How to make money with online forums

forum

Hi everyone. Alan here with a “how-to” guide in which I will do my best to show you how you can make money online with forums. I’ve been thinking about writing this article for a while now, but I never got around to writing it. I think it will be of some use to those of you who are both entrepreneurial and a bit technically inclined.

As you may or may not know I run a few online forums, and although my sites should not be seen as the model of “profitability” I still strongly believe that under the right conditions and with the right management and care an online forum CAN make you a lot of money. Thus I will attempt to now share with you whatever wisdom I’ve got about this subject matter. I think the best way to proceed is to have a “step by step” guide to getting into the online forum “business.” Please pardon me if I somehow insult your technical skills but for the purpose of this guide I will assume that you’re a total newbie when it comes to online forums. Some of the forum software I am going to discuss is commercial but there are free forum software alternatives out there and I will discuss them as well.

Now let’s begin!

Step 1: Find a niche market or “theme” for your online forum

Your first step is to find a topic or theme to which you will dedicate your forum. For example, if you’re into trading stocks or forex (like me) then naturally you are probably going to want to start a forex or stock forum. Please bear in mind to do some research beforehand to make sure that you aren’t getting into a niche that is saturated with already successful and popular forums. Competition is going to be tough, so unless you are absolutely 100% sure you can outdo your competition it is always best to try to find a unique niche.

Step 2: Decide which forum software you want to use

There are quite a few choices out there, both commercial and free software solutions. Here is a list of the commercial and free forum software you can use.

Commercial
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Vbulletin – (http://www.vbulletin.com)

This is quite a popular commercial forum software developed by a company by the name of Jelsoft. Vbulletin is the forum software that I use and in my opinion it is a pretty good piece of forum software. It is fast, well supported, and there are a ton of plugins, themes, and various addons for it. The downside is that it doesn’t come cheap. I believe the latest version (4.0) will cost you $195 for the “forum only” version. If you want the fancy pants “publishing suite” version prepare to shell out a cool $495.

Invision Power Board – IP. Board 3 (http://www.invisionpower.com/products/board/)

This is Vbulletin’s closes competitor. IPB (Invision Power Board) is a full featured and mature forum software package that is widely used and a good alternative to Vbulletin. I say it’s a good alternative to Vbulletin because first of all it’s cheaper and second it can do everything Vbulletin does. IPB costs $149 for a standard license. If you don’t want to host the forum on your own server the people behind Invision Power Board will host your forum for you. The pricing starts at $9.99 /month and goes all the way to $44.99/month. You can find out more details about what each hosted packages gets you at IPB’s website. If you’re moderately technically inclined I would recommend hosting the forum yourself.

Free Forum Software
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There are quite a few freely available forum software packages; actually quite a lot more than I have time to discuss in this article, so I will focus on 3 of the main ones that I think merit consideration.

SMF – Simple Machines Forum (http://www.simplemachines.org/)

This is the forum software that I first got started with before I converted over to Vbulletin. At the time SMF met all my needs and the software worked perfectly. After I switched over to Vbulletin I stopped following the latest developments in the SMF community but I hear they’re gearing up for a major release of the software – version 2.0 – which should make it more competitive with the commercial forum software packages. What’s great about SMF is that it’s free software. It is known as “open source” software and is maintained and improved upon by a dedicated group of coders. There is also quite a strong community around SMF. The downside of course is that since it’s a free software package the only support you can get is what is available on the SMF forum and on various online spots. Thus I would say that SMF is more well suited to those of you who are highly technically proficient. If you can troubleshoot and fix your own problems then SMF will serve you well.

phpBB – (http://www.phpbb.com/)

phpBB is as far as I know the world’s most popular free forum software package. I have never used it before so I can’t comment on its quality but I’m sure there is a reason it got to be so popular. No doubt it’s not 100% junk. Being very widely used means there will be a lot of community support you can get if you run into trouble. If you’re stuck with a particular problem most likely someone has ran across the same thing as you, so you’re more likely to find a solution.

MyBB – (http://www.mybb.com/)

MyBB is another widely used forum software package. I have absolutely no experience with this one. I haven’t even downloaded and test it it like I did with the other free forum software packages mentioned here. Thus I’m afraid I do not feel qualified to judge it. All I can say is that you should give it a try for yourself. Who knows, maybe you’ll find that it suits your needs perfectly.

Step 3 – Find a good shared web hosting package or dedicated server

Now that you’ve chosen your niche and decided which forum software to use the next step is to find a place to host it. You have two directions you can take. The first – and most economical – is to host your forum on a shared hosting account. The second – and more costly – is to get a dedicated server. Getting a dedicated server is the more “future proof” way to go, but it’s not going to be cheap. I suggest you first start off on a shared hosting account and alter on if your forum is a wild success then you can easily move to a hosting solution with larger capacity – ie VPS or dedicated server. I would recommend that you first off get a shared web hosting package that has CPanel as the control panel option and when you move on to a dedicated server or VPS solution that you also make sure that it too has CPanel support. This way you can make a full account backup on your shared hosting account and easily restore it on your dedicated server/VPS.

So what shared hosting company should I use is the million dollar question. The reality is that there are a TON of web hosting companies out there and deciding which one to go with can often be confusing and daunting to beginners. When you’re searching for a web hosting company please make sure that it meets the following criteria:

1) The server is Linux based. Although Windows hosting has come a long way typically Linux servers have been known to be more stable and because Linux is open source software there are no expensive licensing fees that your hosting provider passes on to you which means a Linux based hosting account will almost ALWAYS be cheaper than a windows based one.

2) Make sure your host supports PHP. This is almost a given as almost every web hosting company is the world has support for the PHP scripting language.

3) Make sure your web hosting company has a MySQL or PostgreSQL database server. The most popular one is MySQL as far as I know and it’s the one that I think you’ll most often find used by hosting companies. Either one is fine.

If you need help narrowing down your search for a web host I’ve compiled a somewhat brief list of the most popular ones that I know of.

1:  Hostgator – a very popular web hosting company that I still have an account with for a few of my less active sites. I also use it as a backup hosting account in case for whatever reason I need to move everything temporarily off of my dedicated server. I’ve had no problems with them in the past but if you run a very busy forum they’re not going to meet your needs. They do give you a great price and reliable service though.

2: Bluehost – another very popular web hosting company with a good set of features at a reasonable price. They give you unlimited bandwidth and storage space which is a good thing, but I’m not sure how what their max MySQL connections are, so if your forum gets a LOT of traffic I don’t think they’d be well suited for that.

3: Startlogic – one of the main hosting companies. I have no experience with them so I cannot comment.

4: IX Web Hosting – once again this one is another popular web hosting company that I have no experience with.

5: HostMonster – once again another very popular web hosting company that I unfortunately have no experience with.

6: IPOWER – popular web hosting company with unlimited storage and bandwidth. I have no experience with this company though.

7: Lunarpages – these guys offer not just shared hosting but dedicated servers too.

8: midPhase – this company provides very cheap shared hosting as well as dedicated server. I browsed around their dedicated server deals and they’re pretty good in my opinion.

9: easyCGI – this is a Windows based shared hosting company, but they do give you everything you need to run a forum, so if you for some reason prefer a windows based hosting account this is the one to choose in my opinion.

10: POWWEB – what I really like about this company is that they use clusters of servers to host our website which means the load gets distributed among multiple physical servers. This also means should one server fail for whatever reason your website will NOT go down. Pretty cool! I’d say this is one very strong selling point for them.

11: HostExcellence – I have no experience with this one but from what I know they’re a popular web hosting company.

12: Globat – another popular web hosting company that I unfortunately have no experience with.

That about does it for my mega list of shared hosting companies. If you find that you need a dedicated server either right now or at some point in the future I recommend you checkout these companies.

Dedicated Servers Providers
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1: iWeb – A Canadian company that I had a dedicated server for a year and a half. I was extremely pleased with their service – very reliable and fast servers. The reason I switched though was cause I found a better deal somewhere else. I still recommend them though – especially if you’re a Canadian and you wish to deal with a Canadian company for whatever reason.

2: Rackspace – Arguably the if not one of the biggest dedicated managed hosting provider. They can custom tailor a dedicated server solution for you. Rackspace is used by a lot of the “big websites” out there – especially the mega sized forums. If you’ve made it to the “big times” this company is one you may wish to look into.

3: DedicatedNOW – 100% uptime guarantee, fully managed servers, and KVM over IP are just a few of the reasons to consider this company when shopping for a dedicated server.

4: Codero – This is the company that I’m presently with. I got a good deal on a core i7 dedicated server over the Christmas holiday and so far so good I haven’t had any problems that I can directly blame on them. I think they deserve your consideration if you’re shopping for a dedicated server – especially since once in a while they have some crazy 50% off deals.

That does it for the dedicated servers providers. I’m sure there are plenty more others but by the time your forum grows large enough to need a dedicated server I’m sure you would’ve already made up your mind as to which provider you wish to use.

Step 4 – Monetize your forum

Now this is the step where you decide how you wish to monetize your forum. You have quite a few available options. You can either chose to sell your own ad space at certain locations of the forum (example: top of the forum, left sidebar, right sidebar) or you can fill your available ad locations with banners from an advertising network such as Google’s AdSense. Which route you decide to go is up to you. I’d suggest that at first you give AdSense a try. You can also combine selling custom ad locations and have one or two AdSense banners as well. This is the approach that I decided to take as I found that for my forums the money I’ve earned with AdSense wasn’t enough to cover the dedicated server costs. If you keep your site on a shared hosting account even AdSense money should be enough to both pay for the hosting account and leave you with a nice profit at the end of the month.

I’m not going to get into which adverting network(s) to go with as that would mean this article would go on for 20+ pages. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of resources you can use both here on my blog and via a simple Google search. Like I said I would recommend that you try AdSense first and see how that works out for you. Banner placement is very important so make sure you place your AdSense baners at the top of the forum (far righ top) and in the Navbar (below the forum header) and if you can at the bottom of the forum. If you have a sidebar on the left or right side of the forum you can also try placing a “skyscrapper” banner in those locations as well. In my experience though I found that the best performing locations are “above the fold” – navbar and header.

My forum profit tips

Ok, now that you’ve monetized your forum and money is rolling in here is what I recommend that you do to both keep the profits rolling in and ensure your forum grows.

1) Avoid in-text advertising. As tempting as they may seem I think they will only serve to annoy your forum visitors. Every time they move their cursor over a “linked keyword” they’ll get an annoying ad popup box. If your visitor likes to scan with their mouse as they read they will get hit by these ad popup boxes like crazy. Also I found that these in-text advertisement solutions don’t really bring in that much money – ie they’re not effective (they have a low CTR)

2) Keep your forum spam free. Constantly scan your forum for spammers and both delete their posts/threads and BAN them. Also take the time to look into installing anti spammer plugins for yoru forum software. If you use vBulletin I strongly recommend you look into the following anti-spammer plugins:  vbStopForumSpam , SPAM Decimator (sorry I don’t have a link for it, Google it)

3) Keep your forum fresh and free of stale and old topics (especially those with zero replies)

4) Moderate your forum and be as active as possible on it.

5) Deal with conflicts and drama effectively and promptly. Don’t let trolls and other forum drama queens ruin the forum experience of other members.

6) Always back up often! You never know when some disaster might strike and having an old backup means you’ll lose recent posts which is something that will annoy forum members for certain!

7) Don’t get overzealous with banners and other advertisements. Don’t turn your forum into a mass of flashy banners and sponsored links galore. Keep it as visually light and unobtrusive as possible.

I think that about does it for my tips. If I think of some more I’ll add them later, or if you happen to have a tip you’d like to share please feel free to leave a comment.

I think I will end this post right here. I’ll conclude by saying that if you have the passion for it running a forum can be both fun and challenging as well as profitable. Now go out there and make it your own. Be creative and start something big.

I wish you all the best of luck!

Cheers,

Alan