Forums are possibly the toughest kind of website to set up. Having a successful forum does not depend as much on SEO or your content, but rather on getting new people to the site and having them become active members, who will provide a valuable contribution. A few years ago, I was running a very successful forum: The Great Rebellion’s Collector Club. It was a venue for toy collectors to meet , talk about their hobby, make friends and whatever else. I launched it in June 2010. By November of the same year, it was the most successful group of its kind on Facebook. A website and full-featured portal immediately followed. It’s success lasted for about a year. Today, the site is gone and the Facebook group is dead. There are several reasons why things went wrong. Some include having too many administrators managing the group, each with their own vision where they wanted to take it; others were all my own personal mistakes such as me allowing mediocre content that alienated the regular users and, also — at some point, I have to admit that I became very proud, unquestionably too “proud”, of what I achieved. That may be a topic for another article, though. Today, I want to talk about how I managed to get that group to success and why I wasn’t able to use that same formula to save it when difficult times came up. In other words, I am going to talk about forum-posting “contests”.
The Road to 500 Posts per Day!
In September 2010, three months after I opened it, the TGR Facebook page wasn’t doing very well, and I was very determined to make the thing work. While I always intended that group to be a generalized one for toy collectors, the group’s main focus was the Masters of the Universe Classics toyline sold on Mattycollector.com. Having people post on my page was extremely difficult. Sometimes, I would spend hours and hours trying to convince them to do so, but they just wouldn’t do it. They would post on other Facebook pages, forums and groups, their own walls, wherever they wanted, except on my page. That was making me quite bitter too, at some point. Then it dawned on me to offer them something in exchange for the posts. The idea came to me when Mattcollector.com announced a “Palace Guard” two pack that they were going to sell in four months time. The idea behind this two pack was to collect as many of them to build up an army of action figures. The figures themselves came with many accessories (including spare heads and armor) so that people who bought multiples of this set would have almost infinite display possibilities. Although products on Mattycollector.com are mainly bought through a subscription, this set made a perfect opportunity to offer a prize to my users, because irrespectively of whether or not people had a subscription or were already planning to own the set, one never has enough of these! They were “generic soldiers” not the king, queen, prince or princess. In general, when choosing a prize to offer for a giveaway, the ideal choice is:
- Something that your users will want.
- Something that your users will need.
- Something that is rare and unique.
In my case, I fulfilled the first two of these. The Palace Guards were mass produced and easy to get. They are still available for sale as I write this! Besides giving away the ideal prize, I also tried to make the contest as fun as I could by creating a points system based on “silver” and “gold tickets”. Basically the rules ran like this: Whoever made one post and five comments on the Facebook page, would receive a “silver ticket”. Every day, one lucky user would be drawn by someone from the group chosen at random and receive a “gold ticket”. Gold tickets would then be used to participate in the final drawing for the Palace-Guards two pack. Additional gold tickets would be awarded to anyone who managed to score at least five silver tickets in one day, or solve some puzzles that I would post at random times during the day.
I only offered one single prize: a single Palace-Guards two pack that was sold for $40 at the time, but the novelty of the idea and the fact that I made it fun, caused the posts on the Facebook page, and later the website when I opened it, to reach the crazy rate of a thousand in one day (an average of five hundred). The comments were like thousands. It was amazing! And it brought amazing people to the site, such as other webmasters, popular reviewers, artists and even people from the toy industry. That’s basically all I did. There is a bit of a catch though.
Having been myself a collector of this stuff for many years, I had hundreds of friends in that niche before I started this out, so I was able to use Facebook, Twitter and email to heavily promote my contest. Just setting up a contest when you have no audience will not work. That’s why I am not trying this strategy for the MES Central. There is a way around this of course if you have no supporting friends, and that’s using SEO. Even if you have friends or followers who can support you, besides leveraging on them, combing with the power of SEO and perhaps a mailing list will obviously give the best results. I got to say that driving the TGR Facebook page and forum to success wasn’t that tough. Keeping it was a different story.
Contests Aren’t Enough for the Success of a Forum
While contests can help you get started, relying on contests alone will not bring a long-lasting success to a forum. Here is why my TGR page fell:
• The contest was too hard to manage. In order to award the “tickets” and “prizes” I had to spend about three hours every day counting posts and organizing draws. That gave me little to no time to work on my site and thus I ended up wasting months and months doing the same thing, never managing to take my project forward until eventually people lost interest in the repetitive routine.
• I didn’t provide quality content to the people who were participating in the contest. You can’t let users run your site. It’s yours and you have to take care of it. It’s important to make sure that the content on your site reflects your vision of the site, otherwise chaos will set in, and that’s what happened on my TGR site. A group of users were posting very low-quality content while I was counting posts and doing nothing else. Very soon, the site became “their” site and people started looking at it as the site where “people would post spam to get free toys”. All the quality users left.
• I didn’t moderate or set rules that were strict enough. The contest was about getting posts. As long as the site had traffic, who cares about the content? That was a huge mistake! Less content with more quality would have been a lot better. Some people ended up posting posts that consisted of a simple link to (often totally irrelevant) YouTube videos! I should have made more strict rules. Ten high-quality posts would have been a lot better than six hundred a day that no one cared about. I was scared that I would lose the support I had, and I let everyone do what they wanted
• It became repetitive and predictable. After the first prize (the Palace Guards) were awarded, I came up with others, but the whole thing became too repetitive after about a year. Every contest had like hundred people participating and only one prize. A prize alone will never be enough to keep a forum going.
Establishing a sense of community is what’s needed. The best way to achieve that is to find something that your users have in common and use that to create a bond. That is why making sure that your forum keeps heading in the direction you want it to, is essential, even if that means losing many active posters.
Among some of the things that I could have made to save the forum is offering prizes in exchange for points directly. It helps out a lot when people know that they will receive a prize depending on how much effort they put into a game than letting Lady Luck choose their destiny. Hiring someone on Elance or Odesk to create professional-quality videos, reviews and art for the forum would have been another winning idea. Also doing SEO and building a mailing list, but back at the time I didn’t even know what SEO was! I am confident enough to think that if today I were to have another go at TGR, I would be successful in the long run. Of course, I will never know that before I manage to finish the project with The MES Central. In the meantime I am holding onto that domain. Let’s see what happens! This strategy can work great to help you start up any new forum, but remember that in the end, when you’re building a community, it’s human relations that matter most.