Are you a small community admin? By small community admin, I mean you manage a community with less than 500 people and 10,000 posts and growing very slowly. Different people have different standards to define small communities, but my own assumption is that you are an admin who needs to keep posting constantly to keep your community alive. In other words, your community is not yet self-sustaining.

You're tried all the usual stuff: advertising, link exchange, SEO optimization and so on and still finding the results slow coming in.

Don't worry! There are thousands of obscure communities like this out there. If you get upset seeing a bigger community grow at a seemingly fast rate, remember that there are a thousand others like you who are small and not growing as fast. Most of them give up and die. Don't become one among them! Here, I'll try to share some tips with you so that you aren't frustrated in your attempts to promote your site activity.

Content doesn't mean activity (well, almost not)

A lot of people believe that stuffing your forum with content will automatically get people to respond. This is quite a wrong notion. By content, I mean, of course, articles, reviews or anything of that kind. Content is useful in bringing people to your site, but if you leave it at that, it's not going to translate into active members. Most of the people will read your content and be satisfied with that.

To get participation, you need a thriving community. Unfortunately for most of us, this is a catch-22 situation. You cannot have a thriving community unless you have members and you cannot get new members until your community has enough activity.

The best solution would be to start topics of general interest all over your forum. Ask yourself, "Would the average person reading this be able to respond in an intelligent manner?" That's what forum participation demands. You might think that a topic like - "What's your favourite TV channel" or "What's your pet's name" might be silly. But unless you can get people to feel free and confident about discussing things on your forum, it will be hard to get them to participate.

Some tips for topic ideas would be:
  1. Humour which can be shared.
  2. Current affairs/politics/interesting news items
  3. Forum games
While these don't guarantee automatic participation, you'll at least know that people would be more likely to respond to these topics than technical articles or long essays.

Content is good to bring people to your site. Your forum activity should keep them there.

Small community admin = member first

Most of your activity as a small community admin should be that of an active and interested member. Of course, you have admin duties, but in a small community you also need to double up as a serious, active, participating member. Unfortunately most of us don't have the time to post or just feel too tired to post actively in the forum after all those admin chores. I'd suggest a few ideas:
  1. Keep a trusted co-admin, preferably a friend or a family member to keep forum activity going when you're not up to it.
  2. Encourage one or two members of your community whom you can sufficiently trust and make them moderators. Make it clear that their duty involves responding to new members, creating topics actively and generally participating in the community.
  3. Keep a few reserve topics to use in the bleak periods. In the worst case scenario, a mindless forum game would at least keep the post count ticking if nothing else. Don't let things slide.
Moderation: keep it low profile

Large community admins generally think of moderation as another automatic task - deleting spam, locking and moving threads and so on. If you model yourself on a no-nonsense, impersonal approach initially, it would be difficult to get a warm response.

As a small community admin be prepared to give a little leeway. Go easy on small offences, remove spam (don't edit out spam or lock spam threads as many large forums do. Small forums cannot bury spam easily and gives a bad impression when visitors view it). Here are some tips:
  1. Don't reprimand members in public. Keep it polite and keep it private. Be relaxed and enforce rules on a case-by-case basis. Never by blindly applying them to all situations.
  2. Don't publicize issues. Dramas are well and good in large communities where they get buried pretty quickly and the membership is constantly churning and too large to be affected. But a small community can ill afford drama situations.
  3. Don't hesitate to lose members who are potentially destructive - like trolls, actively hostile people or people who spoil your community atmosphere. It might sound a bit odd, but small communities can only survive by encouraging people to post in a friendly ambience and not by hostility. Even if you lose members and activity initially it will be good in the long run.
  4. Don't discourage "community" posting or posting of silly, but friendly topics. Content-wise they might not be much, but community building is all about breaking the ice. Initially it always helps if members get to break the ice themselves. Don't insist on quality content all the time. Small communities can only grow if the initial members bond in a friendly manner.
Take a break

Even the best of us will become thoroughly sick and tired of our own communities if we constantly keep poking in there and seeing if we get new members. Take plenty of breaks. Leave your community to manage itself for a while.

It's important that as an admin, you don't hog all the limelight. Start off activity gently, but don't force it. Desperate admins keep plastering their forums with numerous topics with no replies or few replies under the impression that by starting topics all over the place there will be response automatically. As a new forum user, there's nothing worse than seeing a forum with a 100 threads with 0 or 1 reply and most of them started by one person. Allow others to take their own initiative.

Finally here's a tip - I like to call it Hari's Theory of Online forums to avoid needless frustration and comparison ;)

Axiom 1 :
All forums aren't created equal. With similar effort and similar promotion techniques, different forums with different kinds of subjects with grow in a different manner.

Axiom 2:
There's no such thing as a dead forum. Until you pull down the website your forum is still alive. If it's inactive, it can easily be revived with just two or three people posting just three or four messages a day. Even that much is enough to spark off activity again.

Most forums have their own rates of growth. Do not be frustrated that your forum grows slower than others. It might just be that your forum can thrive much better by starting off small and by growing slowly. Don't compare apples with oranges and give yourself a high blood pressure.

If you find ten forums that grow faster than yours, be aware that there might be a hundred others like yours and even more that don't grow at all and are abandoned early in their life.
Hope that helped.