How did you know you could be successful with a forum?


(Erlend Sogge Heggen) #1

To community builders: How did you come to the conclusion that your community would benefit from (and was in fact ready for) a forum platform?

  • Were there any major clues indicating there was a need for what you set out to build?
  • What metrics, data points or anecdotal evidence gave you the confidence to proceed?

Share your story with us here. Major bonus points to anyone who can talk about a forum community that failed, and why.


(Erlend Sogge Heggen) #2

#3

I launched my first community from scratch 5+ years ago. It’s a community for people trying to start a career in UX. We already had a large blog readership and when we realised that the overwhelming majority of questions coming in as comments on our blog and as support tickets were the same, we figured a community might be the answer. The questions were also being asked repeatedly on Facebook and people were getting answer fatigue because the information was so ephemeral.

I researched our audience to see what their biggest challenges were and enlisted a small group of them to act as beta testers when we launched on vB Cloud.

The community was a success but vB wasn’t, so a few years ago we migrated onto… Discourse.

As much as I’m a huge fan of bonus points, I’m pleased to say that the community didn’t fail and is still going strong.


#4

Well, I see that everyone is shy, I do not understand why nobody has answered this post yet.

I will encourage you to comment on my recent experience.

As most of you should know, I’m from Argentina, and my native language is Spanish; so be patient :blush:

The “success” experience

A long time ago, I started a website about (never mind)… we will call it “A project”, and the main ratio that told me that my readers needed to express themselves was the comments that my website was receiving. A lot of comments in the entries, it was obvious that the website already had a considerable amount of followers (through email) and new readers that came through google, and they were comfortable with the treatment they received. , and the content that the website offered.

I’m not going to lie to you, a few years ago I did not know Discourse.
I have worked with vB, Ipb, phpbb, and myBB. I have gone through different roles, from user, to moderator and administrator.

In “project A”, I used myBB because I was testing the reaction of readers to how they would feel with a forum. Moving from a blog, to a forum, and being able to “debate”, in this era of social networks, I must admit that there is a lot of aversion to change.

And here is another key factor: The age of your readers.

In my community, most readers are adults, +35 years old.
They are not teenagers with the fever of social networks.
They look for information, content and share their experiences.

In August of 2015 I migrated to Discourse and everything has been gone to the moon (like bitcoin!) jajaja :lol:

The “failed” experience

However, I have other web projects that also receive a lot of visits and comments, and I decided to choose a “B project” to open a forum with Discourse for that website. If I compare both projects, the latter was a FAIL. It does not come close to a low participation rate, and more than once I have reconsidered the decision to close the forum due to a lack of “debates”.

My mistake was to analyze the website looking only at its volume of readings, and fidelity to comments, regardless of who the readers were, how old they were, what they were looking for on my website.

Obviously, project B does not have the same audience that project “A”.

Project B is more oriented to a public of “social networks”, where there are more consumers of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And there my biggest mistake. That audience does not even know what a forum is.

I hope you enjoy my experience

Regards


(Christoph) #5

I run a couple of forums that are very slow to get going but I refuse to describe those as failed. One of them is a neighbourhood forum for the people living on my (small) street. I explain it to people as a digital bulletin board. Not so long story short: a few people actively use it, a few more are lurking but given the number of people targeted, only a fraction of them have signed up, so you could call it failed. But I don’t. Since I don’t have the time to actively promote the forum, I’m giving it lots of time and as long as a few people find it useful, I see no reason to turn it off.

But you wanted success stories. Well, here are two easy ones: Easy, because if there is a product (open-source software, in these cases) that is obviously increasing in popularity but the support channel is, well, a nuisance at best, it is obvious that creating a forum for that software will be a success. So, since those software products were not mine, I kept bugging the developers to create a discourse forum, offering all kinds of support and advice so that they would feel comfortable doing so and after about six months they finally did. One of them started about a year ago, moving (not migrating) from gitter and a google-mailinglist to discourse:

If you define success by upward pointing curves or even just by a DAU/MAU of over 30%, you may well call this a failure, but it just shows how subjective success and failure are, because the forum fully fulfills its purpose and its so much better and more accessible than the previous support channels. And I would even argue (though it’s just a gut feeling) that the forum has increased the speed of development of the software. Not drastically, but at least they are releasing canaries and betas more frequently because people are asking for it (and possibly also contributing to it). Whether the forum also allowed the developer to dedicate less time to support and more into coding remains to be verified, but it’s definitely possible.

In any case, I think I can say that this is precisely the kind of dynamic that was completely foreseeable long before the forum launched and I’m sure every one of you knows at least one software product that could take the exact same path. That’s why I say: easily predictable success.

And, indeed, I’ve done it again. The second forum of this kind launched just a few weeks ago, this time migrating about two years of previous posts from a very basic support system into discourse. Here is the last twelve months, the last three weeks of which is on discourse:

Too early to really say anything yet, but again: compared to the previous “forum” that did not even allow searching for previous topics (except for those who know how to search specific domains via google), it’s a success almost by definition.

tl;dr: two success criteria: 1. a popular or trending product with need for support, 2. existing support channels are insufficient


#6

hehe, duplicacy ftw :smiley:


(Mark Walkom) #7

Mine was about 20 years ago when I found a small community that was fully behind a local tech brand. It grew into something super big and pushed the associated business to the forefront of it’s audience within region and also worldwide.
At that point I knew the power of communities, and the amazing capabilities a forum platform can provide.

Mind you, that was well before discourse so it was a custom code job, but the concept was the same. We just have much better tools these days :smiley:


(Yaw Anokwa) #8

I led the move of the Open Data Kit open-source community from Google Groups to Discourse last year.

We had a couple of thousand people on our mailing list and it was impossible to keep track of all the many conversations. The things that I wanted to be able to do are:

  • Be on a platform that’s actively being worked on. Google Groups hasn’t changed in years and it isn’t long for this world.

  • Build sub-forums to enable more focused discussions (e.g., form design, job posts, beta releases) where interested parties can talk in detail without the entire community being notified.

  • Reduce duplicate support posts by showing related questions,
    stickied posts, etc.

  • Add features like FAQ, voting for features, @mentioning
    relevant parties, analytics on activity.

  • Keep engaging the community by sending out weekly emails
    with most active discussions.

  • Ability for folks to keep using the platform as a plain old mailing list.

I knew about Discourse through OpenMRS and Bootstrapped.fm. Both communities seemed to like the platform. That plus all the activity on this forum gave me the confidence I needed to make the move.

So far it’s been great. We’ve doubled the size of the community over the last year and Discourse continues to work well for us and I’ve migrated a number of other communities to their own Discourse installs.

For me, if you run an open-source project and have a reasonably sized community, Discourse is a must.


(Lee_Ars) #9

A long time ago in the year 2000, I started a dumb little web site called The Chronicles of George, where I posted (suitably redacted) images of some really terrible helpdesk tickets from the job I had at the time. The site ended up on The Screen Savers (remember them?!) as the “Site of the Night” on some evening that year, and popularity took off. I blew through two web hosts before a sympathetic soul who owned a regional ISP offered to host the site for free (which saved the CoG, since I was utterly without the means to pay the hosting bill—the site hit about 200k uniques per month at the point it was most popular, which was right around then).

I was bombarded by e-mail from other people commiserating about the site—I ended up with literally thousands of emails in total. Everybody, it seemed, had a George at their job that they were dying to talk about. And if they were willing to throw e-mail into the void brimming over with that much emotion and verbiage, surely those same folks would want a common watercooler to bitch at. USENET was still very much a thing (and dumbass postings by me to alt.tech-support.recovery abound), but creating a newsgroup just didn’t seem like a very future-proof strategy.

So I signed up for a free account at ezboard.com, added a note about the forums to the CoG homepage, and at community exploded from there. I found some volunteer mods, we wrangled the users, and things have been (with a few crazy moments) relatively stable since then. I was absent from the forums for a long time and they still kept on running on autopilot, powered by the regulars.

We migrated through several forum apps, and in 2013 I jumped from a short-lived fling with Vanilla over to Discourse, which at the time was in early beta and had a vastly complex setup procedure. I liked it. It was different. After I got Discourse running in a way I was happy with, we cut over—and we’ve been there ever since.

How did I know the CoG would be successful with a forum? Because pretty much everybody has a George at their job, no matter what their job is, and we gain strength when we share our pain.

(oh my god, that movie was so bad. i’d forgotten just how bad, but watching that clip just now was hard.)


(Vaping Community) #11

Been a bit busy lately and not visited Meta, thanks for the invite!

I had been a keen member on another site running Discourse for quite some time and as time went on unforeseen circumstances forced our hand and it was decided that me and a small group would branch off and do our own thing, although at the time we were not sure what that was, or how we were going to do it as I had no experience with Discourse / Ubuntu etc

We looked at many other options, PHPBB, Wordpress forum plugins, Flarum, SMF etc but I took the plunge and got Discourse on Digital Ocean.

I never created the forum with the mindset that we would grow, at first it was just meant as a way for all of us to stick together and have fun but now I feel we are growing into a real community, it’s only been 5 months but we are progressing nicely and despite a lull in new sign ups, we have over 70 members.

We all bring something unique to the table and varied experiences create great conversations.

It would be great for our small community to blossom into a thriving vape metropolis but who knows what the future holds, we will be happy either way.


#12

We’re DNSTARS.vip, a practical harm reduction community centered on end users’ wellbeing.

  • Were there any major clues indicating there was a need for what you set out to build?

Drug use/availability/accessibility sky rocketing, purity levels going up whilst lethal analogues being introduced into the black economies of the dark net.

  • What metrics, data points or anecdotal evidence gave you the confidence to proceed?

Generally the fact that everyone does, has done, or knows someone that has done “a” drug and that most hosters won’t allow you to talk “about” drugs unless it’s been triple shrink wrapped in a negative light. I didn’t think that was serving the public very well.

In the main we crowd source funds for drug tests to hold darknet vendors accountable to a degree as to what substances are being sent out, this incidentally gives dealers the only reason that would ever exist (Capitalism) a reason to not send nasty stuff out and raise money for drug related charities and NGOs.

We’re kind of like a voluntary movement of trading standards if you will where none exists currently and governments are just generally unwilling to do more that is relevantly useful to people. Whether we like it or not, approve of it or not teenagers can score hard drugs with their smart phone by following a 10 minute guide online.

Someone had to do something more.

Think we’re at 1400 members month 3 and about 1m hits a month.


#13

Haha, Christophe, I could have written this. I run two also. I have a smaller site too.

I built it to replace a Yahoo mail group which was used for ‘our building’. There are five buildings in the development. It’s competing with two FB groups mainly focussed on one of the other larger buildings and I have a passionate irrational hatred for closed FB groups. Why does everything have to be FB these days?! I presume it’s also competing with NextDoor … but i’ve not even dared to look on there (my bad). It’s been very hard to grow the user base from my building. I’ve found physical social networking (‘talking to neighbours’) to be the best strategy.

I think this is a special use case … people still post, but only when they need to. Not everyone wants to be close to and share with their neighbours. We have a problem ‘angry’ neighbour’ who is on the site … I’m sure she puts people off. I’ve had to moderate her comments several times … a much more tricky step when dealing with physical neighbours you need to get on with in the real world …

It makes for a rather luxurious mailing group, but it’s definitely far more fun to administrate and it’s obviously way more feature rich and pretty to look at!


#14

We built ours simply because YouTube comments were terrible. So, we looked for a system that could essentially replace this functionality… and that’s how it started.

We were actually quite surprised when it took a life of its own and became much more than just a comment section for YouTube.


(Jeremy M) #15

Great question. So for us at Auth0 (community.auth0.com) we had a support product (ZenDesk) and needed to separate our free users from our paid, SLA customers. So we initially went with AnswerHub (don’t. just don’t. rinse. repeat.) for a Q&A platform but noticed that devs weren’t getting involved. When I came on board, and having spent 30+ years in BBSs, forums, etc., I immediately moved us to Discourse.

I knew that we were hungry for a forum / conversation-based platform because of the type of questions, conversations, feedback we were getting. Consistently got feedback from customers that they were wanting a place to talk with other devs in addition to getting help for integrating Auth0 into their thing they were building.

I believe that marker (more conversation and feedback about desires) should be a clue to move to something like a forum.


(Curtis Rueden) #16

My software community switched from mailing lists to Discourse in late 2015. I was convinced to make the jump because: 1) there were an increasing number of requests from users and developers for a forum; and B) Discourse’s UX is light-years ahead of mailman and Google groups (the tools we were using till then): extremely productive and practical for our sort of community.

We knew a minority of people would be unhappy with the switch, but from the perspective of the people “doing the work”—those answering community questions as well as those maintaining the technical infrastructure—it was a clear win. The ability to use tags and categories has drastically improved the signal-to-noise ratio with respect to logistics like proliferation of sub-community lists, cross-posting between them, etc., resulting in a more unified and welcoming community.


(Willemb2) #17

Here’s a story from outside the typical world of Discourse (my impression is that it is mainly used by communities around high-tech subjects like software development):

A running club, 200 members aged 30-70, with a closed community to share training plans, ideas about events, results, connect with each other etc. Anything that you don’t want to put on a public website.

We started a forum based on SMF in 2013. It is as reliable as a Swiss watch and the LAMP architecture matches that of our self-hosted WordPress website. But it was never very popular. About 20% of our members (2 teams) are still actively using it. They don’t really like it, it is old-fashioned and practically unusable on a smartphone, but it works. However with that 20%, we consider it as failed.

It got competition from a closed Facebook group that an individual member started. That is being used or at least followed by 45% of our members. Some training groups use WhatsApp. We estimate that about 35% of our members will never want to open a Facebook account and that number will probably increase with all the recent negative news about Facebook and general concerns about the business model behind “free” services on the Internet. So Facebook will never be an official platform for the club.

With the GDPR a platform for a closed community that is acceptable for everyone has become more important. Since May 25th, 2018, you cannot put match results and pictures of winners with their names etc. on a public website without their explicit consent.

We recently started a small scale pilot with Discourse and we love the forum part. It covers 100% of our needs. The WordPress plugin is also a great asset. We expect demand for a chat function from our users but we have not yet tested the available plugins. In September 2018 we will invite some of the Facebook users to join the pilot. My fear is that they will compare the app with the Facebook/WhatsApp/Twitter apps.

There are some dedicated club-apps on the market for our purpose, but most of them have the same disadvantages:

  • Expensive for a small club

  • A web-interface only for management, for the end-user they use classic Android and iOS apps only. See my observation below, but to me this is a step too far, we would lose about 20% of our users if we make it “smartphone-only”.

  • Not as flexible as forums.

A personal observation about people in my environment without jobs or interest in IT: an increasing part of them doesn’t use a laptop or desktop anymore in their private life. They do everything on their (huge) smartphones. They don’t use the Internet, they use apps. At work they use computers, but there everything happens in some business application that covers all they need. General computer usage skills like working with spreadsheets, saving e-mail attachments, organizing files etc. are declining.

If Discourse wants to be successful outside the world of technology interest communities (and it has the potential for that) I would put more development effort in the app. Seek feedback from non-technical heavy smartphone users. Tightly integrate a chat-function. Allow users to follow each other. Yes, all that facebookish stuff. Personally I’m not a big fan of it, but The People wants it.


(Dan Fabulich) #18

We started with a blog with a comments section. As the comments section got bigger, users asked for a forum, so we made one.


(Alexander Wright) #19

I’m the volunteer IT manager for the Campaign for Real Ale.

A previous volunteer had set up a phpBB board that had seen a fair amount of users, but due to an increase in people moaning and other bad behaviour, the user base dwindled down to less than a dozen.

A major contributory factor in this was how hard moderating posts was on this older version of phpBB.

As the discussions had mostly descended into anarchy, and the installed version was years out of date, I decided that it would be better to start again, and started hunting round for anything better than phpBB. Discourse won, obviously!

Relaunching from scratch while simultaneously shutting down the old forums was a bit harsh, and some of the previous users couldn’t get to hang with anything not phpBB. However, heavy marketing has brought in 2.7k users. It may not sound like many, but that’s a reasonable proportion of our volunteer base.

Something that helped was to persuade some user groups to stop using Yahoo mailing lists and set up mail in categories for them instead. As lots of people were on several groups, they appreciated all their messages being in one place. This then encouraged them to participate in other topics.

The main stumbling block has been teaching people that if they want to see a list of categories (as the default was in phpBB), they can just hit the categories button.

At some point, I want to create a walkthrough with (for example) HelpHero I think that could really help new users. My user base’s average age is 57.


#20

Hi!

(warning, wall of text. TL;DR: The software is good and the user base already existed - another forum announced its EOL, this is basically the sequel to that forum).

First of all sorry for the very late reply - Life intervened (my day job is security officer and we recently had our ISO9001/ISO27001 audit which takes a LOT of preparing).

As for your questions: here goes!

The forum we created (I only did the technical bits, the users make the forum!) was basically the continuance of a large already existing forum that annouced its EOL with a 2 week notice. In short: They used the then upcoming GDPR as an excuses to get rid of the forum altogether. (More context: owned by a publisher, linked to a magazine that doesn’t exist anymore).

The business case was clear: the old forum was still very active and none of the users wanted it to end. So we set up an alternative.

Apart from the 1E06 ‘OMG’ messages? The software itself.

<techno-babble>
I ran a quick evaluation of the available forum options and especially the user support and it quickly became very clear to me that Discourse is the way to go forward. The things that are important to me are:

  • Very active user base
  • Very actively maintained
  • Extensible
  • Does (almost) everything I could ever want straight out of the box
  • Has a clear vision on communication

I decided against a more modular approach like PHPBB which assumes you want to tinker with everything yourself, for a simple reason: I want a forum that is future-proof and customising means that I will run into trouble 5 years from now. Modifying the core means I will be responsible for fixing security bugs, patching code to keep up with releases, and so on. And that’s a Bad Idea in my book.

Also, the whole vision on communication through the forum is one I understand and support. A forum in my opinion is not a playground to tinker with technology, but it’s owned and managed by the community itself. And that’s what Discourse delivers - self-managing discussions.

I didn’t set the forum up to play with technology, I set it up to be able to back out at any given moment (and transfer knowledge and maintenance to others). And that’s indeed what we’ve done - I am the sysadmin -for now- and we’ve got a few moderators and administrators for the day-to-day forum management and for supporting the users. And the next step for me is to share (some of) the sysadmin responsibilities with a few forum users so indeed I can go on holiday when I want.

The fact that Discourse is very cleanly set up helps a lot in this respect as well btw.
</techno-babble>

Another reason why I felt there was a very high chance of succeeding has to do with the forum itself: It’s not so much a forum tied to a specific subject, technology, event or circumstance or so, but it’s a social gathering place for people (women, specifically) to discuss life, the universe and everything. That’s reflected by the statistics:
DAU/MAU for instance is around 78%, Daily engaged users is around 40%. I think those are a clear indication of the importance of the forum to the users - most of the users log in at least once per day to ‘catch up’ and more than a third actively contribute to the posts.

A few features stand out btw.

  • Topics for members only (some discussions are best kept a bit private, so the users came up with a rule that you need to have at least X posts and be member for at least Y days before you can request access to the members only-group)
  • The absolute ease with which you can upload images (‘Look what I just bought / am wearing today / just saw’)
  • The polls-module: Fan-tas-tic. This sparks creativity, such as the ‘impossible dilemma’-topic with dilemmas such as ‘all your farts form visible clouds’ vs ‘everyone can see your browser history at any given time’. Who comes up with this sort of stuff?!

One of the features that worked well in the beginning was the Babble plugin for chat. For context: The forum was started a few days before the Eurovision Song Contest, which is a thing. To some. Mostly because it’s so bad it’s good - and the chat meant live commenting and full-on party mode! That hooked a fair few into the forum :slight_smile:

As for the users: It’s a women-oriented forum, for women from 25-40 I’d say. Discussing life and what not in all its phases in those ages, from graduating from university via finding your first job to first child, marriage etc.

Also please note that a very important part of the succes of the forum is the atmosphere. On the one side the users are very well behaved, on the other side the mods are very active in managing discussions where they can go wrong. It’s a forum on life, after all - so there’s bound to be difference of opinion etc. and that sometimes leads to heated arguments.

Oh, and finally - it’s the little things that make the forum fun. From the badges granted to plugins like the cake day (‘Yay! Happy birthday!’) to the fact that we could import a few silly but much-loved emoji’s used in the old forum - it all adds to the atmosphere of the forum.

Please also note that I am just an outside observer - I helped in setting up the technology but try to refrain from taking an active part in the discussions. I am not part of the intended demographic, so to speak, which suits me just fine :wink:

Anyway, long post, sorry for that. If you have additional questions: please let me know!


#21

Not at all. There is an incredibly diverse range of Discourse sites out there. :slight_smile: