The concept of community—whether it’s a virtual community or one that’s more IRL—has been around for a long, long time. Unsurprisingly, so has the concept of a forum (hello, Ancient Rome!).
But when you combine these two concepts, you get something straight up magical: An online community forum. Said forums can be a powerful value add to your brand, whether you’re starting from scratch or building upon an established offering.
Ahead, we’re going to talk more about what a community forum is, how powerful it can be as a tool to bring like minded people together, and how best to create your own online forum.
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What is a community forum?
A community forum is an online space where people with shared interests come to connect, engage, and discuss topics with each other. Since the dawn of internet dial up, people have been using community forums to meet up and weigh in on a variety of mutual passions—whether it’s Potterheads debating Snape’s true nature, or yogis offering each other advice on best practices.
In the past, these online forums were solidly, well, someone else’s job. But today, more than ever, it’s super easy to create your own online forum—one that brings together people who share the same passions, motivations, and interests as you.
More than that, with today’s technology you can do much more than create an online discussion forum that’s barebones and limited in features. You can build a community site: A dedicated space for your members to build relationships with each other and navigate challenges together.
What can you do with a community forum?
Once you stop asking, “How to make an online forum,” and start asking, “How can I go from a forum to a full-fledged community,” there’s so, so much you can do.
Build a dedicated community space
This is especially true if you’ve been wondering how to create an online forum for your website. Chances are, you’ve probably investigated the usual suspects. But software like Slack and Facebook Groups aren’t ideal, neither as a community forum, or as a broader community platform.
Ideally, you’ll want to find a platform with robust community features. What we mean by that is the kind of features that make it easier to share your any and all of your interests, whether it’s the upkeep or rare indoor plants or whatever is going on with the latest Assassin’s Creed.
What does that look like in practice? Think the ability to post, comment, and cheer. A personalized activity feed. Direct messaging so your members can connect one-on-one. The ability to use polls and questions to keep members engaged and active. The list goes on!
The point here is that your members have a variety of ways to connect with each other. They aren’t left to type messages into a typical, sparse community forum space, their thoughts and ideas fading into the ether.
Expand into memberships
With the right tools, you can turn your community forum into a paid membership. If you can manage to provide an experience that’s super valuable—an experience where your members can master something interesting together—you can absolutely charge for it. And your members will absolutely pay for access!
If you’re worried that people won’t join your community forum if you start charging for it, don’t. Seriously. At the end of the day, people pay attention to what they pay for. And by providing gated content behind a paid membership—whether that payment is a subscription or a one-time fee—you are piling on the value for your potential members.
When your members are sure that you’re delivering quality content, and that what they’ll get inside of your community forum isn’t available anywhere else, they’ll have no problem investing in you or your business.
Offer an online course
Speaking of expansion: Once you create your own online forum and start expanding your community there’s basically no stopping you. First stop: memberships. Next stop: Online courses.
Building out an online course is a great way to upgrade from just talking about a topic to learning valuable information around a topic. And they’re great for a few different reasons:
Online courses are a fantastic way to share your expertise, experience, or passion with the world. This is why you wanted to know how to make an online forum in the first place, right? By launching an online course, you’re offering your members a structured way to learn more about their passion, interests, or motivations. And that’s an awesome thing.
And they’re a great way to launch a new revenue stream, too. Remember when we said that paid memberships give you a chance to offer something so valuable, you can charge for it? Ditto for online courses.
Plus, you can use online courses to repackage content you’ve already produced. There’s a good chance that you’ve been passionate about your thing for a long while. If you have old content that explores that passion, you can repackage it as an online course and sell it for a premium within your upgraded community forum.
Now that we’ve explored some of the things you can do with your community forum, let’s answer the big question: How do you start an online community forum? Well reader, it all comes down to five steps. And below, we’ll walk you through them, one by one.
How to start an online community forum
1. Find a Platform
First things first: If you’re looking at how to set up an online discussion forum, you’ll need to find a platform full of the features you need to thrive (and later, grow). And while there are plenty of options, you’ll find that some software has a certain oomph that others lack.
Let’s look at what’s out there.
Vanilla Forums offers community forum software for big brands looking to strengthen brand loyalty by forging connections between their customers. As far as community management software goes, it has some decent, run-of-the-mill community management tools: Members can publish content, form subgroups, and post questions and polls, for example.
On the other hand, Vanilla Forums doesn’t exactly leave you much room to grow. There’s no option for monetization, nor can you add-on features like memberships, subscriptions, or online courses. Ultimately, that means Vanilla Forums is one of your most limited community forum options—and depending on how big your business is, it might not even be an option.
Ah, WordPress. Once upon a time, WordPress was basically your only option for creating something that was firmly yours, whether you used the software as a website builder or a community forum.
But the thing about WordPress—even if you’re just using it to create an online discussion forum—is that configuring it is both expensive and time-consuming. And if you don’t have the time (or let’s be real, the patience) to figure it all out, you’ll be left with a community forum without any community-forward features, not to mention any tools to expand down the line.
And then there's Mighty Networks. Mighty Networks is a powerful cultural software platform that lets you bring everything together—your community forum, memberships, online courses, live streaming, events, and more—under one brand, instantly available on the web, iOS, and Android.
With a Mighty, you get the chance to essentially create your own online forum and run with it. Your members can discuss their passion and interests via direct messages, posts, comments, and cheers, and a customizable activity feed. Then, whenever you’re ready, you can expand into memberships, online courses, virtual events, premium groups, and so on.
TLDR: If you’re trying to figure out how to create an online community forum that you can grow and expand, Mighty Networks is your absolute best bet.
2. Figure out your motivation
The most successful community forums have a clear, specific purpose or motivation. That motivation is what brings your members together: It’s a passion, interest, or goal that really matters to them.
With a clear purpose behind your community forum, you can offer yourself and your potential members clarity around who belongs in your forum, and what they’ll get out of joining.
To get an idea of what your motivation is, ask yourself a few questions: Who are you bringing together? What will those people be able to do as a result of being a part of this community forum? And what clear benefits or sweet rewards will they get from following you?
Don’t be afraid to get specific here, either. That specificity is what will attract your people and make your burgeoning community forum that much more compelling.
3. Find and recruit your people
Maybe you’re starting from scratch, looking to create your own online forum around a niche subject because you haven’t been able to find anything that’s quite right. Or perhaps you already have an audience in mind—whether it’s a social following or an established email list—that would be just right for the community forum you’re building.
Either way, the next crucial step of how to make an online forum is to find and recruit the people who will get the most out of it. It’s a crucial step to take, especially if you’re hoping to reap major rewards.
Here are a few prompts to help you figure out what your ideal community forum member might look like:
- How would they describe themselves demographically?
- What stage of their life are they at?
- What goals do they want to achieve?
- What’s been holding them back from achieving those goals?
- What 3 things are they Googling about this topic?
- What 3 questions are keeping them up at night about this topic?
- What’s their biggest misconception about this topic?
Once you’ve visualized what your members might look like, you can prepare to launch.
4. Bring ‘em in and launch
So you’ve established the purpose behind your community forum, and you’ve figured out who’s going to get the most out of it. The next step to creating your own online forum is to bring them all in and prepare to launch.
Around this point, you might start worrying that you don’t have enough people to take your community forum live. Our advice: Chill! You literally only need 10 people to be successful. And you can start building and expanding your community forum from there.
Wondering what that looks like in action? Plan a mini launch with 10 of your most motivated people—the members that are as crazy about the work of Michaela Coel as you are—and bring them together on the same day, at the same time. There, you’ll have a chance to get them pumped about their journey ahead. Additionally, you can show them how your community forum will function as a dedicated space for them to explore their passions and build relationships with each other.
Putting in that work now will bring about dividends in the future via what we like to call network effect: Every member who comes into your community forum offers greater value—and therefore a greater chance for said community to grow and expand.
5. Diversify your content
Once you’ve sorted how to start an online community forum, you’ll want to focus on the actual experience you’re providing for your members. Our suggestion? To offer different kinds of content to keep your members excited about your offering.
There are so, so many ways you can do this, whether it’s hosting a weekly virtual happy hour or offering a cohort-based course where members can learn more about your community forum’s topic. Plus, if you’ve chosen a dynamic community forum platform, you’ll be able to use key features for daily engagement—we’re talking polls, questions, and more.
If you don’t get record engagement right out of the gate, that’s fine. The key here is to experiment and stay curious. If a certain type of content doesn’t work, reach out to your members and ask for feedback. Implement their ideas. Try again. It’s a process: Trust that it will work itself out.
Ready to start?
We’ve been through it all, from defining what a community forum is today, to describing, step-by-step, how to start an online community forum of your own.
Hopefully, we’ve made the case that today’s community forums have the potential to be so much more than a static discussion board. Instead, they’re a space to connect to people with similar motivations, passions, and interests, and expand down the line.
And a Mighty Network is the best place to do all of the above.
With features to help excite and engage your community, the tools to expand to memberships, courses, and more down the line, and availability on the web and native mobile apps, Mighty Networks can help you take your community forum to the next level.
Are you ready to journey to new heights?