Online discussion boards or forums are frequently found on websites and blogs because they encourage reader participation and increase site traffic. Many online forums are set up as hobby sites centered on a particular subject matter and generate no increased revenue for their owner. However, it is also possible to sell products via an online forum. In fact, given a sufficient number of members, you can even market your online forum as a product in itself and make money strictly through paid memberships.
How to Start an Online Forum
Thanks to various software platforms, it’s not too hard to start a discussion board. If you own a WordPress-based blog or website, you can choose from many plugins (e.g., WP Forum Server) and install the one that best suits your needs.
There are also online forum vendors, including Yuku and Proboards, which offer free hosted forums that are ready-to-go. What’s nice about forum service vendors is that you don’t have to have a website or blog in order to start your own forum. You also get a little bit of free publicity from the vendor site and a spot in their forum directory. Should you eventually wish to link your website to your online forum, that option is also available (for a small yearly fee).
How to Manage a Discussion Board
It goes without saying that an online discussion board will need upkeep and periodic maintenance. Most online discussion boards are managed by one or several moderators who answer threads (i.e., topics), start discussions, handle inflammatory and/or inappropriate posts, etc. Additional software programs may be installed to scan for inappropriate language and/or uploads- especially if some of the members are known to be under 18 years of age.
Generally speaking, discussion boards run and police themselves. Most Web users have been on discussion boards in the past (some as far back as the newsgroup era) and know better than to “feed the trolls” or to personally attack other members. In most cases, members also know better than to post spam or promotional content- though you can never tell for sure. This is why moderators must use due diligence and not let discussion boards descend into complete anarchy.
How to make some money from an online forum
There are many different ways to monetize an online forum, from posting banner ads and in-text links to doing a product sponsorship complete with individual threads devoted to that sponsored product. There are also affiliate and CPA (cost-per-action) programs that pay forum owners per ad click or product sale.
In short, if you have an audience, there are advertisers and advertising networks that will gladly pay you for product placement. Online forum vendors are also not shy about generating extra money from their services, as noted by the recent partnering of Proboards with VigLink.
Banner ads and sponsored links may be fine when an online forum is just getting started; however, the older and more sophisticated sites don’t clutter up their spaces with overt advertising. Instead, these forums partner with companies and individuals whose products they can fully endorse, provide training for, and even expand.
Consider, for example, a discussion board on niche website development that strategically partners with and even offers product discounts through a hosting provider. Promoting the hosting provider makes sense when you consider the focus of this discussion board. Instead of coming off as spammy, such a promotion results in members being grateful for the information.
How to make big money from an online forum
Promoting the products of others is certainly a viable method for generating extra cash through an online forum, but that’s not where the big bucks are. To really harness the monetary potential of an online forum, you have to make your own products. Don’t think you have a product or two in you?
Managing an online forum puts you in daily contact with a number of individuals, each of whom comes with his or her own wealth of knowledge and experience in your chosen topic. Over time, you and these subject matter experts learn from each other and become smarter as a whole. As a result, you probably have a thing or two to teach to newbie members just getting started in your forum. Why not offer paid classes and/or workshops to teach what you’ve learned? Or, if you don’t want to bother with teaching, create and sell ebooks, software programs, digital tools, etc.?
Alternately, consider the nature of the forum itself and what it offers. If you’ve already have amassed a good number of tutorials, classes, videos and podcasts on your site, this information can also be “sold” via paid memberships. Many top-notch forum communities, such as Copyblogger’s Authority, are private (subscription-based). Hey, good information ain’t free.
You can go even bigger than just building products and maybe start a company (or two) from your forum community and the ideas it generates. One great example is SitePoint; its forum resulted in the spin-off of two companies, 99designs and Flippa.
The Power of the Forum
Establishing and nurturing a community of members improves your website traffic and number of repeat visits- but that’s only the beginning. Online forums provide you with valuable market insight into the topics your members are interested in, what products they’re likely to buy, and even if they’d be willing to help you out with some initiative like a high-profile interview or product launch. Having such information makes for some potent monetization possibilities.