Discussion Forum Metrics and Tips for Website Developers

By Scott Clark

Having a popular discussion forum on your website can grow your site's community and keep visitors coming back. But how users utilize your site's forums may be directly tied to the subject matter of your site, rather than the design, number of ads or the forum's usability.

Discussion forums used to be the hangouts of internet architects, administrators and techno-geeks. Getting their start from the dial-up bulletin boards of the 80s, discussion forums grew into a medium that could be accessed by website visitors, not just Usenet group readers and dial-up services.

Most people are aware of online chat rooms where people can instantaneously discuss topics ranging from car repair, to web development, to fashion, to sports, to virtually everything in between. The same topics are available for discussion on discussion forums. The difference between discussion forums and chat rooms are that discussion forums keep the messages online for a period of time so others can comment, whereas chat rooms discussions are only available while the people chatting are online to continue the chat.

The Metrics of Discussion Forums Often Depends on the Topic

Often, on popular discussion forums such as 2ch (a Japanese site), Tianya Club (a Chinese site) and Gaia Online (an Indian site), you will find many thousands of these site's members online, discussing various topics at all hours of the day. On other sites, such as our own WebDeveloper.com, you will see thousands of visitors to the forums online, reading the discussions, rather than actively participating in the subjects being discussed. The difference is the demographics of the people who are involved with the forums.

On sites where the user has an identity that is validated by the community, such as the Japanese, Chinese and Indian sites mentioned above, or various sites located in the United States that cover various topics such as sports or entertainment, such as AR15.com, you will see people who are members of the forums coming back on a daily basis to participate in those discussions.

On sites where people are looking for solutions to specific problems they are having, such as Information Technology (IT) sites, hardware-focused websites or home improvement sites, etc., people are more likely to come upon the forums through the use of search engines. They are looking for an answer to a question they have, and they either find the solution or answer they are looking for, or they move on to another forum or site that has the answer. They are not interested in participating in an discussion, they just want the facts, ma'am.

How Can I Get My Forum's Visitors to Become Members?

Encouraging visitor interaction on informational sites is tedious and difficult at best. Gating, or placing some of your site's best content behind a virtual wall that can only be accessed once a visitor has registered is one method. Gating tends to work best on sites that are narrowly focused, that do not have many competitors online. That is, if a visitor can find the answer to their question by simply revisiting Google and re-asking their question another way, they will typically do that before they will register on your site to gain access to the gated content.

Providing features and services to members of your site who register--features and services that visitors cannot access without registering--is another method. Access to downloables, images, music, manuals, videos, etc. that is only available to forum members is a viable option if your site typically features that type of content. Music, art, video and adult sites are among those who have taken advantage of this technique with success. If a visitor can see a thread in your forum, but can't access a video, image or song that is linked from within that forum--until they actually register--it will definitely encourage them to do so.

Lastly, providing valid information, topical discussion, and keeping the trolls, spammers and haters off your site's forums will do very well to keep your forum's visitors coming back, and your members continuing the discussion. If you do so, the number of ads on your site, color scheme, layout and look and feel of your forum will not hold back the growth of your forum.

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