Christian's Blog

10 lessons learned while running a forum

30

Aug

 

Introduction

As a professional, there might be a time in your career where enough is not enough, you may want to be part of something bigger, as for example, a community of mind-liked individuals. Joining professional communities in your local area might be a good start but when you think big, local is not big enough, so you go global.  Nowadays that means going online and make your contributions to have a wider impact.

These are the 10 lessons I learned while building, keeping and closing projectforums.org (PF) – an online forum dedicated to project managers and scrum masters (PSM)

As the strategist Simon Sinek states, let’s start with why…

1.Start with why

When starting a new endeavour, no matter the field, you must have a clear WHY you’re doing what you’re doing. Remember money is not a valid why. “I’m building a forum to make money” money is a result. In my case, it was collaboration: I believe that project managers and scrum masters can do a better job, improve their skills and grow professionally if they have a secure environment to asks questions, suggestions, expose their struggles and get solutions. There are PSMs that cannot get answers when facing a challenge, because they’re either afraid of not being professional enough, others are in fact not trained for the job, or many other reasons.

That is my WHY, collaboration.

2. You need technical skills

If you have a software development background, or, just not afraid of the challenge, you have what it takes. There are multiple either open source or low-cost forum solutions in the market, some still have the 90’s look, others, look futuristic enough. For PF I chose NodeBB, it’s fast, scalable, JavaScript on the front-end, NodeJS on the back-end, MongoDB as repository. On the downside it’s still young: version 1.10 as time of writing this article. Yet young is not bad, since it has good technology that makes navigation fluid, fast, natural which is an important part of the browsing experience.

3. You need coding skills

When you think big and build big things you’ll probably need to put some blocks yourself. No matter the forum solution you choose, you’ll need to have coding skills to extend the current functionality, that means building JavaScript modules, changing HTML code on the front-end, adding fields on the repository, and, if you do not have that skill, well you’ll need to pay for it, coding skills are not cheap and are in high demand.

4. You need design skills

No PhD on Photoshop required, but, you need to have a basic notion of colors and their meaning, color combinations, pattern design and so on. When building a forum, in this case, a professional forum, solid colors like navy blue that communicates trust, or in cases orange for a light touch of cheerfulness make a good visual composition.

5. You need to identify your persona

In marketing a persona is a fictional character that have a defined set of attributes or skills that might find your product interesting e.g. if you sell hammers, your persona is probably a contractor. For PF the persona are project managers, scrum masters, project leads, project controllers and, in some cases product owners as there are topics related to Agile methodologies.

6. You need content: good quality, persona oriented, well written, and lots of them

All content should be oriented towards your persona, imagine a forum for project managers with content about world climate or American politics, so you need to focus on your persona.
A well though set of categories, where visitors can focus their attention:

  • Agile topics
  • Job section
  • Portfolio management

They should be focused enough to gather attention but wide enough to make easy to put content into.

You need content, lots of content, and this is one of the most difficult part of the process, there’s only so much knowledge in your head to pour into a forum – no one can know it all – you’re going to start strong, posting content you’re good about, once you’re empty reposting from other sites with references. That’s why you need to have a team, I mean a group of people that share your WHY. PSMs are busy folks, putting out some fires here and there, managing conflicts, deadlines, stakeholders… and hardly at the end of the day: oh! I have to post on the forum.

Now comes promotion and monetizing strategies (the chicken and the egg)

7. You need to promote your site (the chicken)

Promoting a forum is no different from promoting a website: a daunting task.

Depending on your persona, you need to carefully choose for promotion channel, either paid or free. Usually paid promotion channels are good to get quick results, they provide a kick-start on your forum but come with a hefty bill, whereas a free promotion channel might drive visitors but more work is required to keep things moving.

Short term results: spend money and get visitors now

  • Social media. – Since PF is a professional forum, LinkedIn and Twitter are the first choices. Facebook and Instagram do not align (in my opinion) with a professional profile.
    • LinkedIn through their targeted ads allows you to go directly to your defined persona. However, this is not a free option, for PF I set some budget and did get traffic specially from Europe.
    • Twitter is especially powerful with #hashtags, for PF I setup a Twitter account and started following PSMs, yet, engagement (where true results live) is hard to get when you’re not 100% focused on a channel.
  • Google Ads. – Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords) is one of the most powerful ad network in the world, it doesn’t have the ability of LinkedIn to target a specific persona profile, but their interest, if visitor searches “project management certification” your site will come up in the ad section top of their page. In the case of PF, the cost associated with promotion on Google Ads was almost prohibitive, way too expensive… but that represented an opportunity as well.

Long term results: optimize content now and get visitors in the future.

  • SEO Optimization
    • Optimizing your content with tags or keywords to get a better rank on search engines is a long-term activity. Every webmaster’s dream is appearing on Google first page results (Organic search)
  • Word-of-mouth
    • Sharing your vision and work with other colleagues might work, some might offer to join, contribute and share your vision… only to discover that they’re too busy to share someone else’s vision.

8. You need to monetize your site (The egg)

A forum, like any other website, has operational cost: servers, licenses, bandwidth and so on. All these costs need to be covered, you’ll quickly realize that is a business.

Up to point 7, it’s all money out of your pocket, and, most important time you spend on the technical side, social media side and researching content. For all that, you need to monetize your site.

There are several challenges on this point

  • Ad blockers, they are rather popular nowadays, they have improved the browsing experience for millions of users, you’re probably using it right now. As a forum administrator the Ad blockers are a threat that need to be taken care of since they greatly reduce the ads showed on the site therefore its potential income on advertising
  • There’s a subtle line between a site with contextual ads, ads that you might be interested in, and, an unbearable site with ads everywhere showing pop-up windows taking you to another site.
  • Ad networks approval, for you to show someone else’s ads, you need to sign-up with an ads network such as Google AdSense, they review your site for compliance and they give you some code to put on your site. For PF was a frustrating experience since AdSense team claimed that there was malicious code on the site, but how? It’s an open source solution, the code is publicly available, probably reviewed hundreds of times. I have published several sites, never had a problem with Google AdSense or similar. So, no ads on the site for now, bills keep coming.

9. You need visitors, but most of all contributors.

At some point in time I manage to gather traction, people coming into the site (according to Google Analytics), people browsing (according to NodeBB stats) but few people contribute, very few.

You promote your site, connect with personas, pay for advertising, people come in your site, consume information (hopefully they get value from it), check the updated job section…and leave. Some return, consume and leave, and with no ads, no contributions it’s easy to get discouraged.

If you’re in similar position identify and nourish your contributors, they keep your site alive, they’re the heart of your forum, you’re just a moderator, they ARE the forum.

10. You cannot do it alone

Studies show that humans do a terrible job doing estimations. In Scrum there are no estimations based on time, but rather on level of effort called Points.

As you can see, the level of effort to keep a forum running is particularly high: technical, design, content, business, ads and so on. I did not estimate correctly, mea culpa.

If you’re starting a forum, you cannot do it alone, you need like-minded folks to walk with you on this journey, that is social capital.

I found out that forums work best as a by-product, if you sell a product or service, a forum is a natural by-product for support and communications. A forum by itself as shown is a daunting task.

 

Conclusion

At least once a year companies evaluate their results, identify their top performing units and give bonus, and to their poor performing units and give the boot. It’s just the way things work, you streamline your resources: money and time, which are valuable and finite. Companies get rid of the old to make way for the new.

With the same approach PF will be closed on August 31st 2018. This will allow me to  focus my resources in other endeavours.

I take with me lots of lessons learned and a personal win: not being afraid to fail.

Christian Mendieta

 

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