👋 Hello everyone. I'm Matt Mecham and today I will be your Rosieland guide.
It feels that every other week a new article is written proclaiming the death of the venerable forum platform. The author often cites forums they used to frequent in the early 2000s and how they now hang out on Twitter and Discord, which, in their opinion, offer a modern experience. No one uses forums anymore, they say.
Forums are dead. We've invited all your old friends on social media, and it's being live-streamed on Youtube. You can join the after-party on Discord, where we'll be hanging out into the early hours of the morning.
As someone who has spent his entire adult life building and refining commercial forum community platforms, the notion that forums are dead continues to surprise me.
Some of the world's biggest brands have invested heavily into forum platforms to help reduce support overhead, build relationships with customers and gain valuable first-hand insight into customer needs. I've worked with a good number of them.
That is not to say that the internet is not littered with dead forums. It is. There is a vast graveyard of once-thriving communities; their last post dates are frozen in time. Arguments of yesteryear still chime between the broken image links like a time capsule dug up from the frozen soil.
Why are forums really disappearing?
What is the cause of this? Was it a mass extinction event, a metaphorical asteroid hurtling to earth wrapped in a Facebook and Twitter logo? Have our attention spans crumbled to the point where we cannot cope unless we can mindlessly scroll and tap a heart to show solidarity?
An article I came across recently attempted to explain the reasons why once-thriving motorcycle forums have all but died out. The author listed the following reasons:
- The eventual dominance of mobile phones makes writing and reading long-form content difficult
- Social media is simpler to use
- Image uploading services closing, causing broken images
- Link rot and an ageing audience ("people die")
There are merits to each of these points, but we only have to look at the forums the author listed to see the reason these forum communities slowly died over the years.
Check out the amusing named "BARF" (Bay Areas Riders Forum). This is using the old vBulletin forum platform release from 2009, and it shows. It is complete with a list of "do not!" warnings for a less than friendly onboarding experience.
Next, check out Sport-Touring.net, which uses a niche freeware product called SMF from 2013. Unfortunately, it hasn't been updated in close to a decade.
What went wrong?
For these forums and ones like them, the answer is straightforward and no different to the answers found performing a post-mortem on any failed community regardless of platform.
Lack of new member recruitment
For a community to span decades, you need to continually evaluate how you can appeal to the new members. It's natural for community members to drift away as their habits, likes and interests wax and wane over the years. Fixing your community's voice to the founding members limits the lifespan of your community.
A good community builder is aware of the places their audience hangs out. Ten years ago that was probably Facebook, now it's more likely to be Slack, TikTok or one of the many private messaging apps. Keeping in touch with emerging trends in your niche and always looking for new ways to market yourself is key.
Lack of investment
These communities have hardly changed since they were opened. Forum platforms have come a long way since 2009. Comparing these dated legacy forums to modern social media is not a valid comparison. This is how Facebook looked in 2009. If you're overcome with nostalgia, you're not the only one.
You need to keep your platform up to date, and if the platform you are using is slow to keep up with modern user experiences, then consider moving to one of the many forum platforms that continue to evolve.
A modern forum platform is mobile-first and has either native iOS and Android apps or a built-in PWA (progressive web app), allowing you to drop the site onto your phone's home screen. A modern forum platform also has robust email and push notifications to help guide members back to your community. Many of these technologies didn't exist when these legacy platforms were popular.
Lack of people skills
More important than the technology is that these communities missed the transition from forum admin to community manager.
In the early 2000s, you needed a lot of technical knowledge to run a server and install and configure folders full of scripts. You also needed to know how to manage a server and set up email and domain routing. A good forum admin could keep a server running well on busy days and keep the data secure. For many of these communities, the forum admin was the owner and sole leader of the community, with varying results.
Thankfully modern platforms are now cloud-hosted SaaS (software as a service), removing the need for highly technical skills to configure and operate.
Managing a community is a specialised skill. A good community manager nurtures and grows the community. Behind every thriving community is a hardworking community manager or team of community managers. Community management is more positive and restorative than the ban-happy attitude of many forum admins of the past, who often greeted newcomers with a cocked shotgun and a shout of "Get off my land!" Effective moderation requires empathy and buckets of patience.
The acquisition effect
Many forums in the automotive industry were acquired by media companies hungry for their generous advert revenue. As a result, the communities suffered forced platform changes to a generic system favouring adverts over the content. Moving a community without consultation or buy-in from super users and influencers is the worst thing you can do to a settled, happy community, and members vote with their feet.
But don't be sad
Communities open and close every day. Mature trees have to fall to allow light to hit the saplings. It's all part of the circle of life. Communities that do nothing to move with the times and actively market themselves to new audiences will always fail, which creates more opportunities for others to take their place.
What would you use for a forum for now?
Forum platforms were the only option for hosting a community for a long while. Now we are spoiled for choice. There are platforms for creators, small communities, enterprise communities and everything in between. Social media and apps like Discord and Slack have reshaped expectations and workflows. Asynchronous communication is still valued, but the delivery has to be slicker. A sense of togetherness is fostered with instant notifications and visual indicators like who is online and who is typing with you.
Discord allows you to test an idea for a community quickly and at no cost. However, once your community reaches a threshold, you need a platform that can scale rapidly, features robust segmentation and offers a simple way to store years worth of searchable content.
Large brand communities thrive on forums. No other platform can make sense of millions of posts and members with strong discovery tools. The SEO benefit is significant with questions being asked and answered daily, deflecting support requests and providing fast answers for frustrated customers.
Independent communities wishing to slow down the pace and encourage more thoughtful long-form discussion that is searchable and discoverable years later choose a forum platform. Rosie Sherry recently moved from an open Discord to focus more on a forum platform for her community. I find myself more likely to contribute to the forum community than I did with the Discord community. There is far less overwhelm, discussions persist for months, and I enjoy more space to be thoughtful with my contributions.
How to start a community on a forum
Imagine that you want to start a new community on a forum platform. Choosing a platform is a complex topic, so we will not cover that here. Instead, we will assume that you have done your research and picked one that aligns with your goals and community needs.
Forums have many view options, such as the traditional category and forum list, a grid view with each forum appearing as a clickable card or a stream option where all topics are in a single list, and the complexities of the organisation are removed.
As you build your membership, I recommend that you choose the stream view for a new community. You want to reduce choice as much as possible in the beginning. It is a common mistake to create a dozen forums in your new community trying to plan ahead. This is overwhelming for newcomers; most areas will have zero posts for months. It is better to have a single stream view for as long as possible.
As your community grows, you can consider switching this stream view to a list of forums to encourage the segmentation of discussions. Once you move along this path, you will want to focus on discovery and surfacing tools such as similar content widgets and manually featured content to encourage discovery outside those segments.
How to migrate your forum
The good news is that if you have an established community using a legacy forum platform, you can migrate your community data to your new platform. For example, suppose you are running an old vBulletin. In that case, SMF, phpBB or Xenforo forum, most community platforms have data migration tools to ensure you keep your forum structure, topics, posts and member data.
It can be as easy as running a migration assistant. If you are on a more obscure platform, you may need to look at a custom data migration. Still, it should be possible if you are self-hosting the forum or using a responsible provider that doesn't attempt to lock you in by holding your data hostage. If you are considering a move, check in with vendors of your shortlisted community platforms and see if they can offer a migration service.
There are many excellent resources to walk you through the migration from a community perspective. It's all about communication and keeping your community in the loop. Prepare your community for the change, and outline the benefits. Die-hards will not appreciate the changes unless they have a tangible benefit.
How to grow your forum
A community grows faster when it's at the heart of a greater strategy.
Not that long ago, I would have recommended investing time in Facebook and Twitter to help market your community. There is still value in this approach, but as social media moves predominantly towards video, the impact of this marketing is significantly reduced unless you are confident in front of the camera.
I would value a curated newsletter showcasing a mix of your content and community-created content over social media now. Writing is one of the best skills to develop to help market your community. Spending a little time discovering the pain points and questions your niche asks is valuable research for creating your content. If you can drive traffic to your site and make it easy to add thoughts to your content via your community, you have a solid foundation to grow.
The most important thing you can do is also the most time-consuming. It is making genuine personal connections with others with the same interest wherever they are in real life and online. Take the time to get to know them and their strengths and encourage them to contribute to your community. It's a slow process that cannot be faked or automated, but it is the most successful.
A great example of building a community around another media channel is Linus Tech Tips. Linus Sebastian presents several shows on YouTube, which drives traffic to his forum to continue the discussion his videos generate. He also seeks ideas for future videos from his community members. The community is very active and has millions of posts. The symbiosis between the YouTube channels and the forum benefits both equally.
I created my first forum platform in 2000. A lot has changed, but forums remain a valuable community format. The basic structure is essentially unchanged, but for a good reason. It offers robust segmentation and organisation for communities that scale quickly. This robustness and familiarity is a strength, not a weakness.
Forum communities that have not adapted, upgraded and invested have died a slow death, with only the most ardent members showing up with last post dates that used to be mere minutes ago stretching into months and years. The failing is in the community's leadership, not the platform's format.
In our world, where dozens of apps and websites battle for our attention, creating a new community should be approached with realistic expectations, patience and hard work. Simply opening up a forum and expecting it to be filled will lead to disappointment.
You have to feed and water your flowers if you want them to bloom. 🌻