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Measuring Success and Building International Forums: Interview with Frank of GardenStew

Coming your way is an interview with Frank of GardenStew.com – and let me tell you, it is one of the most informative and helpful interviews we have had. You are going to want to play close attention to question eight for some hard, tactical advice.

So please, sit back, take a sip of your coffee, and enjoy this incredibly informative interview from Garden Stew.

1. If you were in an elevator and had to describe the GardenStew forum to a stranger before reaching your floor, what would you say?

GardenStew is a very friendly community for gardeners consisting of forums, plant database, blogs and more. Every day members post many photos of their gardens, have interesting discussions and have a lot of fun in the process. One of our main advantages that members love is that we have a widespread, international community.

2. Why do you think your forum has resonated so much with people?

As previously mentioned having a community that is so international is something that members constantly mention as being one of the main reasons they love GardenStew. Because other forums have a more local membership, when winter rolls around everyone’s garden goes bare at the same time. Having an international community means that some members live in a different hemisphere and as such have lots of colour to share from their garden when others have none.

We also go above and beyond to be friendly and welcoming to new members.
We take a zero tolerance approach to personal abuse and insults.

3. The “Dropout Rate” (quitting while trying to build a site) is extremely high with forums because it’s not easy to gain traction within a new community, how did you do it? And how long did it take to generate traction?

Well thankfully I started the website just at the tail end of when it was still moderately easy to start a new forum, i.e. the days before social media started to swallow people’s time. However even then it was rough for the first year or so. At the very beginning I did my best to create discussions that would engage visitors and worked on making the design as friendly and unique as I could. Basically trying to create an personality for the site, which I think is what attracts people to join and interact with a community.

After a month I was very fortunate to have a member called Eileen join our community. She became the first additional moderator and she is an active member in the community still to this day. She and I informally formed a solid team to welcome new members. Having two members welcome a new member rather than just one makes such a difference even though it seems small. That got the ball rolling on forming a foundation for a member base and new members trickled in slowly after that.

I would say it took a good, solid year to gain traction.

4. Now having many members, can you describe the moment when you knew that the forum was going to be a success?

Success is a word that can have many different connotations. On the surface, success in terms of a forum could mean over a million members with perhaps hundreds or thousands actively posting each day. GardenStew is not close to that level, however that does not mean it isn’t a success. Did the community fulfill its purpose of providing a friendly, informative environment for members across the world over a long period? The answer to this question is yes. I think for me I knew it was a success when members started to send me unsolicited private messages to thank me for starting the website.

5. At what point in time does a forum administrator need to bring in (or appoint) moderators? Is that something new forum owners should worry about when launching?

Yes, appointing moderators is absolutely something to be conscious of when launching. It’s very tempting at the beginning to start throwing out moderator privileges like confetti, i.e. just because someone wants to be one, but I think it’s one of the most important decisions for your community. I appointed our first moderator Eileen after only one month. Thankfully the stars were aligned that day as she is a wonderful moderator and a great friend. Had I appointed another member that turned out to be a not-so-great moderator that would have possibly poisoned the atmosphere of the community.

After a year or so I felt that we needed to appoint a second moderator to help keep on top of increased posting activity. I chose Toni as a moderator because she was a strong member at an early stage and a lovely person also. That also turned out to be a wise decision as she is an amazing moderator to this day and also a true friend.

You may wonder why I am going through the moderators one by one? Well that’s because over ten years later, Eileen, Toni and I are still the only moderators ever to have been on GardenStew! That proves taking your time to choose moderators can create to a strong team which members can trust.

6. What sort of technical problems (if any) did you endure along the way that you didn’t expect?

Most of the technical problems over GardenStew’s lifetime can be attributed to our original web hosting service. While the web host was good at the beginning, after a time they made some changes that lead to frequent, random server crashes. I had to use a website monitoring service to send me a text message whenever the website went down. So I would be out with friends enjoying a beer and I would receive a text message, “Website is down”. Talk about a way to ruin a night!

A few years back I evaluated my options about changing to a new web host and finally settled upon Linode. While my previous web host provided a control panel, the new host did not. However it provided me with command-line access to the entire operating system meaning I could have total control over it. If something was crashing it was my fault, not the web host’s. Having this extra control now allows me to have a forum that has almost 100% uptime.

Spend extra time choosing the correct web host. It makes life so much easier!

7. What advice (practical or conceptual) would you give to someone who wanted to start their own forum?

Niche. Your community must have a niche these days. If you want to start a community about a general topic you had better have deep pockets for promotion and writers. Just starting a community about any general topic and expecting a flood of members isn’t going to cut it in 2015. This may have worked in the year 2000 but back then people has less to choose from. Today choice is everywhere. So if you are starting a new community you must choose a very specific area or niche.

Passion. You must have a passion for the subject matter you will create a community around. Having passion will help you through the slow days of the community because it is something you will like writing about regardless. Passion is infectious. People will notice and be attracted to that and all that surrounds it.

Expectations. Don’t expect overnight success. Forums are a lot of work. I mean a lot. If I had been presented with a summary of the amount of hours I would spend on GardenStew before starting I may just have run to the hills in fright. So expect a lot of time to be invested to make a successful community. The good news is that if you love the subject matter those hours will fly by.

8. Final Thoughts? Advice?

I think the Web is evolving at a rapid pace nowadays so today’s community must also move with the times. Before choosing a forum software to use make sure it was some way to be viewed on a mobile device either by way of an app or a responsive design. I recently migrated over to using the Xenforo forum software because it can viewed at desktop or mobile resolutions due to its responsive design. Mobile is not something to be discounted anymore. In fact search engines are starting to take it into account in their ranking algorithms. It is hugely important.

Be careful with your SEO practices when promoting your forum. Don’t plaster your website’s link all over the Web in blog comments, forum signatures and web directories. Don’t use web building services. Rather let your content sell itself. Write informative articles and tutorials. If you build links to your website this way it is much safer than going for an ‘easy fix’, which may end up harming your website in the long run.

Social media has stolen a lot of the thunder from forums in recent years but that doesn’t mean that the two are enemies / mutually exclusive. Try to find clever ways to incorporate social media within your community. For example set up a Facebook page for your community but only use it to post links to popular discussions taking place on your community. Because the link exists on Facebook it can be easily shared within that platform and if something goes viral it can drive a lot of traffic to your community.

To wrap things up here is a final summary for those of you looking to start a new community.

    • Choose a niche you are passionate about.
    • Choose your web host and forum software wisely.
    • Spend some time to make a nice, unique web design.
    • Take your time in appointing moderators
    • Have a social media strategy but remember your website always comes
      first
    • Don’t expect overnight success but at the same time try not to get
      disillusioned.

Thank you for the interview and wishing everyone all the luck for the
future!

how to create a forum

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