So You Want To Run An Online Forum?

by Jason Falls |

It’s a fair point to say the online tool most responsible for the advent of social media is the forum or message board. Descendants of early bulletin board systems and USENET groups, the forum introduced the concepts of conversation and community to the Internet. As technology blossomed and more sophisticated methods of communications usurped forums as the primary place people played online, the forum seemed to take a back seat.

Perhaps the technology was ahead of its time, but millions of web users are rediscovering the forum and message board these days. According to Forrester Research, a forum or message board tops the list of what consumers want out of a media website. Perhaps this is now because savvy companies are not just offering them, but participating in them as well. How many of you had little more than occasional forum participation until Dell, Apple or some other tech company offered one? As such, more companies are considering social media retro: adding a good, old fashioned message board to their online offerings.

Managing Online ForumsThankfully, there’s a way to figure out how to run one successfully without having to struggle through years of trial and error. “Managing Online Forums: Everything You Need To Know To Create And Run Successful Community Discussion Boards,” comes out April 28. The book is written by iFroggy Network founder and owner Patrick O’Keefe, who is arguably the world’s foremost expert on managing forums and message boards because he’s been through years of trial and error. He’s been doing it since 2000 and currently runs seven different communities, including, and

Keep in mind that while I am an avid reader and refer to books frequently, I don’t do book reviews. This is my first. Patrick asked me if I was interested in an advance copy and while I normally turn these things down, (You want me to read? A whole book? Ha!) my recent client activity surrounding community management and personal affinity for nudged me into a, “yes.”

Within 20 minutes, I was on page 70. Perhaps it was my interest in the topic, perhaps O’Keefe’s writing style. Whatever the reason, the book (at just over 300 pages) was a quick and easy read, chock full of great information, advice and examples and left me feeling like I should give online forum management a try. Mind you, the author spends a lot of time talking about spammers, trolls, unruly community members and the like. There’s plenty of cautionary tales here to turn you off the idea altogether, but regardless, you’ll end up smarter by reading this book.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about the writing style is that it isn’t written from the perspective of a haughty expert peppering you with polysyllabic words and ethereal Internet philosophy. O’Keefe has something to say and he says it, plain and simple. Some readers might find it “For Dummies” simple, but the book it supposed to be a how-to, not a dissertation. From Laying the Groundwork (Chapter 1) through Making Money (Chapter 9) this book is a step-by-step, how-to, with nothing to interrupt a free-flow of learning sans a few template examples of how to word Terms & Conditions and the like in the rules and legal discussions.

The chapters also include Developing Your Community, Developing Guidelines, Promoting Your Community, Managing Your Staff, Banning Users & Dealing With Chaos, Creating A Good Environment and Keeping It Interesting.

Most of you know I’m not normally inclined to only sing praises and shill for the products and services I write about (Except Profilactic. I love them.) but the only negative takeaways I have from reading “Managing Online Forums” are philosophical points of contention with O’Keefe on a few basic issues.

When I think of someone who manages online forums, the stereotypical notion enters my mind that most are know-it-all, control freaks, hyper-techie with absolute, black-and-white views of the world around them. If you disagree, they ban you. If you don’t behave the way they want you to at all times, they ban you. Not that I’ve had a great deal of experience with forum managers, but what little I have had over the years has given me that impression.

While O’Keefe does an outstanding job of differentiating himself from that ilk, promoting the ideal qualities we often discuss here as requisites for online management – honesty, diplomacy, transparency, etc. – there are some hints of absolute rule in the chapter Banning Users and Dealing With Chaos. O’Keefe says, “The problem with some of these users is that they view an account on your site as some sort of inalienable right. It isn’t. An account on your site is a privilege.” From a literal standpoint, I don’t disagree, but the undertow of that line of thinking reminds me of coaches, marketing and ticketing folks I dealt with in 11 years in college athletics. They think of their fans as reality-detached, greedy, unreasonable, mouth-breathers who are only there for a handout and aren’t worth their time. The problem lies in that these administrators and coaches are exposed to five percent of the fans, 90 percent of the time and forget about all the good ones. Still, this five percent, in my personal opinion, are your core fans. If you can’t treat them with respect, you don’t deserve to serve them.

Granted, these are extremes, I’m comparing apples to oranges and O’Keefe proves point after point that a good community manager handles things with discretion, diplomacy and professionalism. I’m just more of the mindset that even the craziest customer is worth keeping happy. Then again, he’s been managing forums for eight years and I haven’t, so put your money on the dude who should know.

I started to list a few good nuggets from the book but will only offer part of the first paragraph since it opens the scene perfectly:

“To start your community off right, you must have your mind in the right place. You should know what your community is, what you are trying to accomplish, what you’ll need to do to accomplish it, and you need to ensure that you can provide the community with the stability that it needs to flourish long into the future.”1

Go from there. Read this book. Be smarter for it.

“Managing Online Forums,” is available online already on its website at The book hits shelves on April 28. It’s offered from AMACOM, the American Management Association at $24.00 retail.

O’Keefe can also be found blogging at and

And to round out the discussion a bit, I asked Patrick to share some further insights with us:


Why did you write the book and how did you find time?

I wrote the book because I’m passionate about managing online forums. I have always liked the idea of writing a book and while managing my own communities, I realized that I wanted to write one about forums as I felt that I could write a guide that would really help people. I hope it does.

It actually took about five years to go from idea to publication. At first, I wasn’t sure that I could do it, so I wanted to have a semi-finished manuscript before even pitching to publishers. What I started to do was to simply make up a list of ideas of things that I felt I should cover. I would literally be managing my forums and do something and then think, “Hey, I should write about that”. Eventually, this became a substantial list of ideas.

I organized them into chapters and then went about writing them out. And then continually added onto it and adjusted it. Pitching and finding a publisher was a very long process. By the time that I signed with AMACOM, I had a finished manuscript ready. So, I wrote it over a period of years, spread out.

Have forums and message boards changed any in the last 10 years? Have they become more mature? More trolls, less, etc.?

Yes, they’ve definitely changed. Especially when we’re talking about functionality. Maturity wise … you know, people are people. What we do online is a reflection of real life. Has the internet become more mature? Whatever the answer to that is, the same answer would apply to forums. I don’t know. Maturity is in how you craft your community, the guidelines you have and how they are enforced. Part of your job as an administrator is to sculpt the persona of the community, not to be held hostage by it. Even if the internet was less mature, my forums would still be based around respect because that’s part of the persona of my communities.

Social media promotes transparency and disclosure. Are you seeing more of that in users or are forums and message boards the final frontier for anonymity?

Social media has to include forums. So, I’d say that forums promote it right along with social media. Obviously, signing up on the average forum isn’t the same as signing up on LinkedIn. But, for the most part, it’s similar. You want people to be respectful, to form opinions based on solid ground and to share that ground, but at the same time, I don’t require that people tell me what their name is and where they live. Forums are definitely not the final frontier for anonymity. Anonymity will always be a part of the internet.

IMAGE: Book art from

1 – “Managing Online Forums” by Patrick O’Keefe – AMACOM, 2008; p. 7

[tags]managing online forums, forums, message boards, online community, Patrick O’Keefe, community management, starting a forum[/tags]

About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).