How to Start an Online Community Today
This article is about helping you start creating your own online community or forum. We’ll closely examine niche development or the topic your forum should be about. We will also look at what your forum options are from the start. We will dig into the domain name and hosting choices for forum owners. And finally, we’ll talk about forum software and everything that goes with it from the start of your discussion forum.
Deciding on your nicheDeciding what niche your forum will be about is the most critical component of the start of your discussion forum. A niche is a topic on which your forum will focus overall. Many new forum owners fail at this point and don’t succeed in having a great discussion forum. The biggest elephant in the room for developing your forum niche is trending topics versus passion. Many forum failures are the result of choosing what’s popular at the moment over what the forum owner is passionate about.
You're taking significant risks if you choose a topic based on its current trend. You will be tasked with keeping your forum active. Forum management isn’t easy. So, you have to choose a topic you know a lot about. If you choose a topic based on a trend and don’t know much about it, you’ll find yourself out of ideas for new content before the forum even gets close to being active. And if the trend happens to end, your forum activity will likely also end.
Your best bet is choosing a niche on a topic you are passionate about and knowledgeable about. I have two forums. One is a forum all about forum administration. I’m passionate about forum administration so much that I wrote this eBook. So, it makes sense to run a discussion forum about forum administration. I have another forum about hiking. I hike multiple times a week and have been doing it for about twelve years. It makes sense for me to have a forum dedicated to hiking. I know nothing about basketball. If I were to make a basketball forum simply because it’s popular, I’d have a lot of trouble keeping it active, and it would show.
Create or buy a forumYou have a few different options for starting a forum. This depends on your budget and ability to adapt to something already there. You can start a forum from scratch. This means you start at zero members. It takes longer and more effort to get a community established. The alternative is that you can buy an existing discussion forum. Depending on their activity and profitability, forums usually cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. An advantage to buying a forum is that the community already exists, and you can start managing it.
Starting a forum from scratch is usually more challenging than buying an existing forum. This is because the forum is new and has no community on it. The pros of starting from scratch are that you can decide what kind of community is established. You can set the tone of the community based on your own personal tones and beliefs. You control how the community is developed when you start from zero. The cons are usually the challenges of growing a brand-new forum. It’ll be harder to grow a forum with fewer members and content versus a forum that already exists.
Buying an already established forum will give you members and content existing in an already active community. There are pros and cons to this method. The pros are that you don’t have to work hard to get members and content. You need to focus on keeping the current community active and improving for growth. If there is a profit method already in place, this will also help you make money with the forum more quicker. The cons are that a community and tone already exist. It might not be one you align with, and changing it will likely be impossible. You can kill an active community quicker than the acquisition if you don’t give the community what they’re used to.
Choosing a domain nameChoosing a domain name doesn’t seem hard enough to write an entire section about. You’d be surprised by the challenges of choosing the best domain name for a forum. There are different ways of choosing the domain name. Different factors play into domain names for discussion forums. If you make a mistake with your domain name choice, it could significantly impact your forum for the rest of its existence.
Domain names come in many shapes and sizes, if you will. There are many domain name extensions, such as .com, .net, .org, .blog, .shop, and others. Choosing the best extension determines what branding you wish to accomplish. But traditionally, the .com has always been the easiest domain name to remember. The .com domain name usually costs $8 to $20 for one not registered. Buy an existing domain name, which can cost anywhere from $1 to $100,000. The other extensions usually carry different pricing structures.
You should always choose the exact name of your forum as your domain name. It should be all or a portion of your forum title. This is done for branding and search engine ranking. My outdoor recreation forum focuses on southern Illinois. The domain name is SouthernIllinoisOutdoors.com, and the title is Southern Illinois Outdoors Forum. That is a good example of a domain name that covers a partial forum name. I left out “forum” from the domain name because it makes sense without it and gives me a shorter domain name. SouthernIllinoisOutdoors.com would not make sense if I used it for a book review forum. Choose a domain name based on your forum name for the best results.
Choosing a web hosting serviceThere are many different web hosting services to choose from these days. There are different types of plans at different costs. There are free services, too. There are different hosting environments based on the performance and activity of your forum. It is important to understand how to choose the best hosting service from the start because if you choose wrong, it can create many additional troubleshooting requirements when you should be focusing on keeping your forum active.
A shared hosting plan is likely the best option for a brand-new forum. Including the domain name, you might spend about $110 to $200 a year on a basic shared hosting plan. You’ll need to upgrade for larger forums as it uses more resources. You might have to eventually upgrade to a VPS, a shared server used by fewer people. A dedicated server might be required for very large and active forums, which are servers only used by your forum. In most cases, it’s easy to upgrade your hosting services as required. I use DreamHost VPS for my hosting service and have so for over 15 years.
The main thing you want to do is research the hosting service you want to use. Do they have a good reputation? Have they been around for a while? Some resellers and new hosting services are run by people who know less about hosting and more about trying to make money. You have to be careful with these types of hosting services. You also might be persuaded to use a free web host or a free forum hosting service. While these may provide you with what you need, they’re rented spaces. That means if they ever close down, you lose your forum. If you put a lot of work into a forum and lose it, that’s all; the result is a total loss.
Choosing a forum software platformChoosing the best forum software platform should depend on your needs. Don’t make the common mistake of choosing a platform based on popularity. It should be based on what you want to achieve with your online community. I urge this because once you use a platform, it might be very difficult to, even impossible, migrate to another software platform. There are many great platforms to choose from, including free and paid options.
There are many great free options available for creating forums. One of the oldest platforms is PhpBB. It has been around since the 1990s. There are many themes and plugins available to extend it even further. The software is being updated for bugs and security patching, but no major upgrades have been made. Other great free platforms include MyBB and Simple Machines Forum software. These options use PHP and MySQL to create the forum. You need to ensure that your hosting service supports its requirements.
Serious forum owners commonly use paid forum software options. The reasoning is that paid software is typically updated more than free since money is being made from using the service. Customers require updates, or they leave the platform, which takes away profit. The paid platforms are usually very rich in features and extensions, too. Some of the better-paid options are XenForo, Invision Community, and vBulletin. I personally use XenForo for all of my forum projects.
Choosing a theme and logoThe last part of setting up the initial discussion forum is choosing a theme and logo. Your theme and logo will be a critical component of the brand you choose for your forum. Your forum really only needs to have one theme unless you must give a light and dark option to your community. But having more than one theme means you have to work more to ensure each theme is compatible with your forum and changes made to the software. Your logo is important because it is your brand and how people will recognize your forum.
For free or paid forum software platforms, you can adopt themes on your forum. There are three types of themes. The first type is a free theme, commonly used by many people who use the software. Another is a pre-paid theme that costs money and is usually used by fewer people. The third option is a custom theme created for your forum, but it can cost a lot of money, depending on your needs. Free and pre-paid themes can be customized to be different from other forums that use them, but a custom theme is best for true branding needs.
A logo is important for creating a brand on your forum. There are many ways to create your logo. You can usually use plain text and not have a logo, but the branding is bland. It’d be better to have a graphics-based logo, even if it is just text. You should also create a favicon (the browser tab icon) to match your logo for extra branding. You can do this yourself if you’re good at design or pay someone to do it for you. Pricing ranges from low to high depending on your needs and whom you choose to design the logos. I typically spend $50 to $100 for a logo and favicon set.
And that's how to start an online community. If you've enjoyed this article, please share it with a fellow forum owner. Thanks for reading!