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Are you top of the forum?

Isn’t it really annoying when you put loads of effort into your online forum, yet it remains completely and utterly lifeless; whilst other sites host lively and dynamic discussions. What’s it all about? Why do some forums sink and other soar? Pike & Predators editor, James Holgate, explains why his readers are so chatty online.

By James Holgate

I would like to say that our online presence and our extensive use of dedicated discussion forums to promote our specialist newsstand angling magazines was the result of a carefully considered strategy, the outcome of numerous meetings and careful planning. Unfortunately, I would be lying. The truth is more prosaic; our discussion forums (at came about almost by accident, created as a virtual afterthought to our online presence, achieved entirely without significant planning and at minimal cost. They have also helped our company to not only maintain but also even expand both our readership base and the awareness of the products we offer. In a crowded market consisting of around thirty newsstand angling titles, most of which are published by significantly larger companies such as Bauer, IPC and the like, this is no mean feat, and internet forums have, I believe, greatly assisted us not only in promoting but also defining our published offerings.

We launched our first forum way back in 1999. It was a forum of the most basic kind, just a list of posts and replies. In those innocent days, our forum users didn’t even have to register to participate. Setting up the forum cost precisely nothing. The deal was simple; the company providing the forum ( allowed you to set it up for free. In return, they posted adverts. Since that time, I have led our increasing, but extremely loyal band of readers / forum users like some latter day lost tribe through various increasingly sophisticated forums, until we have arrived at our present-day promised land of a fully hosted, managed solution, with sufficient capacity to cope with the extremely high usage.

What, no tumbleweed?

As we all know, the sight of tumbleweed drifting metaphorically across many a lonely unused internet forum is quite common. Many tactics have been suggested for encouraging users to contribute, ranging from offering prizes for the best post of the month, through to deliberately encouraging / creating controversial posts to goad potential users into replying. I do not know whether these or any similar tactics work, for the simple reason we have never needed to employ them to encourage readers to contribute to our forums. Right from the start, our problem has not been so much one of encouraging potential forum users to start using it, as of getting them to stop!

To give you an example, I have just looked at our latest stats:

* Total number of topics under discussion: 16,095
* Total number of individual posts: 250,229
* Average number of posts per registered user: 109
* Total number of registered members: 2,287

Bear in mind that this particular version of the forum has only been active for around two years, which, I think, makes the figures particularly impressive.

So, why do some forums and other user-generated content of offline magazines flourish, seemingly without any expenditure of editorial effort, whilst others prove to be almost embarrassingly free of content? There are a number of potential answers to this conundrum. However, I suspect in almost all cases, the answer lies as much in the style of the offline magazine and the type of readership it attracts, than it does in anything that can be done online.

Tribal instinct

Earlier in this article, I used the word ‘tribe’ to describe the readership of our magazines; this was not a piece of empty rhetoric. In fact, I think the readership of many successful specialist magazines of whatever genre, are just about as close as you can get in the modern world to the concept of a tribe. At the very least, the readership must have a strong sense of identity with both the magazine and the subject matter it publishes in order to be able to translate successfully and effortlessly to an online user-generated presence.

Of course, if I knew what alchemy was required to create this kind of bond between reader and publisher, I would be an extremely rich man. Speaking of our own magazines, I suspect this has come about almost by default. Like most specialist independent magazine publishers, we operate in a segment of the market largely dominated by the big publishing groups.

We cannot compete in budgets and we can’t compete in buying our way into the bigger newsagents. We don’t even need to use cover-mounted gifts to encourage readers to buy our publications. However, what we can do, and do rather well if I say so myself, is create an entirely different, distinctive product that isn’t afraid to ruffle some big important feathers. This approach in turn appeals to a more committed and loyal readership, precisely the type of people who are more likely to write letters, and more likely to provide user-generated content (UGC).

The letters page

In fact, I think one of the clues as to whether a magazine’s forum will flourish online, lies with the letters pages of the offline product. If you can effortlessly fill several pages of your magazine with letters from readers each month, then I suspect your online UGC will flourish too. Our own Pike & Predators magazine used to regularly feature six or seven pages of letters from readers each month. I say ‘used to’ because this has dwindled substantially in recent years. The culprit has undoubtedly been our own forums, where readers find it quicker and more convenient to post their reaction to what they have read in the offline magazine. I suspect this would have happened anyway, regardless of whether we had set up our own forum or not, but at least the content stays ‘in house’ so to speak rather than being posted on a non affiliated forum.

Direct line to your readers

So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of hosting a specialist magazine’s own internet forum? The most tangible advantage is undoubtedly that it forms a very direct line of communication between readers and the magazine. As I have already said, our forums have largely superseded the letters pages of the magazines. However, this can also prove to be very much two-way traffic, as it also enables me, as editor, to pose questions to the readership, to help me in turn hone the offline product. Even when not asking specific questions, simply standing back and observing what posts or categories are generating the most interest can be an invaluable and virtually free form of market research. Having said that, I feel a certain degree of caution needs to be exercised here. By and large, forum users will represent the keenest of the keen; these users may not necessarily be representative of the wider readership as a whole, so a degree of judgment and, ultimately, editorial nous will still need to be applied to any conclusions.

Brilliant publicity

A busy forum also ensures that the magazines are kept at the forefront of readers’ minds no matter at what stage of the publishing schedule the magazine is at. I think this is especially advantageous for magazines with monthly or even less regular frequencies. Like all magazine editors, I have a rather exalted view of my readership, believing that they eagerly await the publication of each issue with barely another thought in their minds. The truth, of course, is more mundane. We all have busy lives and it is so easy to forget to go down to the newsagent to see if the latest issue has arrived. However, so often with forums, discussions of the latest issue often start to take place the moment the magazine hits the newsagents’ shelves (actually, this tends to take place a few days before then as subscribers receive their copies slightly earlier). No matter, it all helps to generate interest; I have even seen cases of negative comments about something in the latest issue, helping to fuel sales as forum users rush to the newsagents to see for themselves the offending item. Maybe there’s something in that old maxim about there being no such thing as bad publicity.

Letting go

This brings me very neatly to the subject of control over forums, and is obviously an issue that worries many offline magazines, especially those of what could be termed the ‘old school’ publishers, who have always been accustomed to be able to control all aspects of the published product. Clearly, the very nature of an online forum connected to your publications can unleash all kinds of problems in this respect. To a certain extent, I think a lot of this boils down to having confidence in both your product and your readers. Be prepared to listen and react to any online criticism of the offline product. Though, oftentimes, I have found the majority of readers themselves will do the job for you; again, this comes down to having confidence in your product and your readership.

The risk of abuse

However, you clearly do need to draw a line between genuine constructive criticism and simple abuse. This latter can be especially worrying in the context of writers and, of course, advertisers. In the case of criticism of something a particular contributor has written, if the criticism is couched in reasonable language and the poster could be deemed to be making a fair point, it will be allowed. I have to say that it does worry me sometimes that potential contributors might be deterred from contributing to the offline magazine for fear of what is going to be said about their efforts online. No author or potential author has actually communicated this fear to me yet, but this aspect does clearly need to be kept under constant review.

In order to try to bring a little more sense to the proceedings, our forum moderators also tend to make a clear distinction between forum users who are clearly posting under their own names and those who adopt the widespread fad for anonymous usernames. Of the latter, I am not very keen at all, mainly because some forum users tend to get very ‘brave’ when hiding behind such a name. However, other than personally vetting each forum registration, which is not really practical for such a busy forum, they are a fact of life. Nonetheless, we do encourage the forum user to use their own name, even to the extent of giving a little more leeway to those who do when it comes to the interpretation of forum rules and guidelines.

I would urge any publisher thinking of setting up a forum for their magazines to work out a clear set of guidelines to be followed by users, and ensuring they are applied with a degree of consistency. Otherwise, anarchy will ensue.

What to do with lurkers

Now standing at over 2,200 registered users, our forum is impressive in the context of many forums, but that number is still only a fraction of the offline magazine’s readership. However, there is another important component to the internet forum, namely unregistered visitors who access the forums regularly but do not contribute – ‘lurkers’ as they are known in the trade. I have just looked at our own forum and I note within the last ten minutes, 98 registered users have accessed the forum and 86 unregistered users have visited the forums in the same timescale. This rough 50/50 ratio seems to be just about constant. Whilst some forum controllers tend to get terribly exercised by these unregistered users, I don’t. Just as I don’t get worried about the vast majority of offline readers who don’t contribute to the magazine; enough do to make it interesting and useful for registered and unregistered users alike.

Internet forums and other user-generated content represent both a threat and an opportunity for the offline publisher. Whether offline magazines get involved in running their own or not, they are not going to go away. Therefore, you might as well use your offline presence to control and exploit what is going on online. Provided, of course, that you have the ‘right’ kind of readership.