I have an admission to make.
I really don’t like blogs. They are not conversational and they don’t build a community.
I love forums because they are conversational and with a little nurturing, they can blossom into a full-blown on-line community. This is true whether the common interests are cars, collectibles or a geographic community.
Another reason I love forums is that, unlike a blog, I could have stopped writing at the end of the last paragraph. On an active forum that assertion would have been enough to effectively start a conversation that possibly would be just as informative as this column. Certainly it would include the perspectives of two, three, five or ten knowledgeable people, each with an opinion on the subject.
With a blog the writer has all the responsibility. Typically the blogger is stuck creating something more akin to a lecture than a discussion. While the blog may get some responses, its success or failure is based on its content; not on the conversation that it ignites.
My task on Idea Lab is to write about Paulding.com as a small business owner, entrepreneur and journalist. Presumably the idea is to inspire other folks to emulate this ‘successful effort,’ by building a hyperlocal communities in other communities.
Let me say I am painfully aware forums just aren’t a tool most practiced journalists are comfortable using. Forums are also relatively rare on news sites of all kinds these days. And forums seem to have fallen further from favor as the NYTimes, Washington Post and a host of other newspapers suspended ‘forums’ as one of their on line ‘service’ offerings in 2007.
Was this decision by the biggies in the news business the death knell for forums? Will the ‘forum’ approach now be roundly ignored as non-journalistic by journalism organizations and the journalism experts with whom I share this stage?
You know what, I don’t care. I’m convinced that the message board approach is the best way for an entrepreneur to build a hyperlocal community – especially with limited capital and manpower.
The main reason paulding.com has succeeded is that message boards are conversational and conversations that revolve around local news suck people in. Many call their involvement on my site addictive but the truth is that it simply fills the basic human need to talk. That basic human need is the essence of social media. Furthermore, talking – conversing – is the most common form of human communication.
You can see it in the popularity of sites from myspace to youtube where folks actually put their mug on the screen and talk at you — folks want to participate in the conversation.
One key element of being a successful entrepreneur is to see what folks want and give it to them. With some 2100 large forum-based communities on the net each with a half-million posts – the top site has over 1.2 billion posts – people really want to talk.
But there is more to recommend forums as a path to hyperlocal communities than just giving people what they want … although that is important.
First forum-based on line communities are notoriously sticky.
Stickiness is measured both in time on site and page views and almost always, forums will win. For grins I’ll did a little comparison of the top blog according to technorati.com and the top message board according to big-boards.com.
Engaget.com is the top “URL” sourced blog with reach an estimated 1.6 million visitors. They have great reach but according to compete.com the average visitor reads 2.1 pages and spends two and a half minutes with the site.
Gaiaonline.com, which is a role-playing social site, engages almost 1.2 million visitors monthly. While this gaming/leisure board’s reach is smaller, each average visitor spends over 40 minutes on average reading some 69 pages (source: compete.com.)
That is really sticky. And while that stickiness is exceptional, stickiness is an observable trait of all successful forum sites. Stickiness adds value to those who advertise on a site as they are more likely to have their ads seen and their posts seen. Second, the mere choice to spend time at one site over others builds loyalty and that builds the community network.
Another intrinsic feature of forum-based communities is they self-generate content. The value of this aspect to the entrepreneur publishing on the cheap is undeniable. Your customers come to the site and give you their content for free. This donation of time by members who generate content effectively lowers the barrier to entry into this new media… tremendously.
A second consideration here is that when you get community members to contribute, their very contributions literally tell you what they want. Consider also that commercial members can ask a question and get answers from their customers almost immediately. Being able to time-shift communication and broadcast conversations to hundreds if not thousands quickly and efficiently is a valuable service the site provides its business members (and itself.)
These aspects – free content and a sticky audience and real time research – makes forum software a killer application for the low budget hyperlocal startup. It is certainly explains why forum I chose forum software was for my venture.
But as to the reason I love forums, go back to the beginning paragraph.
Time is money and money is why I really don’t like blogs and love forums.
G Patton “Pat” Hughes