09 November 2005

Measuring the success of your board - Part 2

Some other signs your community is quality and in good health:

  • Speedy answers to tricky questions - this thread on WMW puts forward the case: "When quick answers are the norm, that means that the forum is well-trafficked, has a good range of expertise among its posting members, and that the members care about responding to new questions"
  • A normal distribution of member postcounts - a healthy forum is one where all members contribute. A forum where the posting every day is dominated by a few 'elite' will often be fairly unwelcoming to others, and you won't benefit from the widerange of opinions that only a broad group of people can bring. If you wanted to quantify that, I guess you could plot a histogram of the posts-per-day average of your members - you'd want it all grouped close to the average (low standard deviation, for the more statistically inclined amongst you!)
  • Great community spirit - the signs of this are worth a topic all of their own, but rough-and-ready signs include members calling each other by their real-life names, having nicknames for each other (this is quite common), meeting up in real life, organising competitions and other projects together (without you pushing them or even suggesting it), and last but not least, lots of members actively making suggestions on how to improve the site - though this might also mean that you've got a poorly set out board and your members are exasperated, often it's a sign that your members want to stick around as much as they can, so want to make that time as valuable as possible.
  • Regular, frequent return visits - if you find members regularly visit your board several times a day, you know they're hooked!
  • Word-of-mouth referrals - your board is so good that people are making the effort to include it in conversation with their friends - wahey! Either that, or your reputation and authority (see A is for Authority) in your niche means that your site is the first one people can think of sending people to when they have a question to be answered or a passion to be fulfilled - sweet!

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08 November 2005

Measuring the success of your board

There's no consensus in the biz as to precisely what stats show the quality and healthiness of your board. In this post we'll be looking at what some of these stats - you're welcome of course to suggest your own by commenting below.

Let's start with the basics:
  • Postcount - the quick and easy stat, show on the index page of almost every board. A postcount of over 500,000 entitles you to inclusion into big-boards.com - Pros: easy stat, and a good indicator of the quantity of content on the site. Cons: An old board will have loads of posts - that doesn't mean they're recent, or good quality, or made by lots of members. Just because you see a big postcount, don't think a board is better than a smaller one, which for all you know has more members actively posting, and might be full of better quality posts. There's no telling how many of those posts are spam or crappy forum games like '3 word story'!
  • Member count - again, same pros/cons - an old site is more likely to have more members, but without looking deeper you might be admiring a site which does well in the search engines and has a nice skin, or gets people to sign up to get a gift of some sort, and hardly ever post or even return once they've signed up.
What about some other handy, general stats of the site:
  • Age of the site - you need to bear this in mind when looking at the two stats I've already mentioned. But old age is also a good thing in many cases: it demonstrates that a board has been around for a while, so is reliable and in good hands, and hasn't been forced to close because of inactivity or getting overwhelmed with spam. An old forum (assuming it's still active, not just a web skeleton) is most probably in good hands, so has high chances of being a good quality community.
  • Pagerank - Google PR may be totally irrelevant to the value of a site and a shite indicator of how it'll do in the search engines, it's still a good quick indicator of the number and popularity of the sites linking to it - a high PR will usually mean people are finding this forum interesting and good quality, so are linking to it.
  • Registrations per day - this is a rough measure of a combination of two things - how easily people are finding their way to your site (via Google, a link on another page, whatever), and how tempted they are to sign up (that's affected primarily by what they see, since they usually won't have had a chance to post yet) - i.e. how attractive the site looks, how easy it is to register, how obvious it is that the visitor would be better of signing up... etc.
  • Posts per day - I've never really like this particular site metric, for (one of) the reasons Postcount isn't a good stat either - these posts could all be from a core group of hardcore posters posting absolute shite, with nobody else involved, or it could be the ideal situation, loads of members posting on your site. Make sure you check out the Top #10 posters that day to get a sense of perspective - how many of today's posts were made by these guys? As a rough rule of thumb, the smaller the fraction of today's posts made by these 10, the healthier your community. If, as well as that low ratio, the board has a high posts per day average, you know you've got a big, healthy site.
  • Threads per day - I really like this stat, probably irrationally so. For me, any pair of jokers can hijack an existing thread and post loads of crap in it, making the board look busy. What doesn't normally happen though is postwhores going around creating new topics - that normally involves a bit more originality and brainpower than they're used to. Again, as with all stats, take this advice with a pinch of salt: topics per day is a good stat o determine the activity+health of a board, just so long as the other tests also throw up the same conclusions, else you might be prompted to investigate why lots of people create topics, but the other stats show the site to not be very active.
In Part 2, we'll look at what the telltale signs of success, failure, good or bad quality are for your actual community

03 November 2005

How unique is your community?

There are a hell of a lot of forums out there. How many rivals your community has depends on what your forum's about - obviously, there are loads of webmaster communities (e.g. WebMasterWorld, Sitepoint and Digitalpoint) but fewer about knitting.

It's safe to assume your newly-made board will have its fair share of competitors, often bigger and more popular than yours. That can change though - the biggest forums aren't always the oldest ones (though it helps).

If you want to succeed and get up there with your rivals (who knows, maybe even beat them!) you're going to have to focus on making your site stand out from the crowd. Improving the quality of posting and community spirit are important factors in getting people to stick around once they sign up, but you have to get them to sign up first!

Getting features unique to your site has several advantages:
  • it'll make people talk about your site, so you get increased word of mouth referrals
  • it'll give visitors something to remember your site by, so they're more likely to return
  • existing members have something here they can't get anywhere else, so stick around longer
  • it enhances the reputation of your site, helping to make you the authority in your niche
That last point is important: you can really show up your site as a heavywieght in the category when you've got some exciting, original and good looking features on your board, when your rivals still have the default skins installed, perhaps have added an Arcade mod, and an offtopic forum that's just full of typical post games like the Neverending Thread and the Three Word Story.

This highlights another thing - standing out doesn't just limit itself to getting a unique look skinned and some new features coded. You can stand out with competitions and fresh new ideas for threads - maybe you could encourage your members to make threads that are effectively 'blogs', each member having his own... I dunno - you know your own community better than I do. I'd be interested to hear what you guys have done to make your forums stand out amongst your competitors (you can add comments below).

The reason I was prompted to write this was that I've just finished coding a new feature for my own forums. This uses an RSS parser to pull data from the profiles of members on my site that use the excellent Last.fm and then show it on their profiles, e.g. to show the last five songs they've listened to. When I say finished, I haven't really - I want to add lots more details (top five tracks, most played songs, favourite artists, etc). I've also added a link to people's last.fm pages just above their signature. Obviously, this only shows up if they've put a Last.fm ID in their profile. The next step is to totally rework the profile page so it's a lot more inviting, and getting away from the standard Invision profile page look. The theory behind this is that if I can make people use the profile pages more, I can get a stronger community spirit on my board, the advantages of which are dicussed here.

You can see the new feature in action on my profile page over at Rockforums.net and on threads like this one - note the 'What I Listen To' button under the second post. Another feature I've added, which is in part designed to increase clicks on Adsense banners, is the trivia/board tips/google adsense banner rotation in the top right corner, which shows something new each time you refresh the page/go to another one.

24 October 2005

At what point is an extra feature 'bloat'?

Summer 2005 saw Invision and vBulletin launch new versions of their extremely popular board softwares (2.1 and 3.5 respectively). These two market leaders were faced with the same problems faced by any company releasing a new product or service at the same time as a rival company: how do you make sure people buy your product, and not the rival one?

Invision jumped the gun, releasing first but having to issue a series of new versions to fix bugs not fixed or discovered in time for the release. It's now on v2.1.2, with 2.1.3 imminent. vBulletin released 3.5 two weeks later, and is yet to release a bugfix update - although, given how full its bugtracker is, one suspects they know the moment they do release a bugfix, they'll lose the reputation for thorough pre-release testing they're currently enjoying.

Appearances may be everything, but I dunno to what extent their customers are happy about having these bugfixes withheld from them because of marketing pressures.

Headline-grabbing with new features is a second strategy that's probably more important to the market (that's you and me) than release timings. A lot of the development this summer, both on IPB and vBulletin, was AJAX implementation, which makes forum pages more dynamic by doing stuff like being able to post a quick reply or edit a post without reloading the page (on vBulletin) or checking that a username isn't already in use at the same time as someone types it into the registration form.

Very nifty, certainly; it's certainly made life easier for moderators, who can edit titles and topic descriptions at a click of the mouse, as if they were files on a desktop (in Invision). AJAX has been used a lot - after all, it makes the software look real swish to the pros like you and I, and definitely boosts the attractiveness of the featurelist.

But the acid test for a feature, one every cynical admin should be asking himself when reviewing a featurelist, is 'Will this make my board more successful?'

At the end of the day, that's what a feature's value always boils down to. If it's a feature that will make it easier to keep the site well moderated, there's little value if your site is already well moderated; for a forum with threads in ALL CAPS the AJAX one-click title editing will be handy, sure. But has adding two edit modes (for the poor scared user to choose from) really added value? I say no. Adding complexity and pointless features like vCards will just confuse the user or divert them from doing what your site is there for: participating in the community. If your community is so specialised that it would actually gain from a vCard feature, add it as a mod!

19 October 2005

Cliquey Community?

In previous posts I've spoken about the importance of community spirit to the success of your message board - good advice, no doubt, but sometimes it can go too far. Communities can get so close (e.g. many members being on first name basis) that you can have serious trouble turning lurkers and newbies into active members.

This problem is more likely to hit small, young forums - on a large message board there's usually enough diversity between the subforums that there are plenty of opportunities for lurkers and newbies to integrate without problems or fear. On a young forum however, if a 'clique' of 'veteran' members forms, it could easily 'choke' your community.

Interestingly enough, the risk of a 'closed community' (which is intimidating and/or hostile to outsiders like lurkers or newbies) getting established on your boards is greatest right at the start. Let me explain. When starting up a new site, the lack of activity can be extremely frustrating, and there's a big temptation to get all your friends to sign up and post. In the short term, you get masses of activity, and the stats rise nicely. That's what I experienced on Rockforums.net when I started up - all my friends from uni signed up and started posting, and a few of their brothers, and brothers' friends, too. The growth of my forums was gorgeous, the posts were rolling in.

The thing I hadn't noticed, or realised the danger of, was that a lot of these posts people were making were like 'Bob, what are you doing on the weekend? I'm going over to Andy's'. This, of course, meant absolutely nothing to the other users of the site, who just felt excluded as a result, and never felt like hanging around long enough to become a part of the community. So the problem here is, don't rely exclusively on your friends for posting and growth, or else their posts, quite naturally, will just be a string of in-jokes, similar opinions, and generally threads and posts which other members have absolutely no desire to be a part of.

What's worse, your friends will often break the board rules just for a joke, to see how strict you're prepared to be. You may understand it's a joke, and be lenient, but others may just see blatant rulebreaking and the admin turning a blind eye - setting a terrible example. Deciding how strict to be with your real life friends, and friends of friends, is an extremely hard thing to do!

So the moral of the story: whilst you can get great short-term boosts by enlisting the help of all your real-life friends to get a site started, or more active, there's a big risk that the long term effect of that strategy will be that the community won't be open enough to new members, and growth in the future will be affected, as spam and crap, uninteresting discussion goes rife because you don't want to annoy your friends by deleting their threads and posts.

My tip to someone starting up a forum is: get a few of your friends, maybe three at most, to help out getting things started, but you're safer looking elsewhere on the Internet for new members and more posting.

01 October 2005

A challenger comes?

UseBB. Terrible name, no doubt about it; it seems like every free bulletin board under the sun these days has a name that ends in -BB (obviously that's untrue, look at SMF and MyTopix for example - but my point stands). But that's just a name - whilst they'll have a harder time getting people to notice them, it doesn't actually affect he software.

And boy, what fantastic software. For a few months now I've been struggling to make Invision more search-engine friendly. Installing the Friendly URL mod helped a bit; so did spattering some rel="nofollow" tags around on the links I didn't want spiders following. But Invision still insists on sticking bit onto links like /boards/index.php?showtopic=1280&view=getnewpost . That's fine for users that want to see the latest posts, but Google & co are treating that as a separate page from
/boards/index.php?showtopic=1280 - and because it sees two different pages on your site with the same content, you get penalized. Not fun.

UseBB, very wisely indeed, just uses anchor links like /UseBB/topic-post10.html#post10 to achieve exactly the same thing for users - but Google realises that's the same page as
/UseBB/topic-post10.html and so you don't get penalised for duplicate content!

See the difference in the tidyness of search results for yourself:

I use Invision as an example because it's terrible handling of search engine spiders has been frustrating me for a while now, but I notice vBulletin has exactly the same problems.

Add to that the fact that the XHTML code UseBB puts out for all its pages is extremely clean and 100% XHTML strict (wow!) valid, and you've got a recipe for producing threads that are going to go straight to the top of Google results and drive the growth of your board for years to come! There's no excuse for the established boards to be so bad at getting the great content we have in our forums properly into the search engines. Forums often have way more content than the average website - if we admins find it so hard to make the kind of money you'd expect from content like that, it's because we can't turn that content into hits well enough.

There's a lot missing from UseBB though - polls, private messages and a fully functional admin backend. A better backend is essential (and in the pipeline for 1.0), but I'm not convinced of the need for polls and PM's - users can email each other from the boards, and as for polls I've always thought it would be better for the community spirit of a board for people to voice their opinions, rather than anonymously vote. After all, we're here to share opinions and make friends!

30 September 2005

Feature for the Future: Virtual Forums part 1

It's high time forum organisation evolved from the standard setup we're grown used to ever since bulleting boards evolved into the category>forum>subforum>thread>post model adopted by all the major board softwares.

The future lies in adopting more fluid, user-customisable setups. Microsoft recently realised that: one of the big features of the successor to XP (called Windows Vista) is Virtual Folders. They've left behind the old setup of having one folder for Pictures, one for Music, another for Videos. Instead, all documents are put into one place. This would be incredibly hard to use - all documents in a single folder - if it weren't for the Virtual Folders system.

A virtal folder is effectively a folder which when clicked on searches for all the documents that answer a specific set of criteria. Hence you can still have a My Music folder - just setup a virtual folder for any .mp3 and .wma file on your computer. The benefit of virtual folders is that you can also have a virtual folder for any documents, for example, to do with The Beatles. Any .mp3 by the Beatles, any Word document you wrote about the Beatles, any photo of a Beatles album, all end up in this virtual folder. Hence a file can be in loads of folders at the same time.

Let's do this on message boards. Have a default set of Virtual Folders set by the Admin (just like Vista will probably have a setof folders called My Documents, My Music and My Videos just so new users do't have a hard time adjusting), but allow users to setup a Virtual Forum based on a specific set of words to search for. Basically, you could do a search and then be presented with a 'Save this search as a new Forum' option. Each user can have his own set of Virtual Forums grouping together all the threads they're really interested in.

Microsoft aren't the only guys to embrace this new approach to organisation: Google did it with GMail, Flickr.com's doing it with photo albums, I'm told Apple has been doing it with its OS for a while now, and so on... this'll be commonplace in the next few years to come, it would be silly for the big guns in the Message Board industry to ignore it!

In Part 2, we'll be looking at all the advantages this presents, not just for users but for Admins too. It's a win-win situation for both, and with recent developments in AJAX and so on we can present this feature to the user in a totally intuitive way.

26 September 2005

C is for... Community

At the end of the day, what brings people back to a forum isn't just the level of banter or the desire to learn more about the topic of discussion. The major factor that will keep a member coming back every day for a year or two is the feeling that he/she belongs to the community here. You therefore have to get members to feel as integrated into the community as possible.

* This means helping them establish an identity in the community. If it's obvious they're trying to be funny, tell them that they are! Likewise, if someone clearly considers themselves quite the Professor in these parts, don't hesitate to tell them when they make a good point. A member with an identity is no longer an anonymous outsider; it's a member that feels a part of your community, whether it's the know-it-all, the joker, the troll that likes to step on toes... The feeling of being a somebody in a community is one they'll find hard to let go of, and will help to keep them coming back.

* A monthly forum 'award ceremony' can be a quick and easy way of doing this for up to ten members at a time - 'Best Joke' 'Best Debater' etc...

* Developing your forum's community spirit also means encouraging your members to get to know each other better, to make friends, basically! You're unlikely to abandon a forum if it's a community you're an active part of and have people you consider to be friends in. Get them to post pictures of themselves, to describe where they live, to talk about their other hobbies, etc. You can't force people to make friends.... but you can certainly encourage it!

Community spirit is quite an abstract thing, you know it when you see it but it's not something you can measure or really define. Luckily, there are lots of things you can do to improve community spirit on your boards. In later articles, we'll be covering some examples of what you can do to make sure your members want to come back, time and again!

B is for... Ballast Removal

The design and layout of your forums is very important. It can make all the difference whether a visitor leaves immediately, signs up - then leaves, signs up, says hello, then leaves, or sins up and makes ten posts every day, becoming an established member and recommending your forum wherever he goes. The rule of thumb here is Keep It Simple

* A lot of dead boards out there made the easily-made mistake of starting out with too many subforums. It's easy to see a lot of established boards with a forum for each specific thing the community could ever want to talk about. What you don't realise is that all those forums weren't there at the start. You should have AT MOST ten forums on a new board; don't be afraid to lump similar topics of discussion together; for example a fish forum should only start off with very broad forums, maybe one for 'tropical fish', another for 'freshwater fish'. Resist the temptation to have, from the start, a forum about Koi fish, one about Carp, and another dozen for every species you can think about. It's effort to move from one forum to another, so your members won't do it much; you'll get much more activity and participation if you have five interesting threads next to each other in one forum, rather than five threads in five different forums.

* Once a forum grows so big that you feel interesting threads get pushed to page 2 (and thus ignored) too fast for most members to see it, that's when your boards will benefit from splitting a forum into two smaller ones. You might feel it's finally time to give Koi fish their own forum if the existing forum has a lot of talk about Koi fish; or you might want to take discussion about Aquariums elsewhere. Only create a new forum if you need to make an existing forum slightly less active, and if you're sure enough people will talk about the subject of the new forum. That's how those huge boards came to have so many forums; splitting the big ones into two smaller ones.

* A lot of forums have beautiful, intricate skins. But this has many downsides. For starters, each page loads slower. This means it takes longer for each member to read threads, make a new post, move between forums, etc... if it's slower, then they can't do it as much! More than that, they're more likely to lose patience and leave. In many cases it's better to have a simple, snappy and uncomplicated design - look at how popular Google became compared to Yahoo... even though for many years they shared exactly the same results!

* Ballast doesn't just mean excessive graphics, wide borders between posts, etc. Ballast also includes jargon that make your site inaccessible to people new to your site, or new to boards in general. To you it seems obvious what the difference between boards, forums, threads, posts etc are. But what about someone that's never seen a forum before? So if you can, edit your language files to remove any jargon. Rename things to match concepts the user is already familiar with... for example, a new user using a Windows computer might come to your site and see a link to User CP or My Controls... without really knowing what those are. But rename it to Control Panel and suddenly his mind makes the link with Control Panels in Windows - obvious! Same deal with 'Archive' or 'Lo-FI' links... rename it 'Streamlined Version'! Go on a hunt for any jargon you can swap for normal, everyday words, and make sure you explain the rest of them in a Newbie Guide of some sort

* Another example of ballast to get rid of is features nobody uses. Do your users really need to know how many times a forum has been Viewed? How often do they use the vCard feature of invision boards? Does it really matter to a new user to know what Member Number everyone is? It just adds to the confusion. If it doesn't get used enough to warrant being there in front of a new user, adding to the confusion - get rid of it. Be ruthless. You want visitors to want to sign up, and existing members to post a lot. Focus on these goals.