Is it just me, or have others noticed that web-based discussion forum projects seem to fail more than so many other types of web projects? Below are some reasons why, in my opinion, this tends to happen.
- Users need to login. I think we like to believe that users won't mind establishing a new username / password pair just for our site, which also means keeping a note of that somewhere, and coming back to visit and participate. But, speaking just for myself (admittedly a web developer, so I probably have more credentials to maintain than most people), I have more than 1,000 sets of credentials that I need. I suspect half are business oriented the other half personal. But, that's a lot of info. There's little chance I'm going to remember a particular username / password set, so I probably wouldn't casually stop in anywhere to participate. Having to lookup credentials is often rather annoying (yet of course you risk spam if you don't require them).
- The rise of social media. This is actually related to the above point. Once you're logged into Facebook, you're logged in no matter where you go online. So, if Blog A has a blog post where you need to sign in to make a comment and Blog B has a blog post where it just uses Facebook's comment system and thus requires no further login for commenting, then Blog B is likely to get more reader participation than Blog A. Same concept with forums. (Yet, you have to balance that with the fact that using social media comments might not be as powerful SEO-wise for a site because those comments aren't indexed the same as on-site / on-page text.)
- Social media's decentralization of content commentary. In another point related to the above, a topic can appear rather dead on a public forum, but actually be getting action elsewhere. For example, consider a blog post that has few comments on the page, but goes viral on Facebook or Twitter. These media also have the power to draw in non-traditional participants into specialty-area conversations. For example, imagine posting an image from an early 1900s piece of sheet music, such as this one:
In a musician's forum, the discussion would largely focus on the music. However, in a broader sense, there may be interest from artists and illustrators, from historians, from scientists, from lithography professionals, from geographic-regional researchers, from family members of those mentioned, etc. -- all very welcome and mostly productive areas for further conversation. You get that extra traffic on social media, whereas topical sites and forums would generally not ever see such visitors.
- OCD Hyper-organization. Many site owners tend to want to break down their discussion boards into (sometimes very steep) hierarchical category areas versus just allowing a general board where people can post on any site-related topic. For example, if my company had a discussion board, I'd have ONE board for any related topic -- web design, SEO, PHP / MySQL coding, Joomla!, etc. IMHO, that would be the way to go rather than creating specific topic areas. The reason is synergy... While person A may come to my board for a reason related to Joomla, there's now a greater chance he/she may engage on another topic rather than simply checking the Joomla index and then leaving. Plus, let's say that person (a Joomla designer) is reading a CSS post ... well, he/she likely has an answer or insight to share there as well; people are much more multi-area knowledgeable than so many people believe in this world. Over-organization prevents and denies such synergy, and can doom a forum project; I've seen this many times, routinely warned against it, and then watched it happen after such warnings were issued. (Still, under-organization may simply not be acceptable for some personalities.)
- User base too small. There's a critical mass needed for a successful forum project. What that is, is subjective, of course. But, it's probably larger than most people think. Hundreds of users is a good start; thousands is better. It's tough to make those numbers unless maybe you're a well-known brand with tons of existing and motivated fans. Let's face it: If a board is generally inactive, no one's going to want to return to it to see what's been going on and continue with the fun. Getting return visits is a lot to ask of anyone these days, so a board has to be engaging and active for success. (Of course, a small board may seem exclusive to some, which may be desired in some cases.)
- The Money Pit Syndrome. Add on a forum and you may well face significantly increased, ongoing development costs. If your site or budget isn't ready for this commitment, then updates may be put off or done with too little testing, which can lead to security breaches and other issues.
There are other reasons discussion boards fail, as well. For example, I've seen internal / intranet forums fizzle away for other reasons, such as a poorly designed / poorly functioning system, users not being savvy (possibly due to a lack of training), and/or inadequate leadership (e.g., management not buying into the concept and therefore not encouraging it). However, for general board failures, the above are the main reasons I've seen over the past decade or so.
Am I saying "don't do forums"? Well, for many sites ... yes, I'm saying that. If you have a site on some topical area of interest to colleagues and possibly a wider audience, I'd say (for most people): Go with Facebook and be done with it.
On the other hand, some types of forums seem to work out well for companies. Support forums, for example, do well because customers need help, and they'll generally seek that out where ever it exists. So, if you're a manufacturer, then a simple support forum will likely do just fine. Major brands or specialty companies with decent-sized fan bases can also do well.
Bottom line: If your site really, really "needs" a user forum, I hope the above at least contributes a bit to your strategizing. :-)