8/07/2008

How to Start an Online Discussion Community?

Online message boards and BBS systems can be a great way to connect people who share similar interests. By following a few easy steps, you can create a thriving online community which will provide you and your membership with many entertaining discussions.
1. Choose a specific community topic. If you plan to manage the community yourself, pick something that you are knowledgeable about and interested in. Because there are already so many online discussion forums available, it's best to serve a well-defined niche. For example, "Buddhist Republican Forum" will probably work better than "Religion & Politics Forum."
2. Select a hosting package. If you have some webspace and a good bit of experience with web development, you can set up your own message board using a software package. If you are unable to set up your own hosting, you can use one of the remotely hosted forum services such as EZboard, or Proboards.
3. Create your forums (discussion areas). Ideally, you want 5-10 separate forums, each dealing with some aspect of your community topic. For example, you can have a "General Discussion" forum, a "Science" forum, a "Political Discussion" forum, etc. Try not to over-categorize. Ask yourself if each subforum you add will make your community better by facilitating new topics or if it will detract by spreading content too thin and forcing the users to search for content they are looking for.
4. Advertise your community. If you have some online friends with similar interests, send them a quick e-mail to let them know about your "grand opening." If you have a website, announce your new community to your visitors. Whatever you do, avoid "spamming" (advertising to strangers without permission). Spamming will ruin the reputation of your community before it has a chance to get started.
5. Select moderators. Each separate discussion forum within your community should have its own moderator. The moderator keeps the discussions fresh by starting new topics and removing inappropriate content. Community users who are knowledgeable about the subject matter of the forum and willing to spend a few minutes a day helping the community grow will make good moderators.
6. Manage the community. You and the team of moderators should agree on some basic rules of conduct (such as "no personal attacks"), and enforce them. Occasionally, you may need to ban a disruptive user from your community in order to prevent problems.
7. Make strategic alliances. Exchange links with other communities with similar interests in order to grow your user base. As your community increases in size and activity, you will have more opportunities to create strategic partnerships with other websites.
8. Develop a community atmosphere over time. You need to foster a sense of loyalty and "belonging" among your membership, or they will eventually go somewhere else. Games, contests, custom titles for users, and other "gimmicks" work well, but simple friendliness and respect are even better.


Tips

* You may want to have a place for users to forward spam and post random garbage: for most forums, it's going to happen anyway, so it's best to make a subforum where people can do it without distracting from the main content of the bulletin board.
* Don't expect overnight success. It takes time to build a large and active membership. Keep at it, and the word will eventually get around. It may take several years before the discussion community becomes self-sufficient.
* Tailor your rules and standards to your subject matter. For example, a religious community will probably have much stricter rules than one about making prank phone calls. Your community standards should be neither too strict or too relaxed for your target audience.
* Keep staff and forums proportional to the community. If you only have thirty members, you do not need twenty moderators or fifty forums. Only add staff and forums when necessary - you should not make people into staff just because they are your friends or they asked, and you should not make an entire forum for Pokémon on a political discussion board just because you enjoy the games.

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