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How To Create a Forum Website From Scratch & Profit From It

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 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 (which has grown to become the #1 message board solely dedicated to credit cards).

Part One: Choosing a Concept for Your Forum Website

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. will be given significantly more weight than when someone searches for those words).

Part Two: Formation

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:

  • forum categories: With my site you will notice there are different forum categories for American Express, Discover/Diners Club, and Visa/MasterCard. Since these categories end up being included in each post’s URL structure, it’s important to choose them carefully (I’m happy with most of the ones I chose, but not all).
  • site components: Will the forum be the only thing on your site? Or will you have other components too, such as a blog? If so, you should figure this out in advance.

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!

Part Three: Monetization

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:

  • Affiliate Ads: This is where you advertise a product or service and get paid a commission for each converting customer you send. Nowadays all sorts of industries participate in this and financials are one of the biggest. So I can promote my favorite cash back credit cards, balance transfer offers and the like, earning a commissions for everyone who submits and application and is approved.
  • Pay Per Click: These are the types of ads where you get paid for each person that clicks, regardless of whether or not they buy the product/service. Adsense is the most prominent example. When it comes to forums, I’m not the biggest fan of this approach since you usually need a great deal of traffic to generate decent earnings, but if your website gets enough people coming, it very might make sense (and is definitely the easiest to implement).
  • Ecommerce: This would be selling products/services directly to your visitors. Since this is an article about how to create a forum website for beginners, I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of ecommerce since that’s a whole other beast that is not my area of expertise. Check out Sunil’s story of how he started and sold an ecommerce business for $250k because he’s the man when it comes to this!

Part Four: Marketing

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?


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35 Responses to “How To Create a Forum Website From Scratch & Profit From It”

  1. Great work sunil, Love the way you explained the creation and monetization process of a forum.

  2. I started a forum many years ago – but as a subsection of a content site I owned rather than as a stand-alone entity. In this way I was already receiving hundreds of visitors each day from the search engines so the forum was immediately “kick started” as a way for visitors to ask questions and interact.

    This seems like a good way to get started – or launch your forum on a separate domain and then use your content site/blog to drive traffic to it.

    Unfortunately I personally ended up shutting down the forum in the end because I got fed up with chasing spammers and deleting links to p*rn sites every day but I’m guessing the technology has come on quite a way since then!

    • Sunil says:

      Richard – you are right in that it takes a lot of time, hard work and patience to start and more importantly maintain / sustain the forum. You other point is also valid in that it is difficult to establish a successful forum from ground-up without having the means to drive traffic to it. Many have leveraged popular websites and driven traffic to a related / attached forum.

      How long did you work on yours before folding? Were you able to salvage anything?

      Perhaps Mike can visit us and give us some guidance on how to work around these roadblocks and educate us on new tech that is designed to make like easier for forum owners and moderators ? ?

  3. Andrew says:

    I tried forums but it seems that most new members are simply bots or spammers, so it seems like a waste of time unless you can quickly gain momentum from a group of friends that can out-post the spammers.

    I think it’s better to go for a static site or blog.

    • Sunil says:

      Welcome to the blog Andrew. I am in agreement in that starting off with a static website / blog would be an easier route to ensure the success of a forum. What did you end up doing with the forums you tried?

      • Andrew says:

        Hi Sunil

        the first one I deleted, but I am still running but it is more like a hobby since I enjoy owning a forum 🙂

      • Andrew says:

        Buddy, I just noticed that you are applying rel=nofollow to commentluv links which is not right.

      • Totally agree- the ideal route is probably to start with a popular static site and then add a forum on to it later, so you have that existing traffic coming in and the forum won’t be a ghost town. However if you can do an exact match name like I did with Credit Card Forum and there are enough people searching for that phrase, then it can help you kickstart things for sure. That’s probably the only way I would go if I were to launch another forum.

        • Sunil says:

          Great point Mike – one should not underestimate the impact of a direct match. You do have an excellent domain name

          • Mike @ Credit Card Forum says:

            Yeah it’s funny… at the time I didn’t even understand the power of a direct match… I actually just chose it because I liked the name and ring to it, ha! I definitely got lucky in accidentally making the right decision on the name.

    • Yes the spammers are major problem for sure! The captchas aren’t very effective, but surprisingly, I have found a simple custom Q&A at registration on Credit Card Forum works well (probably cuts 95% of them since I implemented it).

      • Sunil says:

        Since you are a one man operation, do you delete the remaining 5% spam yourself or outsource this piece?

        • haha! Mike.. did you get this Q&A as a plugin or created it yourself? Would be interested in something like that as we get hundreds of spam each day and its just annoying to see and to take the 10 seconds to delete.

        • Mike @ Credit Card Forum says:

          Yep I do everything myself, unfortunately. I really should start outsourcing parts of this but I’m a control freak for quality so don’t know how well doing so would work. But about the remaining 5% it’s really not that many – maybe 10 posts/day at most, which isn’t bad considering the hundreds per day I got before.

  4. Daniel says:

    Nice article.

    But when you say you cant change the url from /content/ to /review/ so you mean you can’t technically (i highly doubt) or for SEO reasons? If for seo resons you can easily do that. After you changed the url you only need a htaccess rule to 301 redirect everything that goes to /content/ to /review/

    • Sunil says:

      Daniel – that is waaaay beyond my head lol. Certainly helps to have a more technical perspective from experienced individuals like yourself.

      I am hoping Mike will drop by at some point and clarify some of these for us.

    • Thanks Daniel and you are absolutely correct- it is definitely possible, but unfortunately for SEO I hear it’s still not ideal. There’s a good chance you know more about this area than me, but from what I have studied and read, 301s don’t pass 100% of the juice (supposedly 90% or so). But again, you might know more than me when about that.

      • Daniel says:

        Hi Mike,

        301 redirects are just perfect for that. And all search engines know how to handle a “301 moved permanent” redirect. I don’t think it has any impact and if you compare it to the new url with a better keyword that it’s absolutely worth it. (bc of the 301 redirect SE won’t even mark it as duplicate content)

  5. You gave so much information. I tried to create a forum site several years ago but I did not push through with it because there are so much technicalities involved. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Daniel is quite right, Mike.

    PS Sunil, wanted to make sure you saw your blog on my new CommentLuv enabled blog list!

  7. Andrew says:

    As an alternative to the paid vbulletin script, I recommend people check out the MyBB forum script which I use. I settled on this after trying other free ones such as phpBB, and Simple Machines (SMF).

    • Sunil says:

      Andrew – any links you can recommend that show a synopsis of one vs the other? I am curious about the pros and cons. maybe your thoughts from experience?

      • Andrew says:

        From personal experience I found phpBB very complicated and it seems to have a history of being attacked due to it’s popularity. SMF was my initial preference, but I found that creating custom themes was difficult due to too much mixing up of the forum PHP code with the templates, but MyBB seemed to overcome these problems with easy theme modification via the admin interface, and it was more up modern and worked well.

  8. Alex says:

    I know some sites where you can hire posters for your forum. So they can create messages and it will be looked like real live discussion.

    • Sunil says:

      Welcome Alex. I have heard of those services and they are everywhere. I can see beginners employing such tactics to appear as credible / popular. Social proof helps attract / compel others to participate as well until the forum truly becomes a self sustaining entity.

  9. Moe james says:

    This is a great article! I have been wanting to start a forum. Thanks.

  10. Brett says:

    Forums are great long term investments, but they can be hard work to set up and maintain. My friend runs a forum and he’s overrun with spammers (mostly from outsourced link builders – think before you hire cheap Indian link builders!).

    And I haven’t even mentioned trolls or other nightmares…

  11. Sunil

    After reading this I am pretty sure that I am going to stay away from creating a Forum.

    Thanks as always

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