Sometimes when you read a technical book, you wonder what you are going to get out of it. That was my initial feeling when I received “Managing Online Forums” by Patrick O’Keefe, the founder of the iFroggy Network. Thankfully, Patrick has forgotten more about managing forums than I have yet learned. More importantly, there are many tips that can be taken from the book regardless of whether you are running a forum, a blog or even some small web startup. I highly recommend the book for anyone starting an online forum, and I would recommend it for anyone who has a blog or participates in any of the newer social sites. As a blogger, you may not use forum software, but you are absolutely building a community.

You may have heard of Patrick as he manages the phpBBHacks.com community among several others. He has been managing online communities for several years and blogs about community management at ManagingCommunities.com.

Let me start by saying that I do not like the typical book review. Someone telling me they liked the book and I should buy it feels cheap. If I am going to buy a book, I want to know what kind of information is in it. In particular, give me some of the good nuggets or actionable ideas that may be useful. Based on this idea, I present some of those nuggets from Managing Online Forums.

Patrick has tons of information on the basics of creating online communities. This includes some of the software that you can use to create and manage the forum. In addition to the software information, there is a fantastic list of templates for welcome emails, general forum and community guidelines. Specifically, a privacy policy is required for any site that collects email addresses or other personal information.

It’s generally a good idea to have a privacy policy for your community. Some people feel more comfortable if they see one. The Direct Marketing Association has an excellent privacy policy generator (http://www.the-dma.org/privacy/creating.shtml)

From the legal perspective, a privacy policy is a good idea because it can shield you from the implications of people sharing their information within your site. For any documents that are “legal” in nature, always seek the advice and review of a licensed attorney. There are other things you should do when starting a new forum or startup as well.

At least a couple of weeks before the launch, you could at a minimum put up a simple page with the logo or the name of the site and the specific date and time that you will be launching … you may also want to set up a simple mailing list on which users can sign up in order to be emailed when the site launches. You are building your user base before you even launch.

This is obviously not necessary for a new blogger, but an established blogger may want to use this advice when branching out to another blog. Leo Babauta, of Zen Habits fame, used this tactic when launching his newest venture Write To Done. I do not think people will question the success that Leo has had with either site. Of course, now that we are talking about success, you probably want to know how to make money.

For anyone that has a website of any kind, traffic is the initial indicator of success. How do you get traffic when you first start out? In many cases, the answer is advertising. If you are trying to drive traffic through paid advertisements, throwing some money at Google AdWords is only part of the answer. Patrick has a great idea when advertising your site:

Advertising a site that’s not optimized for advertising is a tremendous waste. Even a well thought out and well executed campaign will dramatically depress its results if the ads just lead people back to your homepage. You need carefully designed pages developed for capturing visitors and funneling them toward your conversion process – a concept known as “landing pages”.

On the other side of advertising (and success), you can make a little money by displaying advertisements on your site. However, advertisements tend to lose their effectiveness if they always appear in the same locations or even just appearing to the same people.

Generally speaking, members of your community are less likely to click on or pay attention to advertisements because they visit your community frequently and are used to seeing your ads where they are. They can develop a sort of blindness to them. For this reason, you may want to serve fewer ads to logged in members. This can enhance their experience and create a benefit of registration.

If you have a website or startup that allows for registration, you could also include an option for a paid subscription which eliminates advertising for paid members. Advertising and subscriptions are very difficult to execute well, so take your time when trying to get it right. For advertising, maybe just try out the ads in a few different locations to determine what does not annoy your users but still makes something resembling revenue.

If you are lucky enough to get some traffic and have people participating in conversations, there are still potential problems. Patrick has tons of information in the book that is immensely useful, but I am trying to keep this a little shorter than a novel. So, I am just going to focus on a few items that are critical to anyone managing or involved with any website. The first item is about freedom of speech, and it reiterates a position I have taken before:

The belief that freedom of speech entitles people to say whatever they wish, whenever they wish, wherever they wish is one of the most common misconceptions and problem issues for community administrators … First of all, there is no such thing as “freedom of speech” on a professional, well run internet community.

The manager of a website, forum or startup, owns that community. That person is the one responsible for the rules of what comments are rude or insulting. If a user feels the manager has acted unfairly, I say think again. It is the manager’s site to do with as they please. There is no concept of freedom of speech on a community site, and Patrick does note why this is true. The concept of freedom of speech requires that Congress (or probably any governmental entity) can not create laws limiting your ability to express yourself. My blog, Patrick’s forums and any other website that you visit do not need to worry about that.

Given that there is no true “freedom of speech”, there will be times when people are disagreeing with each other or even the administrator of the site. Again, Patrick does not mince words:

It is not if you disagree, it is how you disagree. There’s a very important difference/ But fully expect to see and hear folks mouthing off about how you banned them just for disagreeing with you, regardless of the facts. Those poor, poor dears. This is the grand delusion.

Of course, there are some users who think they have some sort of right to do whatever it is that they want to do, without regard for your guidelines or your staff. These are the types of users that you need to get rid of.

I believe these points are key to a vibrant community, even if it is just a little blog in your corner of the internet. Remember the blog writer or site owner is the ruler of the community. Visitors are free to comment, but that is not a right, that is a privilege. If the community owner takes offense or feels that comments are against the nature of the community, it is their right to remove the comment. So remember, play nice in someone else’s yard.

So, back to the original question. Why would a blogger or startup founder need a book like this? As I said earlier, if there is any social interaction then you are building a community. It may not be a forum in the traditional sense, but there is a lot of interaction occurring. Even though the book may be covering the community management concept from the perspective of a forum owner, that does not mean there is nothing for you. I have said in previous posts here, you never know where you might learn something. This book promises to help you learn more about your community and how to handle them.

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