How to open and run a non-profit forum community without paying for a thing. Stage one

Browsing around The Admin Zone you will see a mix of forums. Some are huge, attached to profitable sites and some are just run as a hobby to bring friends together or to discuss certain themes and topics.
This article is aimed at the novice, the first time forum admin that knows little to nothing about html or managing a community. I aim to help the novice begin his/her own free forum by starting at the very beginning. You will notice there is no mention of html, scripting and the like, this, imo, is the next stage and it's absence is to ensure that new forum administrators won't be put off by technical issues.
Running a forum is extremly rewarding and us 'old hats' sometimes forget our roots when offering advice around the Admin Zone. Everyone has to start somewhere.
I hope this article will help the novice begin to understand what it takes to run a community and that it will give him/her that all important lift up the first rung of the ladder.

Getting started.
The first thing to do when thinking about opening a forum community is to decide upon a theme and content.

Some examples:
General community
community for film lovers
pet lovers
music lovers
reality tv
graphic design
extension of a blog
debate forum
humour forum
supernatural forum
role play
and so on.

It should be something you enjoy as you will need to put alot of time and effort into it to make it work. There's way too many 'dead' message boards around where people have lost interest after a few days. You need to know from the start that you will only recieve what you have put in. Devotion and commitment are necessities.

Making a free non-profit community work is a struggle, because you have to strive at promoting it instead of paying for advertisments etc but with a good foundation such as, a theme, good design and layout, interesting content, imagination and commitment you are off to a good start.

You have the ideas, what next?

Now you have your ideas you need to decide upon the forum software that suits your tastes and requirements. There are lots of free message boards up for grabs, my advise is to have a play around, see which ones you prefer.

Things to look out for are:

*what type of ads does the software have (nobody likes pop ups)
*how much bandwidth does it have
*how much control you, as an admin, have you over the design
*what is the support like from the company that runs the software
*the features
*reliabilty (nobody likes a slow server)
*how easy are the functions for the members

Always check out the companies support forums, see what other people are saying. Discover what kind of problems are frequent etc

Options for free forum software
These are only a few, if you want to try more google 'free forums'

You have your forum, what now?

Now you have your forum get used to the controls. Once members come you need to be able to answer any queries.
Once you are comfortable with the controls you need to turn your attention to the design. A good look and layout is what first attracts members.

For tips on design check out the boards support forums, there you will be able to see what other admins have done with their boards.
You may also find people willing to create a new skin/template for you or they might be some already made that you can customize etc

Be original! The last thing you want is another boards admin breathing down your neck because you have stolen their banners/graphics or ideas. There is simply no excuse for this as you can easily create your own or ask someone else to design you something (many graphic designers will make you a banner etc and it is common courtesy to add a link or a mention to the designer on your forum)

Some useful links for webmasters/tools are: simply banner tool good tool for customizing graphics logo generator online button generator text maker make ad banners here for promotion free backgrounds more text, banners etc smilies music for your board

These are just a few examples of free tools avaliable on the net. Google and other search engines are your way to discovering more when you need something.

Check the forums support forums for scripts and hacks to enhance your board. There's usually ready made ones avaliable for you to customize or copy and paste into your control panel.

You now have the look, now you need to focus on the layout. Start small as there's nothing worse than a new community with tons of empty forums sat idle.
Main ones to include at first.
'about us'
general chat
admin room

Pay special attention to the layout. Make it easy for new members to find their way around, eg, place the introduction forum near the top.

Add things to each forum such as articles & games. Give your members something to do, see and discuss to keep their attention and to generate conversation.

Once you are happy with the layout open a few accounts in various names, post in the names making it 'appear' that people are talking to each other (nobody likes an empty looking board, it's very off putting) Ask all your im buddies and friends to register or find a launch team that is willing to help you, these can be found at the Admin zone or your support forums.
This is also an ideal opportunity to set the tone of the board, ie, if you curse, your members will, if you argue, so shall your members. Set the desired tone from the offset!

Now your community is up and running you need to begin promoting it. For free this is done in various ways:

*Join topsites
*affiliate with other forums
*add the link to your sig in other forums you contribute to, do not spam! Check each boards rules on advertising and respect those rules.
*word of mouth
*ask friends to add it to their blog, website, sig etc...
*Join web rings etc
*submit url to as many search engines as possible
*submit link to as many directories as possible
*make business cards and drop them in internet cafes, university computer lounges, colleges, doctors surgeries etc
Be inventive and imaginative with promotion.
To find topsites, web rings, search engines and affiliates check other forums, google and the boards support forums.
You have to strive to get traffic to your board, it will not just appear like magic, hard work and determination is vital.

A few good topsites to get you going:

Tip for Topsites
At first add yourself to topsites that count hits in rather than pageviews giving you the chance to be near the top of the list where you will be noticed more.
Create a banner for the topsites that is eye catching, professional looking and reflects your board. Host this on imageshack or photobucket so you can access the url easily.

A few directories and search engines to add your link to:

Running a community

How you decide to run your community is very subjective but there are some key points to remember:

*chose your moderators with care. A power mad mod or admin is off putting. They need to be fair, loyal and impartial at all times.
*keep the board active and fresh.
*be welcoming, mingle and be around to answer queries (why should members return if the admin never bothers to visit?)
*decide upon rules and stick to them, the same rules need to apply to all members.
*discuss moderation issues in private
*deal with arising situations quickly and stick to your decisions.

Seek your peers advice. Many board owners are more than willing to offer help and advice. Listen and learn.
Read the articles and threads around the Admin Zone, it's remarkable what you can learn.

And finally
Enjoy your community. It's success depends entirely on you and your commitment. Work for what you want. Be proud of your achievments.
You have created a place where people love to visit, and all for free. It is a reflection on your dedication and hard work. The sky is the limit, have goals and keep working towards them, once achieved, set yourself some more.

Something to think about:
Stage 2: Running and managing a forum for free

*learn html
*learn how to add your url successfully to top search engines such as google and yahoo

Useful links for the future html newbie tutorials html commands made easy Guide to submitting urls to top search engines A guide to successful submissions of links.