How to Market a Forum Website

I recently got an email from the owner of, a computer hardware and troubleshooting forum. She wanted to improve her traffic and take her site “to the next level.” The site she’s running has a good domain name, a small forum with 400+ members, and a few backlinks. Basically, it’s a really good starting point and she’s trying to figure out what to do with it now.

Her goals are to build traffic, make the site more accessible, and start generating revenue. Here are the tips I shared with her:

Site Mechanics

Consider a content management system for the front page so you can control the front page content. For CMS’s I like Drupal, but not as much as I like WordPress. I’m not 100% on moving the forum to the background, but it would be nice to be able to control the front page content. Since you’re using vbulletin, you might also consider vbadvanced as your CMS. My wife ran for years with this setup and really liked it.

Marketing Strategy

  • Post everyday and reply to every post that gets made. A lot of people forget or never do this one and wonder why their communities won’t grow. It’s a personal time commitment, and you get out what you put in. Try to think of it as an investment. If you’re having trouble monitoring new posts, remember that vbulletin can generate it’s own RSS feed. You can use a program like Feedreader to give you a list of everything new. It can take as little as five minutes to scan 100+ posts a day with an RSS reader.
  • Define a budget – even if it’s $0. You need to know how much you have available to spend for prizes and things like that. If you already have a bit of traffic, consider monetizing with Google AdSense, YPN, or an affiliate program. If this generates any cashflow, you can roll it back into a development budget.
  • A big advantage an already established site is your existing memberlist. I suggest you start with a monthly or bi-monthly newsletter to your current subscribers. If you know of any other small to medium sized forums with a similar (but not competing) audiences, see if they’ll mention you in their newsletter in exchange for a mention in yours. A newsletter is a good way to announce new contests, changes, and goings on and will motivate people to get involved.
  • What I like about forums is their ability to produce search engine friendly content on a daily basis without you having to do it all yourself (there’s only so many posts you can write in a day). How about a contest? You can give a prize to the highest poster, the best tutorial writer, etc. Prizes can be as cheap as a little recognition but I find something like a T-shirt or a little gadget works well. High activity on a forum draws in new search traffic and keeps users involved. This is an excellent example of activity breeds activity.
  • The other nice thing about forums is that if you build the community well, you end up having a little army of people willing to work for free! If you have members that would do it, get them to include links to your forum in their signatures on other message boards and other websites. Give them ownership of parts of your site in some way to make them feel like a part of the site. Moderator privileges, special jobs, or dedicated forum areas are a good way to do this. Again, there’s only so much you can do in a day and the more people you have helping you, the better.
  • For link exchanges, I’ve been successful with this idea. Basically, you give people prime ad space on your site with a rotating banner. In exchange they post a static link on the front page of their site. This can be highly effective if you can attract the audience
  • For the paid stuff, like pay-per-click ads, I would hold off until you’ve exhausted the other options. Websites can be really profitable because they have such low overhead. Don’t introduce a paid service or dedicate a lot of money unless there’s no other alternative.