What is a strategy and why are they important?

If you are planning on starting a forum, have just begun on the road to creating a community (like me) or, have an established community already, you should consider whether you really know what you are doing and, why you are doing it. I am quite certain that if I asked a cross section of The Admin Zone's members what their strategy was, they would probably answer by saying they want to grow a busy and successful community within their niche, take over the world and monetize it to get some cash back to either pocket or re-invest.

Whilst that is valid, true and no doubt honest, it does not really provide either you or your team of staff members with more than some pipe dreams and fantasy which is neither measurable, structured nor coherent to communicate both what you want or how you wish to go about achieving it.

To properly get any venture on the road, be it a business, a new policy initiative, product line or forum, it is important to define not only what the end goal is, but also a rough framework or strategy of what you plan to do to make it materialize with focus and minimal effort. The added value to your venture is considerable for the following reasons:
  1. You define in your own mind how you want the forum to look, operate and feel. This effects the branding, functionality (i.e. modifications or add-ons) and structure of the board.
  2. Action that is taken is measured, considered and more sensible, avoiding knee-jerk reactions that backfire causing U-turns or having unexpected harmful consequences (i.e. switching forum software, adding too many forums too quickly, advertising ineffectively). You control your own actions.
  3. You communicate exactly what it is you are setting out to achieve to your staff and/or key stakeholders so they can understand the required tone needed, type of content that should be expected/encouraged, what to expect in the future.
Being a forum owner is a hobby for many, and as such it is important to extract the most value you can from the time that you invest into the project. Often too much time is wasted fiddling with very unimportant aspects of the forum which does not give any return in terms of many peoples’ desired 'end results'. An example is forum branding.

I am often surprised how much time that forum administrators put in to ensuring their theme is a state of the art, beautiful work of art. They spend hours perfecting reasonably tiny features/aspects which most visitors and members would never notice, and would never consider 'deal breakers' when considering if they would like to join and get involved. There are also too many forum administrators who are not sure 'what to do' next and resort to adding features they like the look of, i.e. article systems, without having a reasonable purpose for using them.

This behavior is often exhibited by those who have not adequately considered what is truly important for the future of their board. There are very few niches where styling perfection is required. By, in advance, working out what your forum should be, who it should cater for, and what the target objectives are to deliver the vision you have defined you control your own better and avoid 'working without purpose'.

Like anything which needs to be used as a reference for yourself, and for your team, it needs to be documented. Having such a plan in your head is inadequate as the finer details are often forgotten, change without purpose (or often much notice) and are inaccessible by others with whom you work. Vague communication with your team often transforms them from good and productive members, to headless chickens. Whilst they may be motivated, they will run around in circles producing nothing but mess and disorder. No doubt you would soon start wondering about their capability to hold those positions!

Communication is fundamental. The only way to do it is to write down what you think is important, such as your forum strategy, and provide it in a prominent and accessible location for them to read, comment, ask questions and contribute to. I have posted mine within my moderators’ forum – it is unlocked, and all contributors are welcome to read it, and also help shape it.

Your members and staff will appreciate stability, and the impression that you know what you are doing. Too many forum members are driven away by staff who pull the rug from underneath them by changing forum software, themes and features on a whim.

How do I structure and maintain my strategy?

To begin writing your strategy to grow your forum, consider using the following template but do make sure you change it to suit your own needs. One size does not fit all.

Forum purpose - what market need have you created your board to fill. This is often called a ‘niche’. This should be kept very short, descriptive and plain. Who is your target audience?

Overall Aim – what do you hope to achieve for you, and for your registered members. Perhaps a certain environment, or particular type of content.

Short term aims – what is it you need to do in the very near future, i.e. immediately, to begin to service the forum aim and purpose? Perhaps choose a piece of forum software? Are any modifications required? What sort of theme/skin does your forum need? Are you wanting a large number of forums to begin with to suggest content ideas, or a small number to improve content turnover?

Medium term aims – your forum has been created and has a couple of hundred posts. The minimum functionality required to operate, (i.e. mission critical items) have been delivered. What do you need to do to advertise your board and gain more members? Where are you going to advertise? What would you like your board to look and ‘feel’ like with a thousand members on board? How will you begin to split up the forums and categories?

Long term aims – your community is now established. Do you want to begin to earn revenue? What will you do with that revenue, take it as profit or re-invest? Are you going to expand into other markets (niches) now you have some SEO and brand power behind you? Is there functionality you would like but couldn’t previously justify that you now can implement? Do you need to consider a re-brand to make your forum look more professional?

A strategy is not something you can write, post and then forget about. Nor is it something you should write, post and then rigidly adhere to, or refuse to deviate from. It must be kept as a fluid and flexible template for all of your operations. Review it often during the early stages of your venture; once every six months is about right for newer forums, to check:
  1. Your strategy is working;
  2. It is understood by those who need to read it;
  3. If it is still relevant or has your forum’s purpose outgrown its plan;
  4. That you have adhered to it. Have you managed to follow it, or are you disregarding most of what has been written.
Once the review has been performed, by checking each aspect of your strategy with the current state of affairs, and what you intend to do next, it is important to devise any corrective measures that will either alter the course of your activities back on track as defined by your strategy, or to update your strategy to reflect what you are currently and are planning on doing. Remember, strategies are about the future, not about the past or present.

What does a completed strategy look like?

Here is the strategy I have in place for Workforums.net. As you can see, it is fairly 'high level' which means that I am not tying myself up with overly detailed or prescriptive ideas. It’s reasonably short meaning those who read it can get a full sense of what my vision for the board is. Finally, it maps out the short to long term achievements that I wish for us to experience.

As the website is beginning to grow, it is important to clearly define exactly what direction I would like us to head in, to hopefully make the most out of the niche, gain the most members and therefore, offer the best content we can to people who are like us - wanting to advance their career and/or get more out of their job.

The purpose of workforums.net is to provide a discussion board, growing into a community of individuals working in roles from laborer all the way through to senior executives in large multinationals. It needs to contain different 'strengths' of content ranging from:
  1. Light and generalistic topics, such as many of those we have now which anybody feels able to contribute to. Examples include office layouts, I have a problem with xyz, best gadgets and so on;
  2. Topics by trade/profession. The general areas are for 'everybody', and I plan to add forums by industry/role- i.e. general customer services, supermarket workers, telemarketers, quality assurance professionals, automotive factory workers, food factory workers (and so on) so people can discuss topics with others who understand the background, jargon and specific intricacies of the issues faced there. This would be the avenue for topics such as, 'I need to do xyz, but I don't know how'.
In all honesty, the biggest hurdle right now is finding the people who fit into our audience and convert them into posting members. We need to increase the member base from 2 people who post a lot, and 1 who posts occasionally - this will drive discussion and increase the number of posts we receive. That in turn makes the forum more interesting, and we will most likely see our own activity go up too (as there is more to talk about).

Action plan - short to medium term
To attract new members we need to ensure we have lots of fresh content that is relevant to our core aim. That is workplace discussions, hence I am mainly active in that board - off topic stuff is easy, but not relevant and as such is of no market value. In addition, the forum needs to look active. As such, we need to concentrate on ensuring that:
  • There is at least one new post per day within that board (therefore the 'last post' tag on the home page states 'today')
  • We mainly drive content into the Workplace general discussions forum
  • Articles and information are posted within our areas of expertise, but don't necessarily ask questions (as it is unlikely anyone will be able to reply). We still get content which is by trade/profession, but it doesn't look quite so bad when we get a 'tumbleweed' of no-reply.
Content is also important for improving the amount of links from Google/other search engines.

In addition to this, we need to then find a way to get backlinks to our site and also ensure that our target audience see a link to the site and are encouraged to take a look (then hopefully the content will do the rest). At the moment, my research suggests the best ways to do this are:
  • Twitter | Need very regular tweeting, with varying content including no backlinks, retweets, and also some content related backlinks. It is only worth doing if we are averaging a tweet an hour. Can we set the software up to do this for us?
  • Replying to blog articles our audience are likely to read | A backlink is important, though we must ensure that we are posting a useful message. It cannot look desperate, or like spam.
  • Reddit | We need to research whether Reddit has any similar groups that we can participate in, back linking to our site. See the Twitter strategy above.
Action plan - medium term
Once we have a viable community beginning to seed and grow, we can then start to look at how we can present the forum's content in a more effective and interesting way. First on the agenda, (and this will happen sooner rather than later) we will upgrade to IPB 4 which offers a superior browsing, posting and contributing experience - in addition it can be configured to send out e-mails prompting people to come back and check out the content posted by people they 'follow'.

In addition, when we have enough content we will start to split the forums into more categories to provide focus, make it easier for people to find the content they desire (and suggest in their own minds other topics of that subject) and prevent threads disappearing too quickly from within the existing boards. Naturally, we will split out the most popular content categories first and allow the board, as much as we can, to grow 'organically'.

We also have use of an IP Content/Pages license which I hope to fill with articles, both written specifically as such and those which are written by members (perhaps inadvertently in a thread). These should be categorized just like the forums, so that people can find the content they want easily - (i.e. jobseeker articles containing general CV information, CV examples, covering letters, the best jobseeker websites, how to stand out, interview techniques etc all the way through to industry specific 'how to' articles, including those that are highly technical.

Using IP Content/Pages, I also plan on establishing a community content driven home page which makes it easy to find content people want, highlighting the best of the content and suggesting things for people to read from a, hopefully(!) sprawling board.

Long term goals
The long term plan is to multinationalise [sic] the forum by replicating the above but for (initially) the USA, then head down the road of including France, Germany and so on - offering them boards on here in their own language. When somebody views or logs in to site, the forum should detect their IP location and present only those boards relevant to their location and/or language. The full board would be available to view should somebody click the relevant button - it would instead be a way of targeting those viewers to the boards most relevant (and readable!) by them.

To conclude

As you can see, it does not have to be an overly technical, jargon rich, professionally written piece of writing. Let me know what you think of this article by replying below. If you have your own strategy then please share it so we can compare ideas, document structures, themes and details. If you haven’t got a strategy to share, I hope this has provided you with the information and inspiration to begin documenting your own vision and how you can map out the journey your forum needs to take to reach it.