Nothing promotes a business online better than staying in touch with prospects. The more interactive the continued contact, the more of a relationship that is built with a potential client.
This business principle of continued contact and business relationship building has given rise to the popularity of online business forums, and of course, "theme-related" online forums. Online forums quickly establish empathy, set forum owners up as "experts" in the eyes of visitors, and serve as a promotional vehicle for other products and services that forum owners seek to sell.
While online forums are popular and the perfect method of relationship building, starting a forum and maintaining one can be challenging, especially in the beginning when members can be "few" and "far between". The challenge for most new forum owners is to get beyond the initial start up phase and move onto a phase where the forum members themselves promote the forum simply by posting.
Although each forum is individual and personal, a few general guidelines should be followed or at least kept in mind when starting and maintaining an online forum. These are as follows:
1. Take care when choosing the type of forum and forum script or software that will be used. The forum should be easy to access, easy to use, and come with "visitor- friendly" features. All visitors should be made to feel welcomed and find the navigability of the forum, user friendly. Forum scripts and software, especially "free" varieties, may be overburdened with ads from the parent company and lead to a poor experience for visitors.
2. The forum should have a good number of interesting and focused topics. The content should reflect the interests of the target audience, and every care should be made to have well-written and informative content that is updated regularly. This not only helps attract new members, it keeps older members from losing interest and defecting to other forums.
3. The forum should be Search Engine friendly. High activity forums, like popular blogs, provide a great reason for Search Engines to visit them frequently as they are brimming with fresh content all the while. Dynamic urls, session ids, etc. used by most forum software can be very detrimental to the forum health from Search Engine point of view.
When selecting a forum software, check if they are Search Engine friendly. Open source software like phpbb, have mods (modifications) developed by third party sources, to enhance the forum in many ways.
Here's a great mod for phpbb to make it Search Engine friendly: http://www.able2know.com/forums/about15132.html
4. The forum needs to have a clear list of rules, a disclaimer, and most of all, good solid moderation. Visitors will quickly become frustrated with forums that have no clear guidelines, or feature rude, obnoxious, or overbearing members. Good manners are required as much online as offline.
5. Promotion, especially in the early days, will take considerable time and effort. Forums can be difficult to start (members generally are "shy" when there are only a few present), and the more posts that take place, the more individuals will join. This is a "snowball" effect of forums, so marketing must be done consistently, day in and day out, until the forum becomes more self-sustaining.
6. The owner of the forum should take an active interest in the forum and SHOW this interest by contributing regularly. Above all else, people join forums where they feel they will learn from the owner of the forum, and if the owner is never present, they quickly lose interest in the forum.
7. The forum should be targeted, yet diverse, encouraging older members to contribute, without making newer members feel uncomfortable. Cliques can form in forums, and this type of behavior should be discouraged by the owner and moderators. Every effort should be made to answer questions or comments by all members as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
8. As with all other Internet related ventures, care needs to be given as to hosting and maintenance of the forum. A forum that is always experiencing "downtime", will lose members quickly, and a forum that has many coding mistakes will quickly frustrate visitors. As with Web sites, "cheap" providers of hosting and maintenance are not always "better".
All in all, online forums can be a great way to generate income, develop a good reputation among clients, and provide entertainment and instruction for many individuals. Like with everything else, however, they take marketing savvy, and a great deal of time and attention to detail. The old saying, "You only reap what you sow" really applies to the world of online forums.
Vishal P. Rao is the owner of: http://www.work-at-home-forum.com/ An online community of people who work at home.