Few Web sites come with a built-in collection of visitors. One way to attract people to your site and keep them coming back is to create your own online watering hole--a bulletin board. The technical barrier for visitors is low, and a lot of the Web's best community spaces center on bulletin boards. Here's how to host your own. For starters, think about whether you should host one.
Before you succumb to the lure of opening your site to lively community dialogue, ask yourself whether a bulletin board will add to your site or overwhelm it.
What Kind of Web Site Is It? If you're running a Web site with frequent or time-sensitive updates, it's helpful to offer a forum where your readers can comment and query. For example, a Web site about XML implementation has content that changes often and focuses on resources; the topic lends itself to extended discussion. However, if you don't update your site frequently--or don't have content appropriate for ongoing discussions--you may have difficulty nurturing a forum.
What Tone Do You Want to Set? Some online communities are famous for raucous personalities, others for supportive or cerebral discussions. Before you put up a space where people can post comments, think about what kinds of discussions you want and how they will complement the rest of your site. For example, in Mighty Big TV's forums ( www.mightybigtv.com; motto: "Television without Pity"), the moderators keep the discussions whip-smart and focused, with well-placed quips. This conversational style matches the site's editorial voice.
What's Your Role as Moderator? A bulletin board is like a cocktail party, and the moderator plays the role of the gracious host. It's his or her job to circulate, making sure that everyone's engaged in an interesting conversation and nobody's trapped next to the crab dip listening to an insulting boor or a tiresome bore.
Some parties run themselves, especially if all the attendees know one other or have a common interest. Other parties need a few nudges, especially at the beginning when everyone's standing around staring at strangers. The worst cases require an arbitrator--or even a bouncer.
Hosting a good bulletin board requires a clear sense of the tone you'd like to promote. Have plans in place for setting up and encouraging community standards--such as good spelling and grammar, and the exclusion of profanity.
Before you install your bulletin board, make sure you'll have time to keep track of it. To do it right, you'll need to check in on conversational threads regularly, including at night and on weekends. You'll also need a little help from your friends--find someone you can trust to keep the forums running smoothly when you're on vacation. For details on what to expect in your new role as moderator, ask forum hosts whose boards you admire how they've handled worst-case scenarios and how much time they spend moderating.
One forum duty that took me by surprise was deal-ing with frequent new posters who would barge in on a board I was moderating, ignore the plentiful open discussions, and post a deluge of questions other people had already answered. I developed a deep reserve of patience and tried to teach other posting members by example. I politely thanked users for their enthusiasm, redirected them to the forum thread that would answer their questions, and then closed the redundant thread.
Another forum duty every moderator has to face is restoring order when your visitors argue viciously. In flame wars, bulletin-board moderators often get strafed when they try to intervene. Do you want to take the high road by engaging the poster off list, or invoke your rank as the host and drop-kick him or her into the great beyond?
Anticipating difficult situations and being prepared to spend time resolving them--sometimes at inconvenient moments--is part of a moderator's role.
Choosing the Right Software
Once you've settled on a strategy for nurturing your online community, it's time to begin implementing the bulletin board. Your first step is to select a software package that will support the goals you just articulated.
This is where form marries function; you want a bulletin-board format that's appropriate for your content. For example, if you run a news Web site and want to encourage instant input from users as they read and respond to articles, then you need bulletin-board software that appends a threaded discussion to each article. On the other hand, if your goal is to use your Web site as a hub for online discussions, pick software that lets you sort forum threads on pages separate from your other Web-site content, such as Infopop's Ultimate Bulletin Board and Antone Roundy's Threads. This type of program fosters a well-designed community space.
There's something for every budget (see "Mac-Friendly Bulletin-Board Software"). You may have to sacrifice features such as customizability or customer support if you go with the lower-priced or free packages.
Before you commit to any package, ask yourself how much time you're willing to spend troubleshooting or programming your tool. You may be tempted to pick up a free forum script and install it on your site, but if you're not fond of debugging and troubleshooting, you're better off investing in software that doesn't require you to be both forum moderator and system operator.
Integrate Discussion into Your Site
Once you've set up your bulletin-board software and everything's in place, you need to make sure that your Web-site visitors are aware of your forum--and that forum visitors are aware of the rest of your site's content.
You may need to modify the site's design or content to take advantage of your new bulletin board. This often entails adding a teaser to your site's pages--an element such as a provocative, prominently placed quotation that entices people to click on it and visit the forum.
It's hard to lure Web surfers to a bulletin board if they don't know it exists. Include links to the board in site-navigation tools, and add hyperlinks in other appropriate places--such as the top, middle, or bottom of articles, the index pages, or a "What's New" section. You can also use a juicy quote or question from the forum to show that its topics fit in with the rest of the site. This will help visitors make the shift from reading your site to participating in its forums.
The Host with the Most
Once you've arranged the furniture and determined the topic of conversation in your virtual salon, you're ready to throw open its doors to the public. You'll learn what the people who use your site really think about its content, and you'll be party to some amusing and informative conversations.
LISA SCHMEISER is the executive editor of Macworld.com. She spends an extraordinary amount of time playing with Ultimate Bulletin Board.