Growing a forum community in 2023

ArtG

Active member
Hi everyone - sorry for the long post but I feel it may be important for some of you (and it is for me). TLDR;? Scroll down to green text.

Growing a forum today is very different from the past. Competition from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms have disrupted the forum space to such an extent that many think that the forum platform is dead. I don't know about you, but I know many members that tell me this.

I disagree.

I think forums are sufficiently different than social media that they should have a place within a user's attention. I think forums and social media serve two purposes for users. The problem is, IMO, that many forums do a very poor job of telling users this. We need and can do better.

Any business, whether brick and mortar, forums or social media, needs to be:
  • relevant
  • informative
  • useful
  • enjoyable
This is the formula needed to earn a user's attention and repeat business. No longer is it enough to simply create an online space for users to discuss a common interest. Those days are over. There are TOO many places for them to do this easily.

I think social media has taken over because provide the above four items to your users very well (read: easily - Apple easy, I mean). A 5 year old can get on social media and in minutes be working it without instruction. It's intuitive to use making it easy to adopt.

This resulted in a quick to scale platform where many people that were your information engines are now sharing their information easier, quicker and to more people than your forum ever did. Honestly, IMO, we forum owners were asleep in our perceived relevance and social media came and ate our collective lunches. Quickly.

All this being said, I feel that social media is the fast food equivalent for a user's attention. I get information quick and many, many people visit daily. However, I don't get a warm and fuzzy feeling inside when I visit. I scroll, scroll, scroll and at some point feel like this isn't good for me and I force myself to stop. The equivalent of the short-lived enjoyment of eating fast food. It tastes good going down but you feel like crap later.

To me, a well-run forum community is like the neighborhood bar where you feel like family. You know the saying, "sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came." A good forum community is slower to enjoy but you don't feel like crap later. You feel people care about you and you want to savor, not scroll. You feel intellectually stimulated, not stunted.

The reality is that most people like both at different times. Sometimes I just need to eat (i.e., ask a question and get a quick answer) or am just braindead and want to get my mind to stop thinking (i.e., scroll and see pretty pictures and funny videos). Social media is where I go.

Other times, I want to be part of a community where I feel liked and that we share similar interests. A forum is where I go. This is a well-run example of this: https://reef2reef.com that is growing in today's "war" with social media and bucking the trend.

My question for all of you is: what is it that we can all do in 2023 to make our collective forums MORE:
  • relevant
  • informative
  • useful
  • enjoyable
with the focus on the last two??? Don't say content is king. WE ALL KNOW THIS IS TRUE. We all had great content in the past? Why did members stop coming and go to social media that had ZERO CONTENT at the beginning? Content is table steaks. We need it but it's not what will make the difference alone.

We need to be useful (i.e., easy to use - as easy as social media) and enjoyable (i.e., we need to to be fun for people). We need to do BETTER what we do better than social media and ALSO improve on what social media does better than forums (easy to use, find and consume).

If you've read down here, thank you! You are what makes a forum worthwhile.

I think we need to change the forum's UI by making it work more like social media in some respects. Don't lose what makes us great (categories, long form, etc). Things like:
  • 1 button for posting anywhere, adding media, adding a resource;
  • in your face easy global search with suggested "already existing" content;
  • not new posts but trending posts based on user engagement;
  • better ability to like content rather than having it buried within a post's postscript (let me double tap to like!);
  • better relevant and fun gamification (beyond the trophies);
  • course functionality to give courses;
  • unlimited scroll on mobile with featured images similar to social media;
  • improved ability to connect with members (equivalent of friends on Facebook);
  • better use of AI to bring topics to a user based on likes, posts, etc.
Some of the above already exists but is not well executed in the UI. Some is hidden behind very expensive paywalls (I'm looking at your @ThemeHouse - thanks for the freebies but most of use can't afford the yearly ticket for the good stuff).

I am grateful to @XenForo for continuing to build the infrastructure and backbone of our forum software. That's were they shine. If they can throw us some of the above, wonderful. However, I think it will take a combined effort from talented (and caring) developers and designers to work together to build and deploy an add-on/style combination that will bring the above to our users.

I would LOVE any thoughtful comments from forum admins out there.
 

Mendalla

Well-known member
Why did members stop coming and go to social media that had ZERO CONTENT at the beginning?
In fact, social media kind of cheated on the content question by basically expecting users to generate the content for them. Want to see what you father said? Or that buddy you haven't seen since high school? Read it here!!

I think we need to change the forum's UI by making it work more like social media in some respects. Don't lose what makes us great (categories, long form, etc). Things like:
  • 1 button for posting anywhere, adding media, adding a resource;
  • in your face easy global search with suggested "already existing" content;
  • not new posts but trending posts based on user engagement;
  • better ability to like content rather than having it buried within a post's postscript (let me double tap to like!);
  • better relevant and fun gamification (beyond the trophies);
  • course functionality to give courses;
  • unlimited scroll on mobile with featured images similar to social media;
  • improved ability to connect with members (equivalent of friends on Facebook);
  • better use of AI to bring topics to a user based on likes, posts, etc.
All very well and good, but how do you change the nature of forums without alienating the people who are still in the forum world precisely because they dislike how social media do discussions? I am on a site that uses Circle which is basically forums (they call them spaces) with a social media look. So you comment on posts instead of replying to threads and that sort of thing. And, frankly, if I wasn't a fan of the singer the site is about (and who started the site), I would not have stayed. That approach is precisely why I don't like the social media approach to discussions. Also, my own site started because a bunch of people who hate FB groups wanted a place to gather after the site we all used to be on closed up shop and offered an FB group as the replacement.

So it is not as simple as making forums more like social media in hopes of drawing in the social media crowd. It's how you do that while keeping the things that make the forum format ideal for discussion and not alienating the core audience who are on forums, in some cases, because they don't like or trust social media. Because, in the end, if you lose that core, you could end up with nothing. Because my gut feeling is that the social media diehards, while they might migrate between different SM, aren't going to leave it for our smaller, more focussed worlds. They are not using social media in place of forums, they are using it for something different. They aren't using social media for discussion, they are using it for connecting in various way, with discussion as only part of it. Are we really going to replace Facebook for finding the ex someone wants to give it another try with or Instagram for the person trying to become a fashion "influencer"? Not likely.

Let's learn from social media where we need to, but let's not go whole hog and ignore the strengths that forums have as a medium for online discussions.
 

ArtG

Active member
Let's learn from social media where we need to, but let's not go whole hog and ignore the strengths that forums have as a medium for online discussions.
I couldn't agree with you more! 100%!

We need to keep our identity and continue to improve on what we do well. I feel we need to take what WE BELIEVE social media does better than us and add it to our goals. Let's not bring on the things that are wrong with social media.

So, let's not become social media. Let's learn from it and evolve and win back those users that want both.

I think we need to be honest with ourselves and realize that our base forum format is clunky and showing its age. Certainly there is room for improvement. Isn't there?
 

Mendalla

Well-known member
So, let's not become social media.
To be clear, I actually do consider forums an early (in that they evolved from the old BBSes and USEnet) form of "social media" and also consider them my primary "social media" these days now that I've dumped Twitter. But they certainly are not "social media" in the way most people talk about it in the era of FB, TikTok, and Insta.
 

PatriotGB

Active member
I've been on social media and forums of ALL kinds since before Algore invented the internet. I was active in "SIGs" (special interest groups) on Compuserve in the early 90s. I've been on traditional forums AND groups on social media like Facebook since their inception.

Forums are better for special interest groups. The end. Seriously.

Facebook is better for posting photos of your food and staying in touch with friends and family.

Forums are FAR better organized, archived, and curated. Information pertaining to special interests is FAR easier to find in the forum format. Forums like ours also offer a MUCH more user-friendly interface when it comes to posting text and other media.

Having been HEAVILY involved in special interest groups in ALL formats for, literally, decades... Yes. Facebook hurt forum traffic. Hard and for a while. I'm tellin' ya... the pendulum is swinging back towards independent forums. Hard. Here's why:

Big tech has stepped on its own ***k. I was kicked off a watch group on Facebook for posting a photo of a Swiss Army pocket knife next to a wrist watch. Mind you, there was no rule against that. People are tired of the overbearing censorship and wokeism on platforms like Facebook. Forums are owned and run independently. Forum members don't have the big tech overlords and bots watching their every move.

Big Tech, like Facebook has run special interest groups OFF. And that is good for forums like ours. We were better than FB in the past. We're still better now. Facebook is on the decline, especially when it comes to special interest groups.

After being VERY active on Facebook for 11 years, I quit cold turkey 2 years ago. I left my friends and family behind, as I could no longer be complicit in what is happening there while remaining true to my principles.
 

Davyc

Well-known member
I believe that the core problem is to get people off the 'consume it' bandwagon where they just take what they want and then go somewhere else. Forums need contributors and they are a rare breed. I see forum owners open up shop for their hobby interests in the hope of attracting like-minded people into the fold and share their experiences and knowledge with each other, only to find they are often the only ones adding content.

Social Media is the devil in the detail when it comes to the slow but sure demise of interest in forums, and I find that such a shame because I agree with the sentiments of the OP but it's not really the software at fault, nor the forum owners - it's a lack of interest in people to even take the few minutes required to register and post something interesting. It's as if the whole world only wants to consume, or shovel inane drivel and lap up the artificial likes from people they don't even know. It really is a sad exploitation of human laziness that Social Media has cultivated.

I truly feel for those who genuinely have a passion for forums and understand the value they can bring to the table, it's just a shame that few people want to sit at that table, unless it's to, once again, consume.

We just need to keep the faith, keep doing what we're doing and hope that, as with many things, forums will come back around and be once more the revelvent and vibrant places they used to be. I yearn for a return to those days, because they were useful and enjoyable places to be a part of.
 

PatriotGB

Active member
I wanted to add... I participate in a number of forums, most of which use the Xenforo or similar platforms. I would haaaaaaaaaaate it, if they went to a format that mimicked Facebook or Twitter. I think that would be a HUGE mistake.
 

ArtG

Active member
Folks, thanks for all the thoughtful sharing of your input and perspective. It’s great to discuss with people that care.

I remain positive that most people want/need a balance of brainless scrolling and deeper thoughtful discussion. I know some have an attention span of a minute or less. I don’t want them.

I also want to make sure we try to come up with some action items for us.

1. We don’t want forums to become social media.
2. There are some valuable things that social media does that we should strive to emulate while ensuring the negative things stay away.

My question is “what are those nuggets that social media does well that we should emulate?”

Let’s focus on evolving our forums for the better.
 

Aerodynamic

Active member
I have said it before, there's a difference between people who browse on social media and forums. The attention span is more than 1.2 seconds for people on forums. :) Some people will ALWAYS prefer forums above SM. It's people on different forums you want to target, not the ones on SM.
 

Faust

Well-known member
I made an account on Facebook couple of days ago, just because im a photographer and want to advertise on it. I must say, I really hate it. Non relevant ads showing , and these reels to make you scroll to infinite. The social media sites are making people more stupid and dumb than they are unfortunately.

Forums has better value, but unfortunately people don’t care about that anymore. As long as they can share where they been, and what they had for lunch, they won’t quit social media.
 

BassMan

Well-known member
I have said it before, there's a difference between people who browse on social media and forums. The attention span is more than 1.2 seconds for people on forums. :) Some people will ALWAYS prefer forums above SM. It's people on different forums you want to target, not the ones on SM.
Totally agree. I think a true forum admin doesn't want typical "SM people" on their forums. They mostly have no good content to contribute. But again, it all depends on what kind of forum admin you are too.
 

Aerodynamic

Active member
Of course. But let's not think about those, but the other ones so we don't forget about them ;)
Agreed. There used to be much more trolls around, much more spam, immature people. I'm glad that has declined in forums, which makes me think they've fled to social media. You can see those people just replying on posts on Facebook, judging every little thing they come across.
 

Mendalla

Well-known member
2. There are some valuable things that social media does that we should strive to emulate while ensuring the negative things stay away.
Build connections outside the forums and threads. Friends, followers, etc. XF has a bit of that with followers and conversations, but nowhere near what a social media platform has. So that's something.

User-created spaces, groups or whatever you want to call them. Yes, they can be a moderation headache (which can largely be dealt with by making sure mods have access to all groups whether invited or not and a clear statement that all board rules apply inside user-created groups), but they also allow people to build their own "neighbourhoods" within the larger community. I have not tried any third party XF add-ons that do this, but they do exist. Of course, this kind of ties into the first one.

Just a couple thoughts that came to mind.
 

Omar Adil

Member
Thanks for sharing this topic
my opinion is the development in the life reach the forums to this point
just like many other fields for example taxi applications, mobile technology .... etc.
before social media, the forums was the place for all types of people and purposes, but now we should split
first the connecting between users such as sharing videos and photos will still for social media sites this is the reality.
second users which search for content will be for forums because this is the core of this technology and will not die but the visitors will remain low because it is depend on search engines.
therefore I think any admin want members to join and do socialism in his forum will fail in 2023 because this purpose has its own sites (social media sites) the simplest thing is that social media now can not be success without application on mobile but the application of forums still late.
What the admins can do is specialty for his forum and developing features, and this what we hope from xenforo team because many features should be basic for any script for example uploading image or video directly from mobile, infinite scrolling pages and so on.
there is people who's born after 2000 they may be don't know what is forum mean.
the admin who want his forum to be a social platform or connecting people or forum for every thing in 2023 will fail in my personal opinion may I wrong.
I was have successful forum for everything from 2006 till 2010 after that it dies day after day and I closed it.
 
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Steve Freides

Active member
We have a Facebook group and a forum. We administer the Facebook group pretty carefully, with post approval turned on, and we favor posts by our in-house staff and content experts. We also make it a point to mention our forum and provide links to interesting threads from time to time.

Our approach might best be summarized as using the FB group as an introduction, and the forum the place for more serious, in-depth discussions and a much greater sense of community. This means, e.g., there are things we consider appropriate for the forum but not for the FB group and vice versa. We also have a FB page and an IG account - you have to find your own rhythm, I think, for how to make the best of use of all these things. There's no point in lamenting their existence so try to use them in ways that can help you and also have the forum for your more hardcore fans.

FB group administration tools are so poor. I've been interviewed by FB at length on more than one occasion - they really aren't interested.

-S-
 
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