I can go on about how WordPress solves all the world’s problems (yes, including hunger). But one thing that it does not solve is to automatically bring readers to your website, and make them interact with you (and with one another).
Or, I shouldn’t have actually said that about “bringing in readers” part. WordPress does that as well.
The magic is called “Forums”.
What is a Forum?
A forum is a place for people to interact.
Forums allow users of the blog/website to post articles, questions, issues and what not. This is visible to the owner of the forum, all the other users. You can have a forum that is dedicated to anything and is subdivided into any number of topics.
Forums on a blog enable one-to-many, and many-to-many conversations on the blog topic. This starts with the forum/blog owner answering to questions, initiation discussions, and holding conversations on the forum.
And, progresses into a converted set of enthusiastic users who become the biggest forum proponents, and take ownership of specific questions or articles.
Conversations on the forum are initiated through posts. The big difference from blog posts is that anyone can post on the forums, while blog posts are allowed for select people.
Of course, I don’t mean *anyone*. You may choose only users with specific roles, anonymous users, or only yourself to use forums.
The initial posts get picked up, dissected, discussed, and answered. Posts related to a conversation are called a “thread”.
A forum also has to organize itself around topics. These topics revolve around the central theme of your blog. For e.g. an “Internet Marketing” blog forum can have topics called “Affiliate Marketing”, “Email Marketing”, “Lose all your money in 100 days”, and so on. The threads get initiated under these topics.
Topics allow for easier assimilation of forum conversations.
With a basic premise of a forum explained, let’s see why you should have that for a blog.
Use forums to promote a sense of ownership in readers.
Your readers follow you for a certain reason. They flock to your blog posts since you have something new to say, there is some entertainment to be had, or knowledge to be gained. Your expertise will get you regular readers, and fans.
Then, there are your peers. Peers are knowledgeable about the topic but are willing to discuss it with others. That gets recognition as an expert, allows them to socialise themselves, and their own work. They are also measuring you up and making sure that you don’t slip up.
A significant number of your readers would want to start a conversation (at some point or the other). This is an opportunity waiting to test you, and yet another channel to closely connect with readers.
Forums provide a way to channel that energy, for the benefit of all parties involved.
- You, as the blog owner, are encouraging discussions around your blog topic, on your blog. This is a good measure of your expertise since you are actively involved in most conversations
- You get to explore newer territories by listening to the problems, issues, success stories of others
- Readers get to benefit from your expertise in the field. They also get to hear and learn from other readers. This is the act of community building
- Readers also tend to take ownership and provide answers, get involved in discussions on forum topics. In turn, this will grow the popularity of the forum and the blog
- You can refer to your own blog posts in the forum posts (=more effective in-site SEO), or you can refer a product/service that you are selling. This provides opportunities beyond the blog posts to showcase your work or to sell a product/service
- More readers = more interactions = more readers.
- More interactions = more topics and content = better rankings. This is a positive feedback loop
How can I get a Forum for my Blog?
You must have seen many a forum on the internet. There are websites that are comprised only of forums, and nothing else. If you want to do that, just see options based on phpBB, vBulletin, BuddyPress, etc. Here, we specifically look at having your own Forum for a WordPress blog.
Here are two easy, but powerful ways of getting a Forum for your blog – for free (see individual options for details).
The most popular option for enabling Forums in WordPress is bbPress.
bbPress is a product of Automattic, the same guys behind WordPress. Download bbPress (which is a plugin for WordPress), install it on your WordPress blog, and activate it.
You can tweak the settings of bbPress through the UI. You can also do extensive customizations using code.
Once you are done, test whether your blog’s theme works with bbPress. In most of the cases, it will, else you may need to debug/fix the problem, run around to your theme developer, or WordPress community to get the fix.
bbPress also comes with its own optional plugins. This will further enhance the bbPress functionality and give you more control over the Forums.
bbPress is Open Source (GPL), and completely free.
2. User Voice
No matter how easy bbPress is, you still have to go get the plugin, configure it, and check whether it plays nice with your existing WordPress blog. There are a few platforms that enable Forums (and more) outside of your blog. One of the really good examples is User Voice.
Head over to the User Voice website, sign up for the free account, get the WordPress code, and import it in your page. And, relax.
User Voice will provide the platform for a Contact Form, Forum, and a ticketing module.
There are two primary ways of interaction through User Voice.
1. One way of interaction is on your blog.
You would have seen the blue colored question mark in a bulb at the top right hand side of technosanct.com. This is configured through User Voice (I am yet to relax though).
This functions more like a contact form, but can also allow posting ideas, or questions. Users can also see, and take action on older forum posts.
2. The second option for interaction is through an external site.
Once you sign up for User Voice, you get your own sub-domain on uservoice.com (e.g. <brand name>.uservoice.com).
This not only allows you to run a forum in the traditional sense, but includes a lot more functionality touching every aspect of customer service (you can ignore all that for now).
You can easily track all interactions going on in the Forum, and run Analytics based on that.
User Voice provides a free basic edition for for starters. Free edition comes with only one moderator account, and there is no single sign on feature (i.e., you cannot just use the user id/password of the blog on User Voice website. But Google, Facebook ids, or email id registered on User Voice website will work). You can get more advanced capabilities by paying for them.
Why do I use User Voice?
Of course, there is no one right answer.
I wanted a quick solution to get a Contact Form, Forum, and a way to track tickets (for future use). All this is available in one beautiful package in User Voice.
I do not expect an awful lot of people to be active on the Forums. I expect comments on my blog to fill up, but Forums are not mandatorily required today. Nevertheless, I wanted to start with something, and User Voice provides a good start.
Other solutions comparable to User Voice (like GetSatisfaction) cost money for basic plans, and provide way more service functionality than I need. On the other end, there are potentially more flexible solutions (e.g. UserEcho) that have not been as popular. For a change, I stuck to something that does not need my technology “expertise”, and provides a basic, and stable contact form and a forum.
There are limitations to this approach:
- The forum is outside your blog (although you can show the Forum page within a frame on your blog). It may need the second login, which will discourage your users from posting more.
- By having Forum posts within your blog, you can encourage positive SEO by linking Forum topics within your blog posts.
- The biggest risk I run – User Voice can change the basic edition to be a paid option. If I cannot afford that, I will find it difficult to move all of users/conversations elsewhere at that point.
In conclusion, Forums allow effective conversations on your blog and increase user involvement. Think about the long term objective of the blog, and decide the extent of the need (remember the “go short, think long” golden rule?).
Start a Forum, but do not expect a lot of conversations to happen there during the initial period. Don’t break the bank today if your blog is new. Comments can hold the fort well for the time being, and for a long time hence.