Forums are dead, long live forums.

February 15, 2017 — by Sherrie Rohde2



Forums are dead, long live forums.

February 15, 2017 — by Sherrie Rohde2

Forum Best PracticesI’ve lost track of how many times people have stated around the Interwebs that forums are dead. To be honest, it’s a little hard to care about these statements as the forum I manage has grown to over 200,000 members in just under two years (after a two year hiatus and re-platforming effort that left us starting from scratch). Additionally, it’s interesting to see how so many forum elements are reintroduced in other areas of communities (e.g. Slack recently adding threaded discussions). Forums are not the right solution for everyone, in the same way that Twitter is not the right solution for everyone, but they do have their place.

We’ve talked about forums often here on #CMGRHangout including the harmony of social media and community platformshow to choose a community platform, engaging community on a platform and online community policies. Last January, we talked with Jenn Chen, David DeWald and Paula Rosenberg about forum best practices, and while yes, that was a lifetime ago, we never get a chance to highlight their recommendations, so here we go!

On-boarding New Members

Helping new community members feel welcomed and informed is a crucial part of community management and something that definitely comes to play when using forums. There’s multiple ways to accomplish this, but a few methods our panelists shared are:

  • When you see a new member participate, welcome them!
  • Pay attention to what your members are doing outside of your community and bring their external accomplishments and efforts into a weekly digest where your community can celebrate together.
  • Send new members a personalized welcome email, but be aware of other customer touch points to make sure they’re not being bombarded by email (e.g. do they have an account manager already welcoming them?).
  • Have your team members share video intros and encourage community members to do the same.
  • Create an introduction thread where new members can say hi, share challenges they’re facing, their accomplishments, and what they’re looking for in being a part of the community. (e.g. David Spinks does this every week on the CMX Hub Facebook group.)
  • Reward them with a badge for their first post or reply to encourage them and make them feel like a valuable part of the community.
  • Empower existing community members to serve as a welcome committee.
  • Highlight the user guidelines and ways to reach out to you and other moderators.
  • Let them know other areas of the community where they can get involved (e.g. meetups and other offline events).
  • Keep an eye out for super users you may have missed.
  • Include tips on how to use the platform in any of your digest or newsletter communications.

Leveraging Platforms for Listening

In the early days of a forum, it’s probably easy to keep up with new threads, but as your community grows it’s important to know what your platform can do to help you listen in. Our panelists suggest:

  • Setup notifications for when someone starts a new thread.
  • Follow key threads that are going to be essential to respond to in a timely manner.
  • Follow abnormally active threads.
  • Create automated triggers to escalate topics that haven’t been answered in 24 hours.
  • Subscribe to searches for key topics.
  • Teach others on your team how to set up notifications for topics important to them (e.g. security, product suggestions, new programs, etc.).
  • Use a sentiment analysis engine to identify if comments are positive or negative.
  • Set up specific boards for key topics that you want to keep a close eye on.

Leaderboards, Badges, and Ranks, Oh My!

Gamification, as David DeWald says, is Pavlov’s dog. It’s a topic we’ve talked about before, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. As Ryan Olsen always emphasizes, make sure you understand gaming mechanics if you decide you want to implement gamification on any level. One of my favorite resources for this is Kevin Werbach’s book, For the Win. If you’re not familiar with gaming concepts or things like intrinsic vs extrinsic rewards, I’d definitely recommend giving it a read. Whatever you do, make sure you understand the purpose and value of what you’re trying to accomplish by implementing gamification. Here are some other tips from our panelists:

  • What we’re trying to do with gamification is training our users to do what we want them to do. Think about what it is you’re wanting to encourage them to do whether it’s sharing content or inviting more people and then structure your elements around those goals.
  • Know that people will game the system and just be in it for fake Internet points. They’ll cheat and stretch the rules if that’s what it takes.
  • The best need for gamification is a mission to teach members how to use the site, to learn how to use the features of your platform.
  • Badges can be useful to identify expert members (e.g. somebody that continuously participates in the forums, has participated in a profile on your blog or was featured in your best practices guide, a top publisher).
  • Gamification works well on fitness websites because they want you to keep logging on and engaging so that you don’t fall off the bandwagon with the health goal you’re trying to reach.
  • Be very aware of how gamification can go wrong (e.g. Sesame Credits).

  • Look at the metrics behind each member’s behavior and set up your game elements based on that.
  • Make sure you’re focused on quality, not just quanitity. For example, don’t just look at how many posts a member has made but instead look at how many solutions they’ve provided for other people. Are they being really helpful and insightful?
  • Recognize top contributors each month by awarding them kudos, giving them a shout out, and pointing to what they contribute that’s of value.
  • Give unexpected gifts at unexpected times. For example, take your top people and, without warning them, send them some swag to say “You’re doing a great job, and we really appreciate it!”
  • If you run into budget problems, just write a simple thank you note. A handwritten card can go a long way.
  • Think about the small things you can do to delight your members.

Reporting on Key Metrics

ROI. Another topic we can talk on for hours, and have. This time we only spent about 10 minutes on ROI, but our panelists were full of suggestions even in such a short amount of time:

  • Start with your company’s business objectives or your team’s goals and then look at what you community metrics you can use to support that. Then tie those metrics into your community plan and objectives.
  • If you need help tying your metrics together with company goals, don’t be afraid to ask your manager, or others on your team, for help and suggestions on how to do so.
  • Look at your community initiatives and tie in the metrics to show the fully story. For example, if you run a contest in the community, make sure you’re able to show how forum engagement increased as a result (if that’s a goal).
  • If your community’s goal is case deflection, look at traffic that ends on posts with a solution, or successful searches, and calculate what % of those members would have otherwise created a support case. You can use that, along with calculated costs per support case, to show your C-levels “We think we saved x amount of dollars because of these posts.”
  • Figure out how to measure the reciprocity of influence. As your members become better users, their influence becomes greater which can in turn bring others into your community. Their 15 minutes of fame could help someone new join.
  • If you have sub-communities, look at which ones are performing the best to see who you should recommend communities to and who you should be helping.
  • Factor our your own team’s engagement for cleaner community metrics.
  • In an early community, growth is a great measurement, but once it matures, it no longer has the value it does early on.
  • You never know what you’ll find in your data. For example, a month over month spike in visitors from certain countries might mean you’ll want to localize some of your content for them.
  • Share your reports with your executive leadership team and other key stakeholders, but learn how to transcribe that activity to their language (e.g. growth, retention, activity, where conversation is shifting to new products, what topics are there questions about where you should focus documentation efforts, etc).
  • How does your community platform impact your NPS score? You can find that out by inserting a question into your NPS survey related to the community (e.g. did you visit the forums? did you find them helpful?) and look at how the NPS score changes for those members vs others who answered the survey. (Thanks to Evan Hamilton’s CMX Summit talk for this idea.)

On that note, our friends over at CMX just released The 2017 Community Value and Metrics Report, so definitely go check it out for more ideas of where your community should be and what you can be looking at to show value.

“Know what you want you, and your community, to get out of your forums.”

—Paula Rosenberg

Where do we go from here?

Wrapping up, Alex Burkart asked the panel if they had any predictions or untapped needs for the upcoming year. David had two suggestions:

  1. Better reporting on the backend. That’s the failing of every single community platform out there. They give you canned reports that hold very little value.
  2. In the world of haters and people bullying online, we need to shift from post-moderation to pre-moderation. Being reactionary is no longer acceptable, we need to be proactive.

So there you have it, our suggestions for best practices on on-boarding new members, leveraging platforms for listening, gamification, and reporting. Afraid you missed something good? Check out the full replay here:

Sherrie Rohde

Community Manager at Magento
As the Community Manager for Magento, Sherrie connects people with resources and with each other, and, since she’s just a bit passionate about the topic, she also co-produces a monthly broadcast for community professionals called #CMGRHangout. An ENFP, Sherrie is obsessed with innovation, terrified of status quo, and motivated by adventure. Reach out on Twitter at @sherrierohde. 