Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience with us today on Thought Leader Thursday, Kathy. For our readers who don’t know, Kathy founded a forum named HysterSisters.com in 1998, which has grown to a membership of over 175,000 members. A few years later, she went on to help launch The Admin Zone, a website devoted to building forums. Kathy, can you tell us what motivated you to head down this path?
Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you today. The Internet was quite young and content was thin in 1998. I launched HysterSisters as a content website, providing frequently asked questions (and answers) surrounding women’s medical issues. The site had articles and a guestbook. You might remember those guestbooks: Bravo (I think?). They were simple, hosted elsewhere, and allowed visitors to write a few lines to the owner of the site. In those early years, the website was selected as a “hot find” by yahoo – and within a short time the visitors increased and were using the guest book like a message board – asking more questions, answering each other.
There weren’t many options for message boards back then but I recognized a need from my visitors on that guestbook. They wanted to talk to each other! I initially added “Inside the Web” message board and shortly added a few more to divide the traffic into different topics. It helped – but registration wasn’t an option therefore managing inappropriate posts was difficult. EZBoard came along soon after so I quickly appointed moderators and we opened registrations. Within a short time we had over 10,000 members. The time was 2001 and revenue from advertising was enticing so I opted to purchase my own software and install it on our hosted space. I tried UBB first and when I found that I had to prune the board every 2 weeks to stay on our server plan – I selected vBulletin (which is still what we are using for our software). A year or so later we moved onto a dedicated server.
I really was in over my head. I didn’t launch my website to create a community. I launched my content site to provide helpful information to other women. But I was smart enough that when it took off in a direction I hadn’t planned, I researched, did what I needed to do, and I did the next thing. Thankfully, early in our community’s life, I found a wonderful group of women to stay with me as moderators and I was brilliant enough to hang out on vBulletin.com’s community where I found a web-developer, who is still with me today. We use vBulletin as the engine for HysterSisters.com, managing not only the community but it also manages my content, data-infomatics and our timed email messages based on our members medical information.
I share all this to explain that behind this wild ride into community management was a women in her forties (I’m now in my fifties) who’s background was education, not technology. I knew how to teach. I knew how to gather content and provide it in a way that was helpful to others and the community that grew from my initial idea was a fluke by some definitions, a God-thang by others.
And so, because I was in over my head, I dug in to learn about the software, the administration control panel and community management, I knew I could learn things only from other community administrators. The Admin Zone is a product of that need in my own life – to rub elbows with other community leaders. To learn about server security and community management. Because of my educational background, I often turn what I’ve learned into a teaching opportunity. I have documented much of what I’ve learned in articles at The Admin Zone.
I think most people who run a website have thought about adding a forum, and many have even tried, but few manage to gain the traction they need to take off. What are some of the things that people should consider before they add a forum to their site?
It’s an interesting question – and one that is accurate to my own philosophy – adding a forum to an existing successful website. Often, I see people coming along and launching forums without a website – which I find curious. I’m of the belief that content is king. I think it is the ultimate in sticky power for a website and ultimately a forum. In fact, even yesterday I spent the day adding more content to my website. It’s a typical weekly activity for me. So, that would be first on my list.
I would also suggest that for a community to exist, a purpose must be established. This doesn’t need to be of gigantic proportions, but forums without purpose tend to fizzle out after the family’s applause quiets down. I always encourage others who ask me – “Select a topic for your forum that begs to be discussed”. Find that need and fill it by offering a community that rallies behind the discussion of a topic or a cause.
You’ve been involved in a pretty wide range of forums, so you’ve probably seen some common factors among the successful ones. In your experience, what are the the three most important factors?
- Purpose. Those forums with purpose grow deep and wide.
- Management. Making sure the rules are specific and fair but the staff follows through in a manner that is respectful. Ignoring bad behavior and allowing bullies to stick around drives away your good citizens.
- Love for the topic. Love for people.
What are the three most common mistakes you’ve seen people make when launching a forum?
- Fail to have a topic. You have no idea how how often people come to the Admin Zone and say something like: “Hey! What topic should I make my forum? I have software license and a domain. Any ideas?” Privately, I roll my eyes. I would never suggest investing money in software and a domain registration without having a thriving website up and running already. (/sidenote – the Admin Zone wasn’t a website first. We launched the forum and had instant traffic from our friends at other software websites – but we immediately began to write helpful articles for our visitors – and the article list continues to grow.) Quite frankly, if you don’t have a burning idea, don’t buy the software.
- Fail to have rules. I’ve had a few disgruntled members who have left my website because they didn’t like one of my rules. They go launch their own forum without rules and within 1 month (if they are still online) they have rules – almost identical to mine. No one wants to join a website that is run like the wild, wild west. Its counter-productive. Every community will need their own kinds of rules. For HysterSisters, my attorney needed to add a chunk of info because of the medical/legal implications of patient-talk. Good citizens of your community will be discouraged and not feel safe if they are allowed to be bullied.
- Failing to count the costs. Putting up forum software may take a few hours. Customizing it with your colors and logo may take a little bit longer. At that point, the job has only just begun. The community needs to be nurtured and encouraged. The visitors need a reason to start a discussion or reply to thread. The investment to the longevity of a healthy community is time and consistency. Show up.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve seen people face is achieving the critical mass that is necessary to maintain a successful forum. What can someone do to get visitors to post on a new forum, and more importantly, to come back?
I utilize tools within vBulletin software to send a welcome letter when my members register. I also use “notices” that display on the top of the forum pages when a member hasn’t posted yet to our “Introduce Yourself” forum. At HysterSisters, most of our traffic and then new registrants, tend to be women with very little experience in an online community. We try to make things simple with signs and notes along the way to encourage them to participate. We, also, have a monthly e-Magazine that is topic driven, sent to our members using Constant Contact’s email program. We include a few snips from discussions that match the content which encourages our members to come back and participate. Because HysterSisters is a patient support website, we also auto-create one thread per week, as a “Progress Report” for our members to check-in after surgery. Its one simple way of teaching them how to participate – by giving them a specific way to reply.
One other thing that comes to mind when I think about participation and returning members, I think there is a magic factor somewhere in the mix. Who’s to say why one forum blossoms while another wilts? The death of a community or a “failure to thrive” forum can often be traced to bullies in the community or a non-existent administrator or staff. Sometimes, its some other factor that is not as easily diagnosed.
I realized that HysterSisters.com was a true community when I could best describe our members as loyal. When the brand of the website seemed to be the cause by itself – with the topic embedded – the members carry the message offline and into their lives. Word of mouth then becomes a great traffic source! The truth of this revelation has nothing to do with something I can point to as something I did – it is a result beyond the software, beyond my ability, and beyond my production. It’s a mystery of people’s desire for relationships in an online environment.
There are many types of forum software available, and your Forum Matrix website makes it easy to do side-by-side comparisons, but for people who don’t understand what the various features mean, what would your top two choices be, and why?
I love vBulletin. I haven’t kept up with the newest choice of its version 4 yet, but we have found vBulletin to have wonderful features and a simplified way to customize it. I think its reasonably priced and their support has been superb. I also can recommend phpBB. Its a great alternative and has many of the features offered by vbulletin. I don’t have personal experience with phpBB, but do know many successful big-board-forum administrators who use it and are quite happy with it.
For forum software that isn’t optimized for search engines right out of the box, do you feel that SEO modifications are worth the effort?
Probably, if I was starting out today, I would use an SEO modification to help get my pages indexed as quickly as possible. But, for HysterSisters.com, I chose to ignore the modification when it came out a few years ago. We are already indexed fairly well and have very good organic rankings within the search engines. My biggest fear was adding on SEO at some point and losing my rankings, ratings, and indexed pages. In my mind – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
Both new and established forums are often targeted by spammers who are trying to promote their own websites, using automated as well as manual techniques. What counter-measures would you recommend for handling this issue?
We’ve tried using captcha but for some reason the images were hard for my registrants to see. I know that feeling when I’ve tried to fill out a form on some other website and can’t get the images right. (Must be my 50 year old eyes. ;)) Now we use a question and answer in the registration process which is not a typical question. Its a customization we added ourselves. We also have other questions in our registration process that are not typical. These weren’t intended to be a spammer-deterrent but as additional information for our members’ profiles. It turns out those extra questions stump the bots.
Thank you for giving me an opportunity to answer your questions. Even after eleven+ years, I’m still learning how to be a better community manager and still find my greatest inspiration in my relationships with other forum administrators.