Online communities aren’t the obvious answer to drive traffic, but some companies find that providing a forum creates conversation and the ability to interact with customers. Before you decide to create a forum, there are a few issues to consider.
Choosing a Platform
The type of platform you choose depends on the type of hosting and structure of your current website. For instance, if your hosting is a Microsoft platform, you probably want to choose a forum coded in a Microsoft .NET language (or an older language if the server is an older operating system). There are only a few Microsoft .NET framework forum software applications, because Microsoft is closed-source with popularity than open-source software.
Alternatively, you can use open-source software. Even if you run a Microsoft IIS website, you can use open-source software such as PHP. Newer versions of the Microsoft IIS server application run the PHP engine. It’s a bit awkward, but it works if you really want to get forum software up and running quickly without paying for more high-end MVC or Web Form applications.
For open source, the two most common applications are vBulletin or phpBB. These two applications run on the open-source PHP engine. You probably need to tweak some settings in the PHP.INI file to get it to work in Microsoft Windows. Of course, PHP runs more easily on an Apache system. LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) run well together and are preferred over other system mixes and matches. However, you can run Windows with Apache, MySQL and PHP. The type of mix you create usually corresponds with your experience with different technology.
Choosing a Host
If you don’t already have a host, the above platform choice will help guide you towards your host choice. Some hosts offer different platforms, so you can host with either Microsoft or Linux. There are several hosts to choose from and not all hosts offer the same level of support.
Cheap hosts offer the very basics, but you don’t get the speed, support and options that a more popular, bigger host offers. However, cheaper hosts are sufficient if you are first starting out. Just note that most people who grow a website must move to a faster, more expensive host at some point in time, so it’s usually worth just paying more upfront for the better host.
Bigger hosts offer Microsoft or Apache. Shared hosting is more difficult, and you might find it more difficult to work with software installation. You need a database for any forum software (Microsoft or Linux), so your host must be able to offer a database platform. Typically, a Linux host offers multiple MySQL databases, because MySQL is open-source and free. Microsoft SQL Server (MSSQL) is much more expensive, so hosts tend to only offer one database with your domain. If you’re a Microsoft fan, though, you probably only need one database for your domain anyway, so it’s not a problem.
Hosting Plans and Platforms
You probably want to completely control your online community. With cheap, shared hosting, you’ll probably only have access to install the files and connect to a database. Any customized features are disallowed by the host, because you share the server with sometimes hundreds of other site owners.
One step up from shared hosting (but more expensive) is a virtual private server (VPS). Virtual private servers in the cloud are a growing option for many customers. Shared hosting is extremely cheap, but VPS hosting costs aren’t anywhere near as expensive like they used to be.
The cost for VPS ranges wildly, depending on your choice of Apache or Microsoft IIS. You might spend $300 each year for a Microsoft VPS but only spend $100 or less each year for a Linux VPS host plan. VPS is not an expensive option anymore even for a small company or individual. You get more control over the machine, and the VPS works as if you have a dedicated server. For instance, suppose you choose to go with Windows VPS hosting. You can use Remote Desktop (RDP) to remotely control the virtual machine as if it’s your own server. You configure IIS, you install programs, you control server settings, and you can even reboot the server if you need to. The one issue is that it’s not a dedicated server. You share hardware (the physical machine) with all other site owners who lease a virtual machine.
Consider Your Time for Management
Although the forum setup software is fairly easy to install, managing the forum and online community is not. Once your forum link is available to spammers, you’ll need to clean up after spammers every day. For really busy forums that rank high in search engines, it can be a full-time job.
Spammers ruin online communities, because the spam interferes with the flow of conversations. For this reason, you must make sure you delete spam quickly. Some forum owners create a rule to require first-time posters to go through manual review from the forum moderators. You can also help eliminate spam by requiring users to confirm email addresses before posting. You can also add a captcha to the account creation page. While these steps are not completely bullet proof, it helps eliminate some software-generated, automated signup practices used by spammers.
Managing a forum can take a lot of your time, but you can also allow regular users to help moderate the forum. Separate topics of conversation to funnel specific conversations. This helps your users pick and choose which topics interest them.
A forum can be a great way to drive traffic to your site. If you have the time and resources, you can create a popular online community with thousands of members. With the community on your business server, it also helps improve your brand and keeps people coming back to your website.