Book Review: Managing Online Forums

managing online forums book

The author of “Managing Online Forums“, Patrick O’Keefe sent us a copy to review. It’s a fantastic book for any forum admin (or anybody running an online community for that matter), and I highly recommend it. Patrick dives deep into all aspects of running a forum, from creating it, to promoting it, to fostering the community.

Patrick sat down to answer some questions we wanted to share with our community.

Patrick, you start off with common ways forums get started, such as launching a new stand-alone community, to adding a forum on an existing site. On Lefora, we’ve seen our fastest growing communities are forums that launch alongside an existing community. Do you have 3 short tips for an admin launching a stand-alone new community to foster that initial growth?

  1. Launch with activity. Before your site goes live, get some friends and/or interested people together and have them start discussing the topic so that you actually have something going on when it comes time to launch.
  2. Make it as easy as possible for people to find you. Choose a domain name that is easy to remember and spell. Spell words correctly, try to avoid numbers, don’t use dashes and register a .com if at all possible. Make it so that search engines can access your content. Don’t put obstacles in your way unneccessarily. You don’t need that.
  3. Finally, don’t get caught up in what other, bigger forums in your subject arena are doing. I’ve known administrators who were far too worried about who they perceived as competition. Focus on yourself and be the best that you can be.

You talk about ‘Developing Guidelines’ in your book, dedicating a chapter to it. Do you think setting (and following) these guidelines are more important in an early stage forums or a larger established forum

I think it’s very important for both. You want to set guidelines and policies as early as you can to set the tone for everything that happens later and to ensure that your community gets started on the right track. Guidelines are sort of a vision statement. They speak to who you are, who you want to be and what your community is all about.

Guidelines are an essential to moderation. You can’t remove posts without having policies in place or it’ll seem like you are pulling imaginary standards out of your head. Discretion is a part of moderating a community, but documented policy is what makes discretion possible. It’s always harder to add guidelines later, than it is to start with them

Another chapter is dedicated on how to Promote Your Community and the work involved, which is a popular question we hear. With regards to cross promoting communities, how has your success been?

I’d say it has been successful, but that’s subjective. I’ve had people who were members at multiple forums that I managed. I’ve had people that were on staff at more than one of my forums at a time, as well. We do a good amount of cross promotion between the sites that are in my network.

You talked about creating a ‘link to us’ page for graphics and active topics for members to link to the forum. With the ability to embed flash widgets on pages around the web, do you have any new thoughts on useful widgets for promoting

I haven’t done much with widgets or with Flash. I think that, in general, providing promotional avenues like that can only be a good thing. It could be in the form of a profile widget, a list of the latest topics or some sort of other community driven content, but it gives people more of an opportunity to promote you in a healthy way, on their own terms, and that can only be good.

In your chapter on managing your staff, you have some great guidelines and anecdotes. If you were to place a value on the staff, such as hours of week saved, or percentage of time saved, what would that be?

I don’t know if I’d be able to place a specific, time based value on my staff. It varies and it’d be hard to even ballpark it. But, a productive staff is vital to the success of any sizable community. A well trained staff is extremely valuable, ensuring that your community receives the proper amount of coverage. One thing I have said before is that you want to be able to go on a vacation and not have to worry about your forums (the whole time, anyway). In other words, you don’t always have to be there, which is important.

On public forums, it can be difficult to ban members, as they can easily come back with new accounts, what have your experiences been with this?

I don’t think it’s all that difficult. You don’t really have any other options, when it comes down to it. I don’t ban people – people ban themselves. I don’t want to ban anyone, but I’m forced to. Some people do come back, as you say, but you just have to keep your eyes open and ban people as they pop up. Most people aren’t all that crafty, but if someone is able to sneak back in, there isn’t much you can do until they slip up and provide you with something that indicates that they have previously been banned.

I’ve had people come back for more than a year and a dozen accounts before. They were persistent, but they were banned again and again and, eventually, they stopped. One thing that I know is that my will to protect my community will always be greater than anyone else’s will to harm it. You may cause a little bit of noise, but we’ll remove it, you’ll be banned and, at the end of the day, we’ll move forward. If you want to waste your life playing with that process, that’s your choice, but you’re not going to be allowed back on any of my communities.

I think that creative solutions can also come into play with repeat offenders. A troll hack where you can mark a member as a troll is a good option. Basically, instead of being banned, they’ll just receive a terribly degraded site performance that amounts to simulated downtime. They won’t be able to post or anything, but they’ll still be able to browse – when it works. It’s not something that should be pulled out quickly – it should only be reserved for those that have made it clear that they do not wish to respect your ban. But, creative solutions like that can work well.

Were there any counter intuitive lessons you learned when running a forum?

That’s hard for me to say. I believe we learn from experience – good and bad – and that makes us better. And that’s where the book can come in, really, in that it gives you 10 years worth of experience in 300 pages. Experience that you can learn from and use as a base of knowledge as you grow your own. Everyone makes mistakes, but you learn from them and you get better.

We really agree with your comment on members that want to leave a community – they should be able to remove their personal information, but the posts should stay, as the posts are part of the community (and people have discussed around them). Have you had many encounters with members repeatedly asking for this?

Sure, I’ve had a number of people request this sort of thing over the years. You just have to do what you can to limit damage to your community. If you allow someone to come in, make a bunch of posts and then have them removed, that is damaging the community. You just can’t have it.

Thank you Patrick O’Keefe for your insightful responses.


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June 2008
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