Before setting up an online forum you must consider not only the benefits, but also why you are using an online forum (and why you are choosing this, for example, over a JISCMail list), what your aims are, who it is for and costs – both in terms of resources and time. You should consider the following:
These may be similar to setting up a network group in general, but will also need to be more focussed. What will the forum be used for specifically? Who will get the most benefit out of it? Do you want specific subforums for different subgroups such as departments or cross-departmental groups?
You will need to decide who your forum is for – who would be an ideal member? How exclusive or inclusive will you be? Is it just for technicians in one department or for the whole institution? Are you considering going beyond your institution? If so, have you looked into already-existing forums?
You should consider not just the amount of time required for the initial setting up of the forum, but also the time required to manage it in the future and on a day-to-day basis.
Consider the possible costs of web hosting, getting a domain name and the forum platform itself (these are covered in more detail in sections 2 and 3 below).
As well as taking into account the costs of starting the forum, look at any possible costs to your users – the members of the forum – for example, will they have to pay to download the forum app and would this put them off using the forum? You need to make it as easy and accessible as possible to get maximum engagement from your members.
You will need someone who is IT literate enough to install the forum and deal with any issues. Non-experts can do day-to-day running of the forum but you will need someone more knowledgeable on hand if issues arise. Could your institution’s IT department assist with this? Example of an online forum: www.technicians-network.net/
Researching and choosing a forum
Things to consider when researching and choosing a forum include: ease of setup and ongoing maintenance (do you have a resident expert or will you have to pay someone for this?) and costs – initial outlay and for extras (such as themes or a mobile app).
Cost of forum platform: some forums are free to download and install, while others have to be paid for. Some forums are a bit of both depending on what you want and any additional extras or functionality. For example, MyBB forums are free, you can install free themes or buy them, also users need to pay to download the MyBB app on their phones.
Another free forum is BBpress which is a WordPress plugin that can be added to WordPress websites. There are lots of different forum platforms available to suit different purposes and budgets.
Installing a forum
Note: it is beyond the scope of this guidance to go into detail on how to install a forum because this process can differ depending on the forum platform. It may also be the case that someone with prior knowledge of online forums is required to support this process.
If you opt for a stand-alone forum rather than a WordPress plugin you will need somewhere to host it. If you are at an institution, they may have free web hosting available. cPanel is one example of a web hosting service. A domain name is also required if setting the forum up on a stand-alone website – this is the website address (like technicians-network.net).
Before choosing a hosting service, ensure that it will be suitable for your chosen forum platform (eg. can run PHP scripts or use MySQL databases). Platforms should list system requirements – see an example of these on MyBB. Take into consideration the cost implications of buying a domain name and/or web hosting.
Then follow the provided guidelines for installing your forum platform (this will be different depending on which platform you go for). See an example of installing a MyBB forum here.
Setting up your forum
The settings for your forum will depend on what you want out of it, for example, do you only want people with a certain email address (.ac.uk) to be able to register on your forum? If so, you can alter settings to only accept registrations from people with .ac.uk email addresses. Create any subforums you want on your forum and make sure you have moderators to manage each subforum. Subforums could include: general discussions, network meetings, professional registrations or job opportunities.
Consider writing a ‘forum guide’ that you can link to or send to prospective members explaining how they can sign up, what they can use forum for and any other useful information. Depending on your audience, this should be aimed at people who maybe haven’t used online forums before. Consider including screenshots of processes like signing up to the forum. Then add the guide to the forum and any websites or advertising for the forum. [insert link to example forum guide PDF here].
Growing and managing your forum
Growing your forum members
Just like a real-life network you need to provide something people want or need. Make sure you have identified this and created your forum accordingly. Advertise your forum on all appropriate channels – your websites, social media accounts, email signatures and don’t forget hard copy – posters, flyers and business cards. Invite friends and colleagues to join and participate in your forum.
Consider using champions on your forum – get them to use and post on the forum regularly, posting new topics and commenting on other people’s posts. You could also do a welcome email with a guide to signing up to and using the forum.
Managing your forum
Get a few key users to be administrators on your forum – this means they can accept new members signing up, create subforums, deal with any spam or inappropriate posts and generally deal with any issues that arise.
Get users to self-manage parts of your forum. If you have specific subforums, get one or more members of that subforum to act as moderators of that group.
Evaluation and improvements
Evaluate your forum periodically (weekly/monthly/quarterly, as appropriate and dependent on use). How many members does it have and where are they from – are they all from a specific department or group? How regular are posts, comments and new threads? What are people posting about most? What gets people talking – can you promote more of that? What are the useful things people are getting out of it – information about upcoming events, connecting with others?
Consider sending round a short questionnaire to members and non-members and see what people like about your forum or where they feel it could be improved.
Based on your evaluation, how could your forum be improved? Do you need to encourage more members from specific departments to sign up? Or do you need more posts about a specific topic? Do you need more engagement – consider getting champions to post and comment more. If you need more subgroups – create more subforums. Does the forum meet your aims and suit the technical network as a whole? Work out a schedule for undertaking improvements and then review their success.