We had a good friend back in the day. A friend which was with us wherever we went. Everything comes to an end eventually and we learn to move on. Our aforementioned friend is of course the forums, which were a very important part of our internet life for a very long time, they still are but their importance is fading. How did something so important started losing its relevance? Everything changes, including the way we browse the web, what once was a necessity is becoming a hassle and it’s not only the case with the forums. For the sake of this article though, we’re going to focus on it in particular.
The Big Shots
First things first. Let’s take a look at the biggest players in the field of forum solutions at the moment.
Those of course are not all the forum scripts out there, not by a long shot. They do, though, take a major piece of the cake with clients like Joomla , VLC , Mozilla Add-ons , Metallica , Best Buy , Logitech and literally thousands more. Not so long ago, forums were still the best and pretty much only medium to talk with your clients / visitors, so everyone had to have one.
For the same reason they will remain with us for a long time. The archeologists have found parts of forums dating back to as early as 1994, though some people believe that they existed already on Usenet’s as early as in 1970’s. That pretty much means that the idea of Internet Forums in one shape or another was always with us, since we began using the Internet in our homes.
I do presume you know how a Forum works and I do not have to explain it. If by some chance that is not the case though, you can find all the information you need in that regard by reading this article on Wikipedia.
As mentioned, the idea is a very old one, so it was just a matter of time before someone came up with other ideas to replace it and so they did.
So what are these new solutions?
Facebook has changed the internet world. Regardless if you like the site or not, it’s what really brought the social angle to the Web.
MySpace had a similar idea and a similar execution (at first glimpse at least) and while it had it’s time of tremendous popularity, it’s just a shadow of its former self now. Interesting thing though, MySpace actually has a forum on its pages. That actually shows you they have not entirely grasped the idea and the potential they had at the tips of their fingers. I am very well aware that there’s much more to the failure of MySpace then a difference between using a forum or not.
What I’m trying to say is that Mark Zuckerberg had the ability to go beyond the solutions which were already in place and build a whole new idea of communication between users. That’s what’s really awesome about Facebook, it brought a whole new medium to the table with much more applications to be made from it. There actually is amade for developers, and if you will notice fan pages, they also have Discussion pages for their fans.
The point is, that website owners got a new way to communicate with their visitors. Instead of having to put up a fairly complicated forum system and going through the hassle of creating sections etc. on it, they now had the option of creating a Facebook Fan-Page for their business, which took care of all their social needs and while at it, even brought the potential of creating an automated and free marketing campaign for them without the need of doing much.
Sounds much better then a simple forum doesn’t it? The truth of the matter is, that while my clients rarely want me to set up a forum for them, the majority of them not only want a Facebook Fan-Page, they pretty much demand it, often at the first meeting.
And if things still didn’t look bad for the forums, another big issue was just around the corner…
It is a bit harder to convince your clients that they need it. Especially with clients that have never heard of it. Imagine you had the task of explaining to someone what Twitter is and how it can benefit them. It’s actually harder than you might think at first. The numbers speak for themselves though. Millions of users on board, big, big companies and personalities among them say enough though. While I don’t think I have to sell the idea of Twitter to anyone here, I do need to emphasize the importance of it as the second biggest contender in taking away people from forums.
You have to keep in mind that the forums are a bit slow-paced and require a lot of reading, Twitter is the total opposite of that. You check it when you want to, you read want you want to, all presented in small messages. It’s what the forums were always missing and now it’s out there, free and for everyone.
The idea of them in the shape we know now, has not been always there. WordPress itself has not been released in its first version before the beginning of 2003. Back in the day, when people wanted to share their thoughts with the world, they were creating their own home pages. After those started showing up, they were very quickly considered to be nonprofessionals and no company would be caught dead with one. First blogs were seen as pretty much the same thing as home pages. It took quite a while before that changed and when it did, people started seeing more and more potential in something they had previously refused to look at.
More and more professionals and companies started creating their own blogs. Something which was considered juvenile has become a source of credibility.
…and of course, it became another medium to oppose the forums. While blogs allow your visitors to comment, it absolves you of the need to address those if such is your will. Your primary view is presented in your entry and the discussion about it can be left in the hands of your visitors.
So with all those alternatives, are there still some reasons to choose forums?
Where forums have the advantage
That’s the reason why forums became so popular in the first place. Regardless of the amount of users and information they put out, if handled correctly the design of the forums can handle it. All the posts are organized and easy to access. You can join any conversation at any given time and still not lose any bit of information.
For the same reason, if any problem was already solved on the forum, users more often than not will be able to find that solution without the need of having to ask questions themselves and wait for the response.
While Facebook Fan-Pages have the same potential to live on their own with the input from your visitors alone, forums bring it to a whole different level. As a matter of fact, forums are expected to be run mostly by your users and their interactions with each other. Once the wheels start turning, they will do so for quite some time with or without your input. Your users can take some of the work off you by helping other users with their problems. They can even help you with yours.
It doesn’t really matter how much time your users want to spend on your forum. Anything they choose will work for them. As mentioned, everything is there at any given time, so the intervals between reading the information does not impact greatly the experience.
Probably the majority of users on the Internet have used a forum at least once. What that means for you, is that your visitors will mostly know how to use yours already. Depending on what kind of population you attract, there will be a varying amount people who also know the general rules on any forum.
Where Forums Fall Short
We do things faster and faster every year. So it’s just natural that we expect the solutions we use to be quicker with the passage of time. Forums do not live up to that expectation. Sometimes it may take days to get an answer to your question, if you get one at all, but you have to keep coming back all the time to see if anyone replied. It can be as frustrating as it sounds and was the main reason we needed some alternatives. Some forums were putting a shout-box for the users to chat in real-time to take care of that problem, but those were not practical enough to actually do that.
Amount of reading
The acronym TLDR (too long didn’t read) tells the whole story. The amount of posts you need to read to get all the information on the subject your interested in can go in tens of pages and literally takes hours and if you ask for a summary, you will be most often told to read the whole topic. The younger the viewers, the less patience they have to read long threads and will give up on getting any information if they have to look for it for too long.
If you want your forums to be truly yours you have to create a layout for them which will not only look good but be user-friendly. Remember, that sometimes your visitors may have to spend a considerable amount of time reading stuff on there. If you do not choose the colors wisely you will discourage people from staying on your forum or coming back to it all together.
Do you need a forum?
The answer to that is simply: it depends.
For example, if you’ve just created your own game, forums will be most beneficial for you, as users will be able to discuss the game by themselves. Solving any issues will have to be done just once, after that people can find the topic with the solution themselves. They will also be able to create their own guides etc. If you sell animals, a forum will be a great place for your customers to exchange knowledge . Recommend various species between themselves and so on, you get the picture.
On the other hand, if you’re creating a website dedicated to your band, a forum would probably be overkill. While theoretically we could find uses for it, it will be very hard to convince your users to exchange their opinions on your forum rather than on a bigger, musical one. Twitter and Facebook will work for you just fine in that case.
It’s really a question of common sense whether you need one or not. In most cases you actually don’t need a forum anymore, as other solutions will be more than enough for you. You can always open one up later on, when you have some people around and you see there is an actual need for one.
I’ve asked around
I’ve asked a few people: “What do you love and hate about Forums?” I thought it would be a nice finishing touch to the article.
I love it because It’s the place where you can share opinions and ask questions about everything.I hate it because of people, people are so stupid in general there should be an IQ test that should decide if people are qualified to join a specific forum ;)
Agata Poniatowska, poniatowska.net
Love – the ability to talk with people interested in a particular subject and express publicly your opinions as well as taking them from others, showing your ideas.Hate – complication of forums, the division to numerous subsections, various mods and other stuff that make the reading harder and the field for it smaller.
Maciej Trębacz, aylives.com
Love = community
Hate = usually no time to read all the topics
Piotr Bożetka, bozetka.net
Like – all the information gathered in one place, the possibility of asking for help if you can’t find answers by yourself, sometimes interesting people and new connections.Hate – haters, spammers, people who post just to bump their post-count up. People who tell others to look in google, it’s probably how I got there in the first place.
Adam Zasadny, aylives.com
I like the fact that everybody has his own opinion and can present it… as long as it’s within the topic. What I hate, are off topic posts.