Many in the past have asked me how to create a forum website and successfully monetize it. Though I’ve responded in theory, I have no practical experience building and monetizing a successful forum. However, my friend Mike (a fellow Michigan Wolverine) operates a successful credit card forum which he started from scratch all by himself back in 2008. Mike has been kind enough to provide this extensive guest post on how to create a forum website from scratch and profit from it. Enter Mike . . .
Even the largest forums like FlyerTalk and BodyBuilding.com are miniscule when compared to the broad appealing social networks like Facebook and Twitter… yet people still continue flocking to their favorite forums. Why? Because they each fill a unique void within social media. Instead of offering up everyone and everything, a forum can be a hangout dedicated to a specific interest and demographic.
If you want to create a forum website from scratch, I have some invaluable tips I would like to share with you. I learned these from creating CreditCardForum.com (which has grown to become the #1 message board solely dedicated to credit cards).
Pay careful attention, because parts one and two are undoubtedly the most important. You will never be able to build a skyscraper if you don’t build the right foundation. When it comes to choosing a concept, here are two of the most important things to consider:
(a) Your Niche – The more focused you are, the better. I’m not saying you should choose a totally obscure topic that only 0.01% of the population is interested in. But on the other hand, you shouldn’t choose something that is so broad, it will be an uphill battle establishing yourself. For example, creating a generic football forum would be insanely competitive, but creating a forum for a specific team or geographic region would be a niche a lot more easier to break into (like a site about high school and college teams in Michigan).
However if you’re out to make money, you will need to make sure you can profit off the niche you choose. We’ll talk about that in a few minutes.
(b) Your Domain – If you are going for something even slightly competitive, then get the right domain because it allows you to rank so much easier. Credit Card Forum was probably the best investment I have ever made, because it allowed me to rank at the top for “credit card forum” with very little work, instantly giving me a shortcut. You can do the same, by choosing whatever your topic is, followed by the word forum. Learn more about choosing a domain here.
The other benefit is that when people link to you, those words in your name will be used. For me that helps the site rank for credit card related terms, since the word “credit card” is in my name. If I tried to think of a clever name like PlasticForum then I wouldn’t get to enjoy that perk.
Last but not least, these days I advise against hyphenated names. They do look better for longer names, but unfortunately are not ranked the same if you are aiming for an exact match (i.e. creditcardforum.com will be given significantly more weight than credit-card-forum.com when someone searches for those words).
After you are absolutely sure of your niche and have your name locked down, it’s time to start brainstorming the framework of the site. You should give the most thought to these three things, since you can’t change them later on.
(a) Platform: There are several different message board programs out there such as vBulletin, Invision Powerboards, phpBB, and a couple others. For Credit Card Forum I use vBulletin and favor it, simply because it is the one I now know how to use. However in all fairness, I have heard great things about Invision, too (but don’t have experience with it myself). The third mentioned, phpBB, is free but whatever you do, don’t base your decision on price if you are trying to build a big money making website. Shortcuts like saving a couple hundred on forum software may cost you thousands (or much more) in the long run, if you are stuck with a platform that can’t do what you need it to.
(b) URL Structure: For this, I am referring to the formatting of the URLs. It is very bad to change them after being created, so make sure you get this right the first time.
With forums, the URLs are automatically created by the platform you use. Some platforms make pretty ones (using the words you specify) and others make ugly ones (using random numbers, letters and characters). The latter you don’t want. Not only are they ugly, but they’re bad for SEO since they won’t contain the words and phrases you are aiming for.
On Credit Card Forum, I use vBulletin along with a plugin known as vBSEO. Together they allow for “pretty” URLS and here is an actual example:
Of course the first part is the domain. The “/rewards/” is the forum category. 1243 is the post number. Last but not least, the words after that is the actual title of the post. This may seem trivial but it’s very important! Without that plugin, I would have random numbers and characters there. But now I have the words related to the Chase Sapphire credit card offer, which is what I want this review to rank for.
(c) Site Structure: This also ties into the URLs, since where you put things will affect your internal URLs, too. I’m talking about thing such as:
I made a mistake on Credit Card Forum when upgrading to vBulletin 4.0, which included a content management system to host articles. It required the URL format to be like this:
I had to select a folder to host the articles and ended up going with /content/ as you can see above. This was a mistake, because going with something more relevant like /reviews/ or /offers/ would have made more sense. But unfortunately, I can’t change it now. So when you run into decisions like this, don’t take them lightly!
Although this is #3 on the list, it directly correlates to #1 about choosing your concept. Why? Because you need to make sure your concept is one that can be monetized. You could have the #1 forum in the world for sewing, but don’t expect to make a fortune off of it. If you’re in it to make big bucks, you need to make sure the niche is one that pays handsomely.
Here are some of the most common ways websites make money:
Now that you have made your forum, how do you market it? That is the million dollar question and you may not like my answer because it’s not very specific, but it’s the truth: there is no one-size-fits-all answer. What it will take to make it a success and generate traffic will largely depend on the audience you are going after. That being said, here is some advice that will apply for everyone:
Great Content: “Build and they will come” does not apply to forums. If folks come and it looks like a ghost town with little content, don’t expect them to stick around. That means you will have to do whatever it takes to jumpstart things. Beg your family, friends and others to signup and participate. As the administrator, you should also write as many articles as you can to gain search engine traffic. On Credit Card Forum I am constantly writing detailed information about various credit card deals and in-depth reviews,
Offline Marketing: For my industry, I didn’t think this would be appropriate so I never pursued it (plus the Chase credit card program doesn’t allow offline marketing without permission). However for certain categories of websites I think you should. Take the example above for Michigan football teams… local promotion would definitely make sense for that.
Online Marketing: This encompasses a number of different things. Learn more about effective internet marketing strategies here.
One last thing I would like to say is that all of this takes time. I started Credit Card Forum in 2008 and it probably took around 18 months until it gained traction and during that time, I was putting in dozens of hours every week. So don’t expect things to happen overnight. The key is to build it the right way and then work your butt off… eventually it will pay off!
Michael started Credit Card Forum from scratch in 2008. His goal is for it to be the #1 site for the top credit card deals and thus far, he’s very happy in the progress it has made, especially considering the fact that his company is only a one-man operation.
Readers: Have you had success with forum websites in the past? Does this sound like a viable online business model to you? How does it compare to a static niche website, a blog or a membership site?