Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the management of two online forums; a few years as a designer and occasional participant at Vince Gill’s online fan club and as a co-founder here at SEOrefugee.

The contrasts between the two forums are huge:

  • Vince Gill’s audience was not particularly tech savvy while the folks here are constantly helping me figure out how to make things work.
  • VG was supported by membership fees, SEOR is free.
  • A lot of people bought Vince Gill t-shirts, not too many bought the SEOR shirt.
  • The fan club was a relatively homogenous group demographically. SEOR has members of all ages from around the world and, while they share an interest in search engine optimization, that’s about all they share.

Despite these differences, the experience of managing the forums was, with a few exceptions, strikingly similar. Which leads me to believe that potential forum owners, no matter what their interests and audience, might be able to benefit from my list of the

Top Ten Lessons I’ve Learned About Managing an Online Forum

10. Plan for success even if you don’t expect it.

Missed opportunities rarely come again. Make sure your server, software and moderation system can handle the load on the off chance you get noticed. A mention on the front page of Digg can land you over 10,000 visitors but doesn’t do a bit of good if your server collapses under the load. And 10,000 members won’t stay members long if they can’t log in.

9. Controversy is good.

There’s nothing like a good argument to inspire interest among members and to attract attention (and even links) from people with similar interests.

8. Controversy is bad.

As much as people enjoy a good fight, they hate a bad one even more. If you want to drive people away, let an argument fester. Here are some bad controversies:

  1. Any argument unrelated to your site topic. Politics and religion can be particularly nasty (although unavoidable if you run a religious or political forum). An exception might be made for arguments about sports, music or other general interest topics as long as they are segregated in their own category so members can easily choose to avoid them.
  2. Personal attacks. Even if a person you like is attacking someone you can’t stand, don’t allow it.
  3. Libel, slander and unsubstantiated accusations.
  4. A discussion dominated by one person simply restating his opinion over and over.

At SEOR we started out trying to run things wide open but soon realized the need for rules. By eliminating the noise you allow more of the conversation to be heard.

7. Be visible.

I’m convinced that forum operators need to be active members of their online communities even if, as was the case with me, they are not particularly knowledgeable about the topic. People are more likely to help, forgive and defend their friends than strangers. At some point - when you crash the server, offend someone or pull some other stupid stunt – you’re going to need all the friends you can get. You gain friends by interacting with your members.

6. Customization can make your life hell.

Every time you add a feature or customize your forum you risk breaking something. Even if everything goes well, it will complicate the update process when the time comes (and it comes far too often). Worse case scenario, members come to expect a feature only to have it disappear when it’s incompatible with an upgrade.

And, by the way, when you do add a feature, backup first and document the process. Oh how I wish I’d done that!

5. Members go off their meds.

Seriously, it happens. A fun-loving, energetic and knowledgeable contributor can suddenly turn toxic. If a member becomes disruptive or begins to require too much of your time to monitor, ask them to leave or ban them (temporarily or permanently) for the sake of the forum and your own sanity.

4. Be honest.

When things go bad – and they will occasionally - let your members know what happened and take responsibility. Keep these phrases handy:

  • I was working on xxxxxxx and crashed the server.
  • I didn’t even know that was possible, it won’t happen again.
  • I’m sorry that happened again.

If you’re honest and have a good relationship with your members, they’ll forgive a lot.

3. It’s a good thing we don’t pay our moderators. We couldn’t afford them.

A good mod is a combination playground monitor, priest, big brother/sister, psychiatrist, professor and more. They perform those functions not just for the members but for you as well. There will be times when you are ready to toss the server off the roof and follow it. It takes the support of a good team to talk you down.

2. Your forum exists by the grace of others.

Value your members. No matter how much you have to offer and no matter how valuable the information you distribute, your forum can’t exist without its members. Treat them well, don’t exploit them, keep them informed and try not to surprise them.

And the number one lesson I’ve learned about managing an online forum:

1. Start a forum for love, not money.

Starting a forum is a lot of work and the financial rewards come slowly and irregularly if at all. During the lean times, your passion is what will sustain you. Actually, it doesn’t even have to be YOUR passion. Both of my forums were someone else’s idea. Initially I was just along for the ride. It was their commitment that dragged me (and the forums) through the tough times. Eventually, as I became part of the communities, I was able to develop and contribute some passion of my own.

Update: If you’d like Tips on Promoting Your Forum we’ve got 10 of them for you!