This guest post is by Michael Silverman of Duo Consulting.
As bloggers, we’re constantly obsessing over ways to extend our reach to more people. We hover over every scrap of information about promoting our blogs and expanding our audience. And we use social media channels to get the word out and go viral.
There’s no doubt that these are important parts of maintaining a successful blog. Still, what role do you assign to your existing audience? Most bloggers are appreciative of their readership, but many rarely consider that their existing audience can do more than promote content and keep the comments active.
Why don’t we spend more time inflating the potential of our existing audience?
Tapping the hidden potential
I’ll answer that question with another one: do you think of your blog as a publishing platform with occasional interaction, or a full-blown community?
For successful bloggers, it’s quite probable that your readers have more to say than they post in the comments. Raise the value of your blog by giving audience members the means to connect.
Consider the potential of integrating forums into your website.
It worked for Dooce. Heather Armstrong’s success promoting her unique brand of perspective came over ten years of blogging. Site analytics concluded more than a quarter of Dooce’s traffic was made up of repeat visitors, some of whom visited hundreds of times per new post. They were begging for a home. They craved an identity.
Working with an online community development expert, Heather integrated a Q&A forum into her website. Within the first day, nearly 16,000 loyal readers signed up for the Dooce community—a clear indicator that the community was already present, almost supernaturally, and was hungry for the interaction in which it subsequently engaged.
How forums add value
You can do more with your audience, too.
Maximizing that potential requires a transition in perspective. In addition to positioning your blog as an editorial content machine, consider five ways more user-generated content can strengthen your site’s value.
1. Empower your readers with ownership
Everyone wants to be a part of the experience. When you offer your readers a place to interact, they become a catalyst for content. Elevating your audience from readers to contributors implies a newfound sense of ownership that can greatly increase loyalty to your brand.
2. Keep your audience on your site longer
You’re only one person, and you can only generate so much content. Bloggers with strong followings have found that readers visit multiple times per post. Without new content, you lose a golden opportunity to keep visitors on your site longer. Yet with forums, you gain a source of new content that won’t require much day-to-day commitment on your end.
3. Improve search visibility
In addition to all of the backbreaking promotional labor you perform, consider the continuous stream of new content that a forum can produce. Your site gets constant attention from search engines while gaining traction for new keywords.
4. Simplify how readers connect with each other
Your blog is a valuable source of networking opportunity, but it’s difficult to tap into if you’re only employing the comments for reader interaction.
Forums, on the other hand, create a channel for direct interaction between readers. You already provide your audience with valuable information; expand that value by offering them the means to connect.
5. Find new ways to empathize with readers
Your content is successful because you understand the motivations of your audience and empathize with them. Forums open the conversation up, offering you valuable insights into your audience that you can turn into writing inspiration. You can also leverage these conversations to connect with your audience on a more personal level, in an appropriate venue separate from your blog’s editorial feed.
The right tools for the job
How easy or difficult it is to plug forums in depends on your blogging platform. If you’re on WordPress, you can integrate popular forum software like bbPress. Singletrack Magazine, for instance, couples article content with popular mountain biking forums (powered by bbPress).
If you have a large content library powered by Drupal, you have options. Dooce’s Q&A section was built in Drupal. Among the most popular of the modules available for Drupal websites is the Advanced Forum module.
Sometimes, a strong blog or publication builds itself up on the power of user-generated content. AbsolutePunk, a popular online community for pop-punk enthusiasts, leverages vBulletin to get the job done. The software comes with a strong CMS to help power site and editorial content. Or, like some blogs and sites, you may decide to host the forum on another platform.
No matter what CMS you use, you can build forums that mimic the theme of the website and link back and forth between the website content and forums.
You have an opportunity in front of you to raise the value of your website. If you take advantage of it effectively, the rewards can be great.
Do you have a forum on your blog? Are you a forum member on another blog? Share your experiences with us in the comments.
In addition to founding and leading Chicago-based Duo Consulting, Michael Silverman has headed up a number of online community development projects for 15 years. He just launched the book on online communities, Capturing Community: How to Build, Manage and Market Your Online Community.