Tips for Starting a Forum

February 12, 2007

In June we released the FreshBooks forum.  Since then our 800 members have made over 2000 posts, and the team here at FreshBooks has learned a few things that I thought I would share in case you are thinking of starting a forum.

The easy and obvious advice is:

1. Choose and install a decent forum software. We use PunBB. Also worth a look are vBulletin, BBPress, PhpBB and Invision Power Board.

2. Respond quickly to all posts.

3. Respond to all posts in a personal manner.

4. Be on the lookout for spam and zap it as fast as you can. Spammers will come – you can count on it.

5. Keep an eye out for active participants – community members who are active posters are likely to make great moderators. Contact them directly and see if they’d like to help you grow your community. We’ve been very lucky to have Donna, VortexPortal and Bastketcase moderate with us, and chances are strong candidates will emerge in your community if you keep your eyes peeled. If they do, take it as the compliment that is it and reach out to them.

Those were the easy lessons, here some of the are the hard ones:

6. Start with as few categories as possible and let your forum members decide the direction of the community. We started our forum with seven categories – two related to FreshBooks and five others on topics we thought people would find useful and that we thought we would have some expertise to share.

What we found was we overwhelmed people with choice, so we cut our forum down to four very basic categories (“Introduce yourself”, “Need Help with FreshBooks?”, “FreshBooks Feature Requests” and “General Chat”). The “Introduce Yourself” is a good one for setting a welcoming tone in your forum. The “General” category is a sneaky but really important category…it’s where the community magic happens.

By creating an open ended category like a “General Chat” you turn the direction of your community over to your forum members – and that’s the key. To successfully run a forum (and this is a bit presumptuous on my part because we are still just getting our forum going), you can’t force people to talk about things that interest you – so don’t force things. Create an open category and let people talk about things that interest them, and then support the discussion as best you can. So far our “General Chat” category has not yet taken hold, but it will. And I guess that brings me to my seventh piece of advice…

7. Be patient.

Any advice for us?

about the author

Co-Founder & CEO, FreshBooks Mike is the co-founder and CEO of FreshBooks, the world’s #1 cloud accounting software for self-employed professionals. Built in 2003 after he accidentally saved over an invoice, Mike spent 3.5 years growing FreshBooks from his parents’ basement. Since then, over 10 million people have used FreshBooks to save time billing, and collect billions of dollars. A lover of the outdoors, Mike has been bitten so many times it’s rumored he’s the first human to have developed immunity to mosquitoes.