Monday, 21 September 2009

Managing Online Forums

Few weeks ago I read Patrick O´Keefe´s Managing Online Forums and as I promised him in Twitter to write about the book, here I go.

In his book Patrick gave a lot of new ideas about community management: practical guides for the daily work. Some tips were familiar to me from my own experience but as he has done the community management professionally (full time) and his audiences are bigger than mine he has thought about the issues much more.

I joined my first discussion forum in 1998; two years later I found a Finnish doll forum. It was a common forum for the lovers of dolls, teddy bears and dollhouses. I was among the first miniaturists who joined and soon we started to manipulate the discussion by the volume. Dolls and teddies have only heads, bodies, hands and legs, sometimes also clothes and shoes. But dollhouses, they are world of their own: furniture, dolls, collections, styles, massive amount of techniques that can be used. The topics with dollhouses were never ending and soon the doll and teddy lovers started to blame us for talking too much: nobody is talking about teddies anymore. Well, why don’t you start talking about them then?

As I was an excited newbie and as the technology was easy for me I started to contribute in the forum. I created structures for links and files and innovated new ways to use the forum. I started to talk with new members and answered to their newbie questions. I used much time for this but felt I was not appreciated, not by the forum owner, not by the newbies - and because the doll&teddy people I started to feel guilty when sending dollhouse messages.

So I started sending private messages with two other active dollhouse members. We were dreaming of a new forum, a different forum, a friendly forum where we could talk about dollhouses as much as we wanted. We knew what we wanted, a forum with rules. We spent many weeks for writing the rules before we told the others about the forum.

After the announcement the doll forum went crazy, everyone had an opinion about our new forum even though we told the forum is open for everyone who accepted our rules (e.g. no lurkers, real name required). It was exciting to wait if we are getting any members after the battle.

But since we had a good reputation we did of course and now after 7 years our forum is still active and as we have closed doors we can share also personal news - we have become real life friends. During the years we have done a lot together (e.g. the first Finnish book about dollhouse hobby). We have had difficult situations too but all in all we have done very well.

Patrick starts his book from the basics: choosing the platform and features, making the rules and hiring the staff. Hiring sounds little odd for me - who would work for a forum for free? But I did it and I still do. I do it because I am excited about the issue and want to promote it. At the moment the dollhouse hobby is almost too popular in Finland: the media has noticed us, we are seen in magazines, radio and television and the amount of blogs is hundreds. Somehow it is a pity although it is also cool: we made the difference and I made the difference. But it is only natural that after you have reached your goal you feel a little empty. So I have moved to a bigger playground than Finland.

In spring I set a wiki for English speaking miniaturists: Mini treasures wiki. Or actually, thanks to Google´s translators, it is for the whole world. I am only in the beginning in building this community but my experience with the Finnish wiki I set up 3 years ago is helping me. I have now an intuition that is leading me. It was nice to read from Patrick´s book that he and I have many common opinions about how to act in the forum: be real, be reachable, be open, and be honest.

So far my projects have been non-profit (ok, I did get some money from the book) so monetizing the forums is not my specialty. Affiliate programs are not very familiar to me, I have only some Google & Amazon ads. So the first thing I did after finishing the book was setting up a shop in CafePress. I do not want to send t-shirts to all over the world or ask money from my mini colleagues so having someone to do it for me is fantastic! And if nobody wants the fan products I am offering it does no harm to them - or to me. :)

Patrick talked a lot about difficult people&situations in forums and that was very valuable. So far I have got my fair share of them but if the wiki grows as I expect I will get plenty of more in the future and knowing the tricks he has used is a valuable asset. His tips for hiring the staff confirmed my tactic: not to hire someone because you need someone but because the person is what you need. Hiring wrong people will lead you to troubles. Patrick also gave hints of how to keep the forum interesting and how to invite people. All in all, it was really interesting to talk with Patrick (although I was only nodding in front of his book)!

PS. Patrick showed that he lives like you teaches (being open and reachable) - tweeting with him while reading his book raised the reading experience to new dimension. :)


  1. Hello Johanna,

    Thanks so much for the review, and kind words. It means a lot. I really appreciate you taking the time to read the book and I am glad that it resonated with your own long term experiences.

    Congrats on your new job at Protomo, as well as all of your success in community management.

    Thanks again,


  2. Thank you Patrick - sharing your experiences is helping so many people, good that you took the time and did it :).


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