Building a successful online community, Part 2: Building
Janne Lehtinen • 2016-03-11
Getting your forum started is even more fun after you know what you’re doing, and get filled in with: Part 1 we identified who our audience will be, what they might be looking for, and what you can offer them that they won’t see elsewhere. So, now’s the time to start building your community!
Placing the discussions in front of your visitors
Depending on your goals, you want as many people as possible to participate, or to target specific groups of people to join. For an online community to thrive, it must be able to attract the desired users’ attention, and that’s an extremely limited resource. The prominence of your community on your website, and outside it, is a crucial factor in making the community a success.
Regardless of what kind of community you want to start and where you chose to place it; with Muut, it always starts with the setup. If you’ve already done that, let’s go over the visibility options:
Standalone community This is the solution for you if you don’t need need a website separate from the forum, or you have a website but don’t mind if people leave to another site when visiting the forum. Great! Then it’s going to take you just minutes to get up and running!
Standalone forums work great with their own domain, like waxmodellovers.org, especially if you’ve got not website to link from. It will go a long way in differentiating it. There are a lot of options for this, but we can recommend IWantMyName.com, which has Muut integration built in.
Traditional forum If you already have a website and want to include the forum on a separate page, along with its own item on the site navigation, you will need to embed the forum on your page. With Muut, this can be done by taking a completely blank html page and copying and pasting the appropriate html embed code onto it.
Users of Shopify, Weebly, or Wix should look for the Muut app in their app stores, or a Muut plugin if you setup a Wordpress site. Other sitebuilders, like Squarespace, usually have a place where to insert, or “inject”, the embed code; refer to your sitebuilder’s documentation for instructions!
Wholesale community site
This option involves somewhat more work, but will really pay off by distributing the discussions and turning your entire site into an engaging online community.
Here’s what an imaginary music magazine’s sitemap could look like:
- News pages, interviews, articles, record reviews, blogs all come with commenting sections.
- Live interviews with artists are run from time to time, with online visitors asking questions from the artist who can then reply either directly on the same comment thread, or in a live video stream .
- A Music Database page lists all kinds of information about music, including different periods, genres, locations—all with commenting channels where it’s possible to start new threads or comment existing ones.
- The community page has the traditional forum, but with a twist: aside from the usual designated channels for different topics, the forum page aggregates all of the discussion happening anywhere on the site, so it’s easy to participate and follow all those conversations without navigating to the individual pages.
The easiest way to start building a distributed community like this is to first make the comment sections visible on the forum, and then start placing commenting anywhere where it makes sense.
It doesn’t even have to be a regular website: you might be developing a smartphone app where you want to add commenting or a full-blown forum for deeper user engagement.
Remember to make your community prominent on your site. If you to foster discussion and get people to join in, then it’s better to place the discussions right in front of them, instead of disguising your forum under a menu icon in your site’s secondary navigation hidden in the bottom bar.
If you have an existing website with user authentication, then it makes sense to have your community software use that instead of the built-in authentication. That way users won’t have to register again for a secondary service just to leave comments or create forum threads.
Muut uses Federated Identities, which is a seamless way to do this. There are no steps required from users, they only have to log in with your regular website system to start join in on the discussion.
If you have no existing user database — or don’t care about an extra step — then you can, of course, use our built-in authentication.
Styling is a great way to differentiate your community and reinforce your brand, but it’s also a good way to make it more engaging for users. Make sure your community matches its surroundings — don’t settle for what the community platform of your choice offers by default!
Typography. Make your community easy to read. Typically this means a high color contrast between the text and the background, and using a readable font with good spacing.
The standard in the print days was to use serif fonts (serif is the small line at the end of the letter’s strokes (like Georgia or Times). Serif fonts let the eyes easily move from one letter to the next, but studies suggest that sans serif fonts (like Helvetica or Arial) are easier to read on a screen.
Today, however, our devices often come with high resolution (Apple calls them “retina”) screens. As a result, serifs, or the lack thereof, are no longer a deciding factor in ensuring maximum readability.
Some things to keep in mind:
- Thousands of web fonts are now freely available in various libraries, like Google fonts. Traditional web fonts installed by default on billions of computers tend to look a little crude on high-resolution screens, so using web libraries like Google fonts may even be the preferred option. (But there’s a caveat that we’ll return to later!)
- Don’t go crazy with your choice of the body typeface. Some fonts are best kept for headlines and graphic elements. Script fonts, for example, are tiresome to read at any length beyond a few words.
- Keep your line length at bay. Studies suggest that reading speed improves when the line length grows longer, but reading comprehension starts to suffer at over ~80 Characters Per Line (CPL). Your best bet is to keep the CPL between 45 and 75; an age-old recommendation, still true today.
- Make sure the body copy is large enough. Tiny text is so 2000’s!
Colors. Dark text on a light background generally works best for reading, but some users, like developers and gamers, may be used to white text on a black background. Make sure that your choice resonates with your audience. Avoid overly bright colors on large surfaces, because they might lead the eye away from the primary focus — the discussions.
Keep the text background plain in order to keep reading easy. If you use a busy background, make sure to place the copy inside plain-colored boxes.
Usability. Apart from readability on your own laptop, you should also make sure your community is readable and otherwise usable on various mobile devices.
Usability on mobile devices also includes quick page load times. Custom fonts, ads, and numerous code libraries tend to increase page load and render times, which lead to increased bounce rates.
A discussion forum that is otherwise a delight to use, either on desktop or on mobile, but takes ages to appear on screen, will lose visitors.
Content is everything
Your community is now up and running, looks great, and the first guest has arrived. Yes, you! It looks rather deserted, though, so you’d better start generating initial content; visitors presented with a blank page will run away.
If you are migrating from an old forum to a new one, then you might be able to import content from the old forum. If that’s not possible, or desirable, you can start by recreating some of the more popular ongoing discussions. New comment sections wont need their discussion restarted, it’ll happen on its own.
If you are starting your community from scratch, then take a bit of time to research hot topics on the subject, and start new threads on a few of those. Make sure to use descriptive and inviting thread titles. You can take some cues from magazines, media companies' websites, and their social feeds. You can use the original headline when linking to an article on another website. As a rule, write in your personal style: you don’t want your community to look like a collection of clickbaits!
And format your posts nicely, using bolding and italics. Include links and upload images to your posts, where appropriate.
After you’ve started a few threads, invite your friends, family, and colleagues to participate.
Are we there yet?
After your forum is running, looks good while adhering to your brand guidelines, is nice to read and use, and there is a decent amount of content, it’s time to start thinking about launching your community. Stay tuned for Part 3: Launching next week!