Using strategy, not assumption, to figure out if a forum needs to be central to your online community efforts
With the rise in popularity of community projects over the past decade, community professionals have spent lots of time trying to define the community industry—to explain what is and isn’t a community, and what is and isn’t community management. This is for some good reasons, and something I’ve personally engaged in at times on this very blog. For those creating private membership communities, it’s helpful to distinguish this work from straightforward social media management or customer service. And, community pros need some sense of definition in order to find others who are doing similar work, evaluate and create job postings, find software that works for their use cases, and so much more.
But, as many community thought leaders have pointed out as the debate over what constitutes community management has gotten louder and louder, it sometimes seems this industry is at risk of defining ourselves to death. One of the downsides I’ve noticed to stricter definitions of community emerging in the business world is that we’ve started to equivocate online community with online forum.
This is tricky because many great online community programs do include online forums. Big brands I admire for using community to address customer support and experience concerns, like Salesforce and Atlassian, are famous for their forum-based community programs. I’ve worked on successful community programs that included forums at both Teachable and Commsor, and there are forums I personally use and contribute to every single day (shoutout to The Community Community on Slack!). So, this post isn’t going to be about why I hate forums and don’t think anyone should use them.
But, I do think anyone considering launching a community project—whether you’re an independent entrepreneur thinking of launching a membership community alongside online courses, or you work at a big brand and want to leverage the power of peer-to-peer interactions between your customers—needs to reframe how they view forums. Instead of seeing forums as synonymous with communities, we should see them as one potential arrow in our quiver of many options to create peer-to-peer experiences, and we should only use them if they are the right tool to accomplish the goals of our community projects.
Instead of seeing forums as synonymous with online communities, we should see them as one arrow in our quiver—and we should only use them if they are the right tool to accomplish our goals.
In this post, I’m going to dig into five reasons why a forum might not be the right thing to center your community project around, and give you some alternative ways of thinking about community success. Plus, if you reach the end of this post and you’re still pretty sure you do want to start a forum, I’ll point you to some resources to help you do so successfully.
So, without further ado, here are five reasons you might not want to start a forum for your online community.
1. Your community isn't big enough—yet.
This is the number one reason that I often advise my clients not to launch forums, or at least to delay launching them. Forums require a critical mass of engaged members who are both creating and responding to content consistently in order for them to not only feel alive, but have a chance of impacting your overall business goals. I find that my clients with relatively small communities can tend to underestimate the level of engagement drop-off they are likely to see in a forum environment, which leads to launching forums in communities that are too small to have much of a chance for success.
For example, let’s imagine you’re a community entrepreneur and you think you have a hundred people you can invite to your community. Even if they are extremely warm leads, you’re going to hit a dropoff point right away in that not everyone who is invited is going to actually join (especially if there are other friction factors, like prerequisites to join or a price tag). Let’s say 50 of the people you invite actually join your community—which would, by the way, be a hugely successful conversion rate!—of those people, not every single one will actually be engaged. Again, applying a pretty optimistic rate from joined to engaged, let’s say you end up with 50% Monthly Active Users (MAU). That leaves you with about 25 people at who are engaged at any level over the course of a month. Conventional wisdom in the community space tells us only a small percentage of those people will contribute in a way that’s visible, in other words, will go above and beyond consuming the forum and actually create or respond to content in it.
You get the picture—even if you start off with what feels like critical mass, it may take more people than you think to create a forum environment that feels healthy and active to you and your members. (And by the way—how to anticipate dropoff in more detail is one of the concepts I focus on in the Launch section of my On-Demand Coaching program).
All of this can lead to the impression that your community is failing, when really just your forum is failing because you’re not ready to have one just yet. Luckily, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t leverage the power of community at all—it just might mean that you want to lean into formats of peer-to-peer connection that are easier to accomplish with small groups. My clients tend to find lots of success in running recurring events and calls, like group coaching, office hours, and co-working sessions. A good rule of thumb I’ve been sharing with clients who are just starting out with smaller groups is to do your best to wait until your community members who you are engaging in other ways actively ask you to launch a forum before you do so.
2. Your prospective members don't want a forum.
Even if you have enough prospective members to theoretically support a thriving forum, it’s important to actually validate through user research that your members actively want one, and that they want one from you. (If you don’t know how to do user research for a community project, I’d recommend either my Lean Community Launch Framework blog post for a quick overview, or, my On-Demand Coaching program which focuses an entire section and template on this topic).
One reason why members might not want a forum, especially in today's day and age, is that they are already forum saturated. That’s been one of the negative impacts of the rising interest in community programs among brands in the past decade or so—you’re now competing for your members’ interest and time with lots of other community programs as offering these programs becomes more ubiquitous across brands big and small.
Because of this, it's more important now than it previously was that when you do your user research, you focus on your members existing relationship with other community programs to understand what they already have and what they may be missing. Make sure to ask members what other communities and forums they participate in regularly, and ask clarifying questions to try to understand if they have space and time to participate in more. This is also an opportunity to understand, if they don’t prefer to interact in forums, what formats they may want to interact with peers in.
And, remember: even if when you do user research your members react positively to the idea of a forum when you bring it up with them, this isn't a sure bet that they'll actually go out of their way to use your forum when you launch it. At the end of the day the programs your prospective members are likeliest to adopt will often come from their suggestions and requests. That's why you most likely shouldn’t start a forum if the idea of one has never come up as an organic suggestion from one of your prospective members.
3. Your members already have other places they like to talk about your subject matter.
I brought up in point #2 that it’s important not only that your members want a forum about your subject matter, but that they specifically want you to start it. This is where it’s important to question whether your members already have places they like to congregate online to talk about your subject matter, and whether they (and your business goals) may be better served by you joining and participating in those spaces with them rather than trying to create a brand new one.
Notion has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention for making this idea central to their community strategy, which they call “Community Everywhere.” Gareth Wilson did a great deep dive on Notion’s community strategy that you can check out here. This strategy allowed Notion to talk to their customers, and connect them with one another, in a way that accommodates the diverse and authentic ways their customers were already connecting online. If your community subject matter already has tons of conversations happening around it in various places online (Reddit, Facebook Groups, Slack, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, you name it), it may behoove you to follow this strategy rather than trying to fight what’s happening naturally. And, unlike the last section which focusses more on members psychology around your prospective forum, this question is pretty easy to research through organic search and discovery, even if you don't do a ton of user interviews.
Importantly, though, make sure that if you choose this strategy, that it coheres with your business goals. There may be scenarios where while there are other established forums for your customers to discuss your subject matter online, it may still be the right choice to launch an owned forum. For example, Community Everywhere might be a phenomenal strategy for a brand trying to find and activate prospective customers via community, but not as great of a strategy for those trying to tap into another source of recurring revenue via a membership community, or provide a centralized peer-to-peer support channel that's consistently monitored by staff.
4. You can accomplish your business goals without a forum.
I’ve mentioned aligning your forum strategy with your business goals a few times throughout this post, and I want to focus on that more closely here, because it’s important. When we’re setting out to choose which engagement formats and strategies are best for us, we need to first understand what we’re trying to accomplish by engaging and connecting our customer bases.
Are we trying to create a new source of recurring revenue by creating a membership community with a price tag on it? (Direct monetization)
Are we trying to help our members achieve success with another product, like a software or a learning experience, so that they’ll be more likely to stay on a subscription or make a repeat purchase? (Customer retention)
Are we trying to reach new potential customers to expose them to our brand and get them to buy another product? (Customer acquisition)
These are just a few of the business cases for starting a community. (If you don’t understand how to set business goals for your community yet, my blog post on this subject is a good place to start; my On-Demand Coaching Program also has an entire module focussed on this subject). If you understand what your community’s business outcomes are, you can become more objective in evaluating what engagement strategies are important. So, instead of assuming a forum is the right fit, you can ask yourself, “what strategies are likely to help me reach my business outcome?”
For example, let’s say you have an online course and you primarily want community as a way to keep your members accountable to finishing the course so that they will be able to progress and buy the next course level you’re working on developing. If that’s the case, you can consider and evaluate any strategies that are useful to supporting accountability—from forums, to recurring calls, to accountability buddies, to email reminder sequences, to badges and gamification—as options to help you achieve your goals. Generally, since forums tend to be pretty permanent and labor intensive, if you can figure out a strategy that delivers the same outcome for a lower level of effort, that's the right choice.
5. You're jumping aboard the community bandwagon.
Lastly, it’s important to consider whether you want to start a forum, or a community at all, because you’ve seen the buzz this topic has garnered lately in the business world and feel like you “should, ” or whether this desire is stemming from real problems and objectives in your business that you feel can't be accomplished without a community program.
For what it’s worth, because community is such a flexible strategy that, as you saw in point #4, is capable of impacting a diverse array of business outcomes, for most businesses there is some implementation of community that can be a fit. While it's not uncommon for me to work with a client who has some groundwork to do before they launch a community, it's rare that I've worked with a client for whom I've recommended that there is no feasible community strategy for their business. But, it’s still important to start from what your goals are and work backwards from there to choose the right strategies to meet them, and not the other way around.
If you’ve read this far and you’re worried you might be going about starting a community in the reverse order (i.e., without having a clear understanding of the goals and purpose), don’t worry—while this can feel like a bummer, it’s generally a good thing to figure this out before you sink in too many resources. Again, consider starting smaller than launching a forum, which can be a really high-effort and difficult version of community building that’s hard to walk back. Instead, try testing something that still lets you learn about the benefits of peer-to-peer engagements but that has a finite end point in the case it’s not a fit for your business, like a time-bound customer challenge or a set number of weekly recurring calls for a small group of prospective members.
If you’ve read all this and you are still convinced you want a fully fledged community program centered around a forum, but just feel somewhat stuck on what steps to take first, I can help—scroll to the bottom of this post to see some options for working together.
If you’ve skimmed at all (I don’t blame you!), here’s the TL;DR:
Avoid starting a forum until your current or prospective members actively ask for one
Lean on non-forum-based forms of peer-to-peer interaction to accomplish your goals first
When you’re ready to start a forum, don’t underestimate the work it will take to make it soar—anticipate needing a critical mass of members and being able to put in the time to engage your members proactively.
Want to take any of this a step further?
I hope this post has been helpful for you in thinking about how a forum may or may not fit into your overall community strategy.
That said, I understand that this can be complicated , and sometimes you need a hand to help put it all into practice.
I work with clients every day as a strategic coach for online community projects, and community engagement for your specific project and all its unique dimensions is one of the most common topics my clients want to discuss. If you would like to work together 1:1, you can learn more about how I work and get in touch here.
For folks who want to deepen their community work but don't have the budget to work with me 1:1, I also offer an online program called the On-Demand Coaching Core Bundle—it distills the most common topics I work with my 1:1 clients on into a self-paced format with videos, my most in-depth templates, coaching scenarios, and a client community with bi-weekly group coaching. All of that comes for a one-time purchase of $500 USD, less than the cost of 2 1:1 coaching sessions with me. You can learn more about that here or enroll now below:
You're also always welcome to shoot me an email at email@example.com if you have questions, suggestions for what I should add to this or other blog posts, or anything else you'd like to discuss. I love hearing from readers—thanks again for being one!