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What to Consider When Setting Up Online Forums

If you’re reading this blog, we don’t have to convince you of the power of a digital community to a brand. We’ve written about it many times, so let’s assume you’re on board the pro-community train. You’re convinced; so what’s your next step? There are many software packages available that will provide you with a message-board environment with little fuss. But how to choose from the many products available?

Consider the factors that are important to your business as you set up your online community. To help it grow, you’ll need exposure, so look for software that’s SEO-friendly. With mobile users increasing by the day, look for forum software that’s not just designed responsively but also designed with mobile in mind. Finally, price: From free to thousands, set a budget but make sure you’re getting your money’s worth — even if you’re not spending anything! Here are other features to consider as you push your cart down the forum-software aisle.

BACK END OPTIONS

Open source. You or your web-dev team will want to decide up front how important it is to have an open-source forum tool. If your team is comfortable adding plug-ins to enhance and upgrade your message-board experience, you’ll want to look at options that allow you to mix and match features. Otherwise, you’ll want to opt for a plug-and-play option. One caveat — you’re at the mercy of the tool’s developers if you choose the latter option, and requested features or bug fixes may not happen at a pace with which you’re comfortable.

Intuitive dashboard. Along with ease of setup, having a dashboard that’s not overly complicated and makes sense to your moderators is key. Struggling to find features is a waste of your moderator’s time. Remember to test out your chosen software’s usability beyond the public-facing elements. Many publishers offer a free trial; take advantage of that and put the forums to the test before taking the plunge.

Permissions. Ensure that the system allows for the levels of control you desire. Beyond your moderator, you’ll expect admin-level access, editorial access, and multiple layers of users, ranging from approved and those awaiting moderation to those who are more problematic.

Security. Here’s an element that’s vital both at the back end and the user-facing levels. Too many sites are crippled by macros posted to forums, or are overrun with spam that eats away at the hours of moderators who need to review and remove unwanted junk. Keep out spammers and bots with advanced Captcha (going beyond confirming one’s humanity by doing math or answering questions), registration plugins that disallow accounts that are set up inhumanly fast, and a plethora of spam monitors that will filter out or outright ban spam accounts.

Moderation admin. It’s important to invest in a forum tool that allows you to manage your community and safety. Moderation tools are key; the ability to organize or remove threads, moderate comments, and deal with problematic users is key. Being able to apply actions such as mute, suspend, and ban helps to give your moderators tools to keep the peace. Ideally, look for an activity archive within the admin tool that allows you to track the success of your moderators’ and administrative staff’s actions. As a side note, we’ve always been fond of forum tools that allow for leaving account notes or reviewing account activity and transcripts. Such tools are rare, but when a forum solution has them, it makes a moderator’s job seamless.

Filters. Not enough is said about the importance of word and phrase filters included in forum solutions. And for those that don’t offer those features, there are many third-party filter solutions available. Filters can block inappropriate or dangerous behaviors before they touch a community. They can also trigger notifications to moderators for activity review.

Data and metrics. Proving the value of your community needs quantifiable information. It’s essential to understand the scale of incoming threads and comments and the health of your active population. Forecasting will identify scaling needs, and sentiment tracking can give you a high-level view of the community’s health.

USER-FACING OPTIONS

Threading. Forums present conversations in one of two ways: Flat conversations display posts in the order in which they were published. This means post #52 in a thread may be a response to post #36, with a quote of the referenced post leading off the response. It’s less intuitive than a threaded conversation, which displays related posts as part of a smaller conversation within the larger thread. If it’s easier for readers to follow, think of your moderators perusing the boards — they’ll have a quicker contextual understanding of the discussion, making for deeper comprehension at a more efficient pace.

User-reporting, blocks, and ignore lists. Some conversations can turn contentious. Your tolerance for heated discussions may differ from others, so it’s optimal to have the ability to regulate users on a granular level. Some software allows users to block or ignore others while allowing admins the ability to ghost posters, hiding their contributions for a predetermined amount of time. Most forum solutions allow users to report conversations or individuals. Whether or not you should subscribe to these practices is another topic; for now, it’s worth knowing how much your chosen software limits or empowers your moderators.

Fun add-ons. Message-board enthusiasts love to show off their bling with signature files and emoticons. They pump up interest on the boards by creating polls and inserting lots and lots of media (think cat images and videos, for which the internet was invented, right?). Gamification can help supercharge already-active communities, giving users an incentive to keep engaging in a healthy, helpful manner. Give ‘em the bells and whistles and watch your community make the most of these add-ons.

Direct messaging. Lastly, think about whether or not your community needs direct messaging (DMs). Many forum solutions have this as an option or an add-on. DMs can provide a deeper level of connection between your communities and give your moderators access to individuals to correct or check in on situations. But be advised, DMs between your community members may also create a meta-level conversation which could funnel inappropriate behaviors. It’s definitely a conversation worth having with your team.

Give your customers an intuitive, feature-rich forum in which to converse, engage, and interact. By providing them with a platform on which to be heard and to meet fellow consumers and — we hope — enthusiasts, you’re going a long way toward building a community of loyal brand advocates. That’s a big win, so choose your software wisely.

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