in Books, Learning

Managing Online Forums: Everything You Need to Know to Create and Run Successful Community Discussion Boards

Managing Online Forums

Managing Online Forums

I have been a moderator inside the Dutch Moodle user community for quite a while now. It doesn’t require a lot of work from me: everybody is completely civil and all I occasionally do is make sure that no questions stay unanswered.

Very soon I will be responsible for moderating a group of learning professionals inside a large multinational company. The community is brand new and is currently in a start up phase. I decided to spend some time this weekend reading Patrick O’Keefe’s Managing Online Forums: Everything You Need to Know to Create and Run Successful Community Discussion Boards, to see whether I could get some advice that would be useful for that new task.

O’Keefe apparently has a wealth of experience running forums like KarateForums.com and phpBBHacks.com through his iFroggy network. The book has a companion website and he writes a blog about managing communities.

His community forums are out in the open and probably require a different kind of maintenance than an internal corporate network. He spends a lot of time talking about how to develop guidelines for members and staff (he includes useful templates) and about how to ban members. His advice is eminently practical, but it isn’t the type of information I am looking for.

The two (smallish) chapters that were more interesting to me were: Creating a Good Environment and Keeping It Interesting. Both chapters have some useful tips like:

  • Always personally welcome new users.
  • Don’t link users to general (unhelpful) sites when they ask a question. Instead take some time and link to the page they really need.
  • Members will get a sense of ownership of the community: do not make drastic changes without getting them involved in advance.
  • Share your successes: when you reach a milestone (like a certain amount of posts in the community), make an announcement and thank your users for their support.
  • If you have enough resources you could run a newsletter as something to add value to the community and keep people involved.
  • O’Keefe writes about a couple of games you can play in the forums. Survivor and Who Want to be a Millionaire? are explained in detail.
  • You could start a member of the month program or hold yearly award ceremonies.

All of this advice is very sensible, but doesn’t reach the depth that I had hoped for. The questions I would have like to seen answered are:

  • What steps should you take to grow a community out of little or nothing?
  • What is the right balance between seeding a community with (staff) posts and waiting for the wider community to create some content?
  • What is the right moment to close out a discussion?
  • What are the critical factors that make a community successful? Does it work very well for a particular group of users? How should your approach be different inside a sports based community in comparison to being inside a tech based community?
  • Can any topic be central to a community? Where do you do draw the lines of being in scope and being off topic?

It would have been nice if he had tried to tackle these questions too. Do you have any answers to these questions? I would love to hear them in the comments.

Let me finish by quoting O’Keefe on whether it is important to be an expert in the subject of the community:

Have a passion for the community. If you have it, you can succeed. If you have passion for the subject, but no passion for the community or for running the community, you really don’t have very much at all and you’re in  for a struggle.

I think that is probably very true!

  1. Dear Mr. Zwart,

    Thanks so much for picking up the book and sharing your thoughts. It means a lot to me. I really appreciate it and I am glad that you liked the book. I’m sorry that it didn’t reach the depth that you had hoped for, but I would be happy to speak with you and help however I can, to fill in those gaps.

    Regarding the questions you posed, I actually did try to answer all or most of them in the book, but maybe I didn’t do it in a way that resonated with you. I apologize for that. Please allow me to answer them here, as well.

    What steps should you take to grow a community out of little or nothing?

    This is really a very general question and there are different answers. But, primarily what I would say is that we all start at 0 and then we get 1 and then we get 2 and then we get 3. And so on. Communities grow 1 by 1 and we all have to start somewhere.

    It starts with you and your group of people – contact friends, family, coworkers, etc. that have an interest in what your community is about and ask them to come and participate. Only contact people you feel comfortable contacting. It doesn’t matter if it’s you, your friend and his brother – activity is activity and makes your community more attractive. Whatever you have, love it. If you have 3 members, love them. If you have 300 members, love them. That’s how you encourage growth.

    All of my communities started at 0. I founded them all. You have to get it started and be committed.

    What is the right balance between seeding a community with (staff) posts and waiting for the wider community to create some content?

    There isn’t one. I think it’s best to go with what you are comfortable with. At the end of the day, if people want to post (staff, or otherwise), let them post. Sure, you don’t want your staff having 100 posts out of 100 posts, if you can help it, but some activity is nearly always better than no activity (the exception being when it’s bad activity or poor quality).

    What is the right moment to close out a discussion?

    I’m not big on thread closure. I really will only close a thread if I feel it has gone on forever and has gone round and round in circles. But, that is exceedingly limited. For the most part, we try to leave threads open. It’s important not to close threads for violations of our guidelines, rude comments, etc. Those should be removed and the person who made the post should be contacted. Closing threads for those sorts of things sends the wrong message and leaves violations in public, where they can continue to do damage.

    What are the critical factors that make a community successful? Does it work very well for a particular group of users? How should your approach be different inside a sports based community in comparison to being inside a tech based community?

    This is a very general question and there are a lot of roads you can take. It’s like asking, “What makes a business successful?” or “What makes a friendship successful?” It’s a lot of stuff. So, speaking generally, hard work and commitment are what I am all about. I took this from Sean “Diddy” Combs, but I like to say that I am a marathon runner and not a sprinter. That’s just who I am.

    User groups are different, though, certainly and some subjects are more conducive to online community than others. But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t viable. A community about a specific disease may have less of an audience than a community on baseball, but that doesn’t mean the people who participate in the former community, don’t find it incredibly rewarding. You should know what your goals are and every decision you make should be in line with them.

    Can any topic be central to a community? Where do you do draw the lines of being in scope and being off topic?

    If this question is asking what I think it is, the answers are no and it depends.

    All communities have different goals and allow different things. It’s important to know what your community is about – who you are and who you want to be – and make sure that your decisions are in line with that. It’s hard to give a specific answer without a specific circumstance. But, for example, on my communities, we try to maintain a work and family friendly community where we can, within the subject. So, if you link to a video that is laced with expletives, it’ll be removed. Not because there is anything wrong with cursing, necessarily, but because that’s just not consistent with what our community is.

    I hope that these answers provide you with some of the information that you are after and I’m sorry that it could not be gleaned from the book. Please feel free to e-mail me at patrick@ifroggy.com if there is any other information that I can provide. I appreciate your time.

    Thanks again!

    Patrick

    • Thank you Patrick! It is quite amazing to receive such an extensive reply from the author of a book that you review. Thank you for your answers. I am sure they will help me in my job…

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