Forums – How to Expand Your Blog #1

September 16, 2009

Written on September 10th, 2009 at 12:09 am by Darren Rowse

Forums – How to Expand Your Blog #1

Miscellaneous Blog Tips 68 comments

Yesterday I share with readers an exercise to brainstorm 10 ways that they might expand their blog in the coming years.

The reason I suggest the exercise is not that there’s anything wrong with being ‘just a blog’ but because as I look at a lot of top blogs going around today it strikes me that many of them have evolved in different directions and now also include other mediums, areas and features that wouldn’t normally appear on a blog.

By no means is it essential to grow your blog in this way – but it certainly is a trend among many successful blogs.

Over the next few days I want to explore some of the ways that I see blogs being expanded. Hopefully in doing so it’ll give those wanting to grow the potential of their blog a little inspiration in how they might do it.

Expand Your Blog with a Forum

Lets kick things off with a way of expanding a blog that many bloggers will be quite familiar with – adding a forum to your blog. This can be done either as a free area or a paid or premium area where members pay a subscription to join it.

Examples of Blogs and Forums Working Well Together

Screen shot 2009-09-09 at 2.12.00 PM.png

1. Ars Technica – Major Tech blog Ars Technica has had a forum area operating for some time now.

I’m not sure how many members it has but as I write this it has over 700 signed in members on the forum and over 3500 guests viewing it.

Discussion areas cover most of the topics that the blog covers and in many areas there’s a lot of action (literally millions of posts).

Screen shot 2009-09-09 at 2.11.41 PM.png

2. Digital Photography School – I quickly added a forum area to my own photography blog not long after I started the site as I began to hear from readers that they didn’t want to just respond to what I had to say – but they wanted to start conversations, ask questions and share what they were learning themselves.

This forum doesn’t get as many unique visitors as the blog area on DPS but it does drive a lot of page views. It also converts pretty well in terms of advertising and over time has been picking up speed as more and more members join and as the site begins to grow in it’s search engine ranking.

Other Examples include:

There are of course many others – feel free to suggest more in comments below.

Advantages of Forums

There are many advantages of starting a forum. Here are four that come to mind for me (and they just scratch the surface):

1. Increased reader engagement – one of the things that I noticed after starting the forum on DPS was that it seemed to hook people into the site for a longer period of time. Most blogs have a life cycle in terms of new readers where the average reader will eventually move on from the blog as their interests change, as their knowledge grows, as they master the topic being explored. However starting a membership or community focused area gives those who might move on from your blog a reason to stay connected – the relationships that they form. I know I have a few members of the DPS community who for one reason or another moved on from being blog readers but who are still central members of the forum.

The key thing is that forums require people to ‘sign up’ or become a member. This requires people to ‘buy in’ or invest a little something into your site which gives you a point of contact (you get email addresses etc) but also creates a point of connection and sense of ownership of your site in your reader. This extra engagement often leads to long term relationships and loyalty.

2. User Generated Content – one of the things I’ve been experimenting with in the DPS forum is to set up a ‘photography tutorials’ area. In this area we encourage readers to share what they’re learning about photography. It’s been a successful area of the forum for two reasons – firstly it creates useful content that other forum members enjoy but secondly it also has created content that I then can use on the blog.

Example: today I put together this post – 21 Great Reader Shots [And How They Took Them]

3. Increase Page Views – as mentioned above – my photography forum doesn’t get as many unique visitors to it as the blog area – but it does drive a lot of page views because each visitor who comes tends to view more pages per visit. This is fairly typical of forums as the way they’re set up tends to drive people to view multiple threads and view a thread multiple times as they interact with others. This can be a good way of making money via impression based advertising (although it can decrease the overall CPM rate if you’re using AdSense as someone viewing multiple pages is probably less likely to click ads).

What I find with having both a blog and forum is that there are some great cross promotional opportunities. In blog posts I’m constantly referring to threads in the forum that have examples of what I’m talking about or that I set up for people to share photos on the topic I’m talking about. Similarly in the forum we often point people with questions to tutorials in our forums. While some people tend to stay in one or the other of the areas – there’s a fair bit of cross over.

4. Appeal to a Different Type of Reader – I discovered a month or two into DPS forums that quite a few of those joining never read the blog area and that quite a few blog readers had little interest in using the forum. While some do use both areas it became evident to me that quite a few people preferred one medium over the other and that the two sections were appealing to two different types of people. I’m not sure if it’s to do with personality, demographic or learning style – but I guess we each find different mediums more appealing and starting a forum gives another option for people to connect with your site.

Challenges of Membership Areas

1. Moderation – most bloggers understand the challenge of moderating comments and protecting their blogs from spammers. On a blog comment moderation can be enough for some bloggers to give up and close comments – but on a forum there’s no such luxury because closing down comments kind of kills the whole purpose of a forum.

There are lots of tools and features of most forum platforms to help with this but in the end moderation takes a lot of time and effort. At DPS we have a growing team of volunteer moderators (lead by a paid community manager) to tackle this challenge. Much of their time is taken with dealing with spammers or trolls.

2. Community Building – our moderation team is not just there to police the negative stuff happening on the blog but also to grow/build the community. Building community doesn’t just happen – you can’t expect to just set up a forum area and automatically have community – it takes work, creativity and time.

3. Critical Mass – one of the biggest challenges with forums is having enough critical mass to be able to kick them off and attract other readers. This is why I didn’t start a forum on DPS immediately – I wanted to grow the blog’s readership first. I also started a Flickr group before the forum to grow a community there that I could then transition into a blog.

The other thing I did to get the forums active before going live was to invite a smaller group of my key commenters from the blog and long term newsletter subscribers to get early access to the forum so there was some activity there when the site went live.

Concluding Thoughts on Forums/Membership Areas

Forums are not easy. While they have many plusses they take a lot of work and time to build. They’re probably best suited to blogs with an established readership or list to help kick things off but also where the topics lend themselves to discussion, sharing of opinions or sharing of something else (eg. pictures).

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