The one feature that most distinguishes the Internet from any previous communications medium is its interactivity. The ’Net is two-way. You give, and you receive.
Savvy organizations and individuals have long recognized this, making it easy for people to contact them and diligently responding to e-mail. Organizations on the vanguard have set up discussion forums where customers, clients, interested observers, critics, and even competitors could air their views and share their experiences.
The main benefits: repeat traffic and referrals, with the expectation that some visitors will become customers, and customers will be more likely to remain customers.
In contrast to the almost-anything-goes atmosphere of independent discussion groups such as Usenet newsgroups, organizations typically exercise control by moderating discussions at their sites. Moderation varies from merely responding to complaints about particular posts to reviewing all posts before allowing them to appear.
Still, said Alan Webb, CEO of Abakus Internet Marketing (www.abakus-internet-marketing.de/en), many organizations are wary. “There is a worry in creating a forum that disgruntled customers or anybody with a chip on his shoulder might log in and badmouth the organization,” he said in an e-mail interview.
Profiling the Good Moderator
The trick is skillful moderation. “You need an active, friendly, knowledgeable, and level-headed moderator,” said Webb, whose company’s own site has a discussion forum. A good moderator, said Webb, “enjoys starting new discussion threads and posting messages, is not heavy-handed about censoring others but is not afraid to close discussion threads that are getting out of hand, will immediately delete spam, is a good researcher, and above all has deep knowledge of the subject matter.”
Being a moderator can be tricky. There’s sometimes a fine line between vigorous, healthy debate and angry, unproductive arguments. Some moderators let their egos get in the way, big fish in their own little ponds. Recently I observed one moderator warn discussion group participants not to “piss me off.”
The best moderation I’ve ever seen was by Laurence Sigmund, an avuncular sysop (system operator) who was as wise and funny as he was self-effacing, back when computer bulletin board systems and CompuServe forums, not the Internet, were the virtual meeting places of choice.
Webb is the most creative user of online forums I’ve ever seen, and other organizations could benefit from what he’s doing. Webb heads up a search-engine optimization company, based in Germany with clients worldwide. He helps Web sites achieve good rankings when surfers use search engines such as Google, a task that can be crucial in attracting visitors and growing a business.
How to Make a Forum that Builds Traffic
Webb creatively employs a forum at his own site for this purpose. “Adding a search engine—friendly forum to my site was probably the most effective thing I did to bring in traffic,” he said. Instead of Google and other search engines just indexing pages he creates, now they also index pages created by participants in his forum.
At this point, he has 34,500 forum pages indexed in Google. Each is a potential entry point to his site. Without his discussion forum, Webb said he would lose at least a third of his search engine—originated traffic.
Webb will add a search engine—friendly forum to any other site for $300, though he’s generous in offering free advice at his site on how to do this yourself.
First, you need to make sure you can install forum software on your Web server. Webb recommends phpBB (www.phpbb.com), available free and with an active support forum at its own site. Second, you need to modify the software to achieve search-engine benefits; step-by-step instructions are offered at phpBB’s site.
Another program worth checking into for business sites is vBulletin, a commercial package that starts at $85 (www.vbulletin.com).
Other tips: Make sure you have enough Web space; the traffic on a forum can easily add three to five new pages to your site a day. Create names for your forums that correspond to keywords you use in your site’s title tags. These should be words that Web searchers are most likely to type into Google or other search engines when looking for sites such as yours.
Along with the technical side, you also need to address the human side. “Most forums flop because the moderator doesn’t know how to draw people into the discussion,” said Webb. One trick is to start, or have your moderator start, discussion threads whose subject headings are phrased as questions. Also, don’t hesitate to tackle controversial subjects, which are more likely to get people talking than tamer material.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.