August 9, 2006

Webmaster Tips: Fostering Loyalty on Your Forums

Filed under: Nissan News / Infiniti News — greg @ 4:06 pm

Running a successful forum requires enormous commitments, ones that few people are able to sufficiently make. After all, you’ll spend countless time, effort and money on developing an idea, creating a forum, promoting your site, pursuing membership, posting content, optimizing for search results… Not to mention the day-to-day investment of managing a staff, keeping up with technical bugaboos and putting out those inevitable “fires” that seem to come at the most inopportune time.

Yet some forum owners seem to be on Easy Street. Their members police themselves, their staff goes above and beyond what’s asked of them, and volunteers pop out of the woodwork almost before the need arises.

Well, I’m one of these fortunate owners. Quite simply, I try to foster loyalty, because loyal members not only stick around, they’re more likely to spread the word about your forums for you – and THAT is powerful stuff.

So, what do those select few forum owners do differently than the rest to develop a loyal membership? Here’s a start:

1) Welcome your new people.

This doesn’t simply mean post up a generic “Welcome to The Forums!” every time you run across a member whose screen name you don’t recognize. This means taking a minute, reviewing new members’ profiles, and maybe adding a personalized touch. It can be a comment on their hometown, their avatar, even their screen name. “Hey, welcome to The Forums! I see you’re from Ozark. I was born about 10 miles from there. What’s the area like now?” People LOVE to talk about themselves – after all, that’s why they’re on a web forum. This all but guarantees a return poster (which you want), and allows an opportunity for others to converse with the new member as well (which you really want).

Say you run a larger forum, like I do – At 70 new members per day, there’s simply no way I could keep up with this many “Welcomes”. Rather, I’ve fostered this type of welcoming attitude among all of my Administrators and Moderators. Roaming the site, handling their day-to-day “duties”, they recognize new people coming into their assigned areas and can extend the same warm greetings. They feel genuinely welcomed and in turn are more likely to feel comfortable welcoming others This is STEP ONE in fostering loyalty among your members.

2) Answer questions.

Yes, even those that are discussed on your forums ad nauseum. So many forums, especially those with a lot of technical information, make the mistake of saying, “Search, n00b!” to new people with seemingly obvious (or just plain dumb) questions. While it’s more than acceptable to point out the location of the “Search” button and how it works, a rude response most likely will either turn them away, or worse, make them a “troll”, eager to fight. Besides, if everything has already been discussed, and everything is searchable, then you have a LIBRARY, not a FORUM. Bleh.

Lead by example here. Remind your team that they were all “rookies” once, and embrace a culture of assistance. While you don’t need to respond to new questions by repeating basic information over and over, I like to take the following tack: “Welcome aboard! There’s a TON of great information here related to your question – The quick answer is, yes, 300ZX brakes CAN be succesfully adapted for use on your 240sx. Here’s a link to our Tech Forum, which will tell you all about it, and more information on other modifications you may be interested in!” You’ve just turned that person into a welcoming member of your community, and I can guarantee you they’ll be among the ones who helps out new people in the future – That’s STEP TWO in fostering loyalty on your forums.

3) Be human.

Don’t simply be an ominous (and anonymous) avatar and screenname. Be a human being. Allow your members and your staff a glimpse into your life. This can be something as simple as posting a picture thread where members share pics of themselves. Or, you can go a step further, like we did. We have an entire “Meet The Staff” page, with a bio for the CEO, Administrators and Moderators. People love to read this stuff, and it seems to encourage a more intimate atmosphere. My team and membership knows an awful lot about me, and as a result, they open up and I learn a lot about them. Even with 37,000+ members, there’s still a sense of “belonging” – And that is STEP THREE in developing a loyal forum following.

4) Hold “off-board” events.

This is relatively easy for us as an automotive forum, as we host national and regional-level car shows throughout the year. Off-board events give your membership a chance to meet in person, get to know each other better, network with one another and place names with faces (or screennames). People innately want to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves, and hosting an off-board event is a perfect way to develop life-long friendships. We’ve had two marriages and a childbirth as a result of our off-board meetings, and countless friendships have blossomed.

Plan an outing to a trade show relevant to your forum topic, or a tour of a company that advertises with you. In the absence of any of these ideas, a simple “Meet & Greet” dinner can be planned. Make an effort to be present, even if it means some travel. Take pictures, post them up, show what a good time everyone had – Not only does this encourage more traffic (who doesn’t love seeing pictures of themself on a forum?), conversation and discussion, but it’s also STEP FOUR to fostering real member loyalty.

5) Take care of your staff.

It’s so easy to fall into the “If you want something done right, do it yourself” routine when running a forum. But the reality is, without the input of several other people, your “vision” can result in a narrow and single-minded direction for your forums. Convey your vision to your staff frequently, and you’ll rapidly see who’s “with you” in your efforts. For 3 years, my goal has been to be the biggest and best Nissan website on the Internet. Lofty, yes. But I have an entire team of staff who bust their tails in pursuit of that same goal, and we’re succeeding in our mission.

Empower your staff to make decisions on their own, and then BACK THEM UP. They are often your members’ only insight into how things work on your forum, and they should convey your vision through their actions. Even if you feel something wasn’t handled perfectly, resist the temptation to criticize, and if/when you do, make sure it happens in a private forum (or better yet, off-board). Allow mistakes to be made, recognize successes and give genuine praise frequently and you’ll reap the benefits, because that’s STEP FIVE in fostering loyalty among your staff.

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