In the heyday of ‘online discussion boards’ – when you really could just build it and they would come – the humble forum stood unchallenged when it came to social networking. Then suddenly, along came a whole new concept in online networking led by Facebook, the new kid on the block that everyone wanted to be friends with.
Established communities weren’t too fazed because the new social networks were a dime a dozen and didn’t really seem to have any sticking power, but where the others bowed under the pressure of the competition, Facebook (and to a similar degree, Twitter) reigned supreme. Some people would argue that it still does (but I’m not one of those people).
That said, there is little doubt that social networks are having an impact on forum use, and will continue to do so. To ignore that fact would be foolish. So just how are social networks affecting forums, and what can the prudent community professional do to minimise any ill effect?
People don’t need another habit
Community strategists recognise that building or maintaining healthy forum growth is no mean feat. The competition for people’s time and attention is fierce, so we tend to consume or experience community through already existing routines.
According to Facebook’s Q3 results for 2014, more than 1.35 billion people are active on their site every month. The obvious answer would be to leverage that existing audience, rather than trying to persuade people to create a new habit. Creating a Facebook group simply adds a layer to an already established behaviour. It also offers the benefits of a vibrant, media-rich experience with no overheads, fees or technical requirement. And it’s not just Facebook – in recent times we’ve seen a significant trend toward the utilisation of Twitter chats for social connection, again taking advantage of existing habits.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. For all their flashy widgets and instant gratification, social networks lack some of the fundamental aspects of forums that we’ve come to rely on. Think robust search functionality, data longevity and ownership, technical control – and that’s just the software. Arguably as important are the people factors. Social networks (more specifically Facebook) don’t allow the same degree of anonymity that forums tend to. Individuals are generally less likely to share to the same degree (or ask those perceived ‘stupid newbie questions’) that they would if they knew their friends (and colleagues) weren’t watching. For that reason (and many others), there will always be conceivably valuable participants that don’t join up. These days everyone knows at least one ‘I don’t do Facebook’ person.
Another thing going for dedicated forums is that content isn’t competing against other (often more provocative) content for attention. It doesn’t demand multi-threaded thinking in order to be consumed. You know what you want and where to find it.
What does this mean for Community Strategists?
First, we need to tailor our forums to meet the changing needs of our users. Facebook is teaching a new generation of digital consumers how to interact socially online, and we can take a leaf out of their book. Having the option to perform simple actions such as ‘liking’ content lowers the participation threshold. Online status indicators and live chat applications make people feel like they’re engaged and part of something interesting. Logging on with social network accounts lowers the barrier to entry. Forum designers (or indeed anyone with an eye for plugins) should be taking into account how people use social networks with a view to incorporating functionality that allows users to easily make space for a new addition to their daily internet routine. A new habit.
It’s about more than just technology
It’s also about value. What return on the investment of time does any particular forum offer to a member? If it doesn’t give back, people don’t stay long. We’ve all done it – signed up for that new community or group only to leave a week later because there wasn’t enough of a hook to keep us engaged. Social networks have the advantage of aggregating several of our daily habits in the one place. Forums need to find a way to compete with that.
These days we’re seeing a growing trend of brands integrating their community software back into their main web presence, adding a layer of attraction that a discussion forum in its pure form may lack. This might mean integrating blog commenting with forum threads, as is the case at SitePoint. Another approach is to use a single sign on for an ecommerce portal and support forum, as Telstra Australia does, or to use a community account as a membership layer for access to other resources outside of the discussion forum itself, which we can see in action at Living Well Navigator.
These are all examples of intrinsically adding value while mandating community membership, but it’s not a silver bullet. Membership statistics don’t automatically translate into healthy engagement statistics and concentrated efforts are still required on the part of the community manager to ensure that those members are nurtured and stimulated into participation.
So in summary, it’s not the end of the road for the forum. While social networks currently win the race when it comes to harnessing the attention of online consumers, there are a number of technological and social strategies that community professionals can put in place to ensure that the discussion forum once more takes its place at the top of the podium.