Starting a Forum? Here’s What You Need to Know!

This guest post was written by Michael, who has founded several successful forums and social communities.

So you’re interested in starting a forum? Good for you… it can be a very fun and rewarding experience. However over the years, I have found that almost no one truly understands the amount of work and dedication it will take to build a successful forum from scratch.

The whole idea of “build it and they will come” just doesn’t work anymore. As someone that has created social communities small and large (from “do-it-yourself” forums to large venture-capital backed communities, and ones in-between) here’s some invaluable advice I’ve learned along the way. These tips won’t guarantee success, but they will help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls people make:

(1) Pick the right niche

Ten or twelve years ago, the idea of starting a message board covering every topic under the sun might have made sense, but in 2010, that would be just plain stupid. The market is simply way too oversaturated for something like that to work.

Instead, you should focus on a specific niche – whether that’s a specific topic (such as luxury hotels and resorts in the Caribbean) or a specific group of people (like those seeking to repair their credit after a bankruptcy filing). That will instantly set your community apart from the others and give you a more unique angle to promote it.

Warren Buffett once said “I don’t look to jump over 7-foot bars… I look around for 1-foot bars that I can step over.” I believe you should also apply this mindset when choosing your niche. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather be in a niche where I can be number one, rather than just one of many. So gauge your competition and pick something that is relatively untapped, yet still a popular niche.

(2) Decide what features you want

Before you can pick out your forum software, first you need to pick out what exactly features and capabilities you want – both now and in the future. Do you want a plain old message board with no bells and whistles? Or, do you want the ability to also have CMS, blogs, etc. down the road? Deciding these things now will ensure you choose a platform that can meet your needs.

The good news is today’s platform offer capabilities that weren’t available in the past. As an example, vBulletin had no CMS option until late 2009. Before that, it was very difficult if you wanted to use your message board to host articles, reviews, etc. For example, on Credit Card Forum, things like this Marriott Rewards credit card review or Chase Freedom review would have to be done as a forum thread, even though they are clearly credit card articles. Today’s version of vBulletin has CMS capabilities to write real articles, but unfortunately, it is still very buggy and can even be confusing for many.

(3) Pick the right software

I can’t emphasize how important it is to pick the right software, because basically, you will never be able to seamlessly convert to a different platform later on. So choose carefully… VERY carefully… and do not let cost be a deciding factor.

You could plug-and-play the open source phpBB platform for free (which is nicely written code) but in my opinion, you will be somewhat limited in what you can do with it, depending on how complex of a site you want to make (i.e. including a CMS). Personally, I prefer vBulletin due to its versatility, but there are a still a few drawbacks; infamous for being buggy and a license will set you back a few hundred dollars. IP.Board (Invision Power Boards) is the other big player out there. I have heard positive feedback on it over the years, but because I’ve never used it, I don’t believe I’m qualified to draw an opinion on it one way or another.

Going back to vBulletin, if you end up deciding it’s best for you, make sure you also buy a vBSEO license for it. Do this on day one because it will give URL re-write capabilities (and obviously URL structures are something you never want to change once you have them in place).

(4) Work your butt off

Now it’s time for the real work to begin! Make no mistake about it – it will be a lot of work – but by building your forum from the ground up the right way, the work that lies ahead will be more likely to yield positive results for you.

For starters, you will need to recruit friends, family, and whoever else you can to regularly participate in your new community, because no one’s going to participate if they come to your site and see that nothing is going on. I’m not talking about doing this for just a week or two… this may be necessary for months or even a year or more (until your site achieves a good level of organic traffic). I’ve never used them, but I know there are some forum posting services where you pay a fee in order to get posts – I am highly skeptical of the quality of their work, so if you do end up using one, don’t use them as your only source (do it in conjunction with friends, family, etc.).

Concurrently, you want to be networking with related sites. If you are in a very focused niche, contact others in the same niche and see if they will help you out by adding you to their blogroll. For example, during the early days of this plastic surgery message board, we would network with plastic surgeons and offer them an interview on the forum, in exchange for a linkback from their website.

We also featured promotions like “10 posts made during the month of December will be randomly selected – their authors will be given a free $50 gift card to” This, of course, encourages member participation (and you can ask those related blogs which are linking to you, to please help spread the word on the contest). Try and think up strategic relationships and other means of promotions that would be appropriate for your niche.

As the site grows, may notice members gravitate towards some topics more than others – that’s perfectly okay and you should embrace it. For example, on PlasticSurgerySpot, the rhinoplasty forum was a big hit – that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it gives the site at least one topic (rhinoplasty) that gets a lot of active discussion. If you have at least one part of your forum that gets a lot of action, you’re more likely to have repeat visitors.

There is no pathway set in stone for launching and growing a forum. However if you follow this advice and continuously work your butt off, it should gain traction sooner or later. Just make sure you’re ready to commit to this level of work – because if you’re not – then building a forum is not for you (buying an established one might be a better idea).

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  • Julie

    bleh, this was a totally empty post – very little actual, detailed info, no social proof of the author – linkedin profile, twitter page, blog, etc. not what i was expecting from then again, i’ve only been reading for 3 weeks and still evaluating this effort. my opinion; stay away from way-to-general advice and cliche headlines. this could have easily been a 5 or even 10 part series (forum software, hosting, implementation, maintenance, moderation, promotion, stats, metrics, etc.).

    • Julie

      great. i can’t even edit my comment. strike that about the social proof thing – as the authors’ site is linked at the very bottom. guess i can do some more digging of my own. but i still stand by the value of the post being a tad bit below average.

      • @Julie — sorry to hear that you found this guest post to be lacking. While not a complete ‘how to’ on running a successful forum, I think Michael brought up some of the key concerns one faces when launching a forum, and I’ve specifically received a few email from readers asking for these types of questions to be answered (Which forum software, gaining initial momentum, etc).

        I hope to expand on some of the topics you brought up in the near future with a live case study, as we’ll be relaunching the FlipWebsites forum. Hopefully that will quench your thirst for more information on the topic. I’m also trying to line up an interview with another successful forum operator that might shed some additional light on the subject.

        Also, if you like specifics — there’s a post on list building that includes my real data coming out this afternoon, and the 5-figure flip series resumes tomorrow.

    • “no social proof of the author – linkedin profile, twitter page, blog, etc”
      I’m more interested in the quality of the content, not how many friends the author has.