When a lot of people think about Community they jump straight to forums. But the reality is that forums are just a tool in the community toolbox. To use an analogy, if you think about a plumbers toolbox the tool he uses the most is probably his wrench, forums are the most common tool used in developing community because they are focused on two way communication. That being said, it is not a requirement to have forums to have a community just look at Amazon (ratings and reviews), Wikipedia (wikis), or even eBay (social eCommerce).
But forums themselves are not all the same, there are many variations of them out there built on different technologies with differing user experiences. It is important to understand these differences and how they map to your user personas to know which will make the best for your strategy.
The Different Styles of Forums
- Sleek and Trendy – This format blends sleek and stylish lines to turn the forum communication into an almost chat like feel. It is meant to merge the the user experience types. Apple is a great example of this.
- Standard – Most of the enterprise community platforms out there today operate their forums using this type of style. It is very much a linear approach with the focus being on the content and the interaction with that content. Dell is a good example.
- Technical – This forum style has emerged recently on many technical communities it is very Q&A focused but also really geared towards post conversation reading demonstrating popular and most viewed content. Stack Overflow is a good example of this style.
- Old School Traditional – Some of the best communities were formed when their users got together and started the community. These organic communities often have little to budget so free platforms are key to success. While dated by today’s standards, these forums are comfortable to many users. Photoshop Gurus is a good example.
- Answers – Q&A focused forums pit a question against a series of answers with the focus being on providing the best answer rather than discussion on the topic. Ask is the best example.
- Asian – All the forum styles listed above are western styles, Eastern styles tend to vary greatly. This is largely due to languages based on characters which make things like search more complicated. On these styles of forums you will see a lot of content, a lot of scrolling, and a very different approach to responses tying them to the post they are responding to rather than a linear format. eefocus (an engineering community in China) is a good example of this. I would highly recommend that if the East is a focus for your Community program then a lot of research should be done into the user experience of forums there.
The Two Main Types of Navigation
While this doesn’t apply specifically to forums I do want to take a minute and talk about the big choice you will need to make with your Community on navigation as it deeply affects your user experience. There are two “high-level” ways you can architect your community…
- The Great List – where all the forums and other tools are listed on one main page
- Sub-Community Model – where the community is divided into sub-sections based on theme or topic
Both of these models are used widely. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.
How Many Forums Are Too Many?
There is a great temptation to build out all the topics and categories you need when building your community but it is important to remember that you only get one chance to make a first impression and convert a visitor to a community members. Because of this I recommend following these guidelines…
KISS – Keep It Simple & Sexy
Always Community Member Focused – Organize by the way the customer perceives your products, not by the way you are organized
Minimal Marketing & Brand – what it really is, not what you want to market it as
Align to Members Current Needs – why is the member at your community? what do these want to see?
Cities, Neighborhoods, Streets, Houses, Rooms – Take a stair-step approach in a way that makes sense to the member
A key thing to remember is that every time you add a new section or forum to the community you are splitting off a section of your community membership. This is a necessary thing to do (Imagine the chaos if Apple didn’t have a separate area for iPad users and iPod users) but you don’t want to do it any more than you absolutely have to. Remember its a hell of a lot easier to expand then to shrink a community layout.
In a future blog post in this series I will talk about more advanced forum topics like engagement, moderation, guidelines, SPAM, etc but the next blog post in the getting started section will focus on Blogging 101.
Feedback is always appreciated!