the community, making sure we’re aware of everything going on, and helping us echo back what we’re hearing.
Sending weekly summaries of the best posts and accomplishments from your community is a great way to keep people coming back, and to encourage them to make progress themselves. The weekly “What’s New in Fizzle” messages Barrett creates are simple lists of things we think people should be called out and pat on the back for. We also give shout-outs in our monthly live office hours calls.
The more kudos you can provide, the stronger the positive feedback connection between success and participating in the community.
This is a dead simple way for members to keep abreast of the conversations going on inside the community. In our community, at least, We’ve heard a ton of great responses from Fizzlers about this one “feature,” how it keeps them interested, informed and, normally, how they learn something they didn’t know in someone’s recent experiment or launch.
7. Make sure email notifications are enabled, and encourage people to subscribe to thread activity
Here’s another simple one that can easily get overlooked. Forum notifications are important to let people know when there is activity on one of their posts or comments. I’m always annoyed by forums that don’t notify me of new comments, because it’s easy to forget about something you posted and never come back to look for replies.
Email is an important piece of your forum strategy. When people first sign up, checking in with your forum won’t be in their daily routine. You’ll need to pull them back, and email is the best tool for that.
Make sure email notifications are enabled within your forum, and be sure to show people how to subscribe to individual threads or entire sub-forums if they want to.
8. Get your community together in other ways: especially in person and on live video calls
This has been huge for us. The people who show up to either live online video calls and especially in-person meetups are consistently our most active forum members.
There is something about being able to talk to people in-person or over video that adds an extra dimension to the community and makes people see the forums (and the people behind it) differently.
In Fizzle we have weekly informal webinars called “Fizzle Friday” where people simply show up if they can make it and myself or Chase or Barrett facilitates a conversation, usually starting with “what are you up to right now? Need any help with anything?” Something magic happens in a decentralized community like this when you hear each others’ voices and see each others’ faces over time.
9. Create case studies from your most successful members
This is a great way to take your kudos and pats on the back to a whole new level. Case studies of your most successful members are a great way to shine a spotlight on people who have accomplished great things.
These case studies will encourage your other members, and they can be a great way to draw in new members as well.
Better yet, let people create their own case studies. Give them a place in the forums to share their successes. From the success stories, you can create full case studies, or even repurpose the successes into public content, like this great post from Fizzle member Thomas Frank, which was originally published in the forums as a success story: How to Produce High Quality Videos for Under $1,000.
There’s all sorts of little lessons learned in these case studies. If your community is formed around a topic or skill people are looking to get better at, showcasing the stories of how some members were able to make progress can be an excellent way to not only encourage folks but also to help them with specific tactics to actually make progress of their own.
10. Other ideas
Here are a handful of other ideas for making your community more active. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below with other tips and tricks you’ve used or seen.
- Require real names and photos (we’ve found this to be a factor in encouraging open, honest, helpful conversations).
- Funnel discussions from courses, blog posts and other places into the forums (we use the forums as our discussion outpost for courses and founder stories interviews).
- Track key forum metrics, including posts per member, percent of members with forum profiles, percent of members posting per week, etc. (we look at these weekly to see the health of the forums overall).
- Study features of other popular forums. When you run out of ideas, go fishing. Sign up for other forums and see how things are done.
Have you been a part of a community like this? Are you running your own? What else have you done or seen done to make an online community more active? Please share in the comments.