Getting a forum off the ground more than nearly anything else is one of the most time consuming things for a content site publisher to do. In some cases it takes years to get enough posts for the forum to truly become active.
The issue is that if people have no threads to reply to then they are less likely to register, and if no one ever registers then there will be no threads to reply to. It is very much a catch-22 situation. You will get the occasional person who registered to ask a question, and after a significant amount of time you may have enough of those people to get the ball rolling. However in general forums need a critical mass of posts before they start getting active with daily repeat visitors. I estimate that mass to be at least 1000 posts.
If you don’t wish to wait though there are tricks, you can manufacturer posts automatically using public domain content. You can talk to yourself, literally, with multiple usernames, you can beg your friends to visit and post, or you can pay people to post. The latter, paying for posts, is what I wish to talk about today.
New businesses have always run contests as part of their initial marketing, and Internet businesses are no different. So you could run a contest with prizes for the first posters to reach a certain level of posts, making sure they’re all of quality though. You could also run a contest with a prize for the person who refers the most new members. The upside of this is that you will gain the benefit of the efforts of the second, third, and fourth place finishers (and all the way down the line) without actually having to pay them. The downside of this method is that you’ll likely have to spend a significant amount of time moderating the contest to prevent cheating, copyright infringement, and useless posting. If you have a lot of time but not a lot of money this might be for you. I personally prefer other methods. If you do wish to run a contest SitePoint has a special forum for advertising it.
One ingenious method of bribing your posters is sharing the revenue from the site. At face value this seems like a massive headache. Making sure you have their tax information, sending out multiple checks, building trust so they know you’re not shorting them. However it’s really not that hard if you use Google Adsense. All you really need is for your user’s to sign up with Google Adsense and then you modify your forum code to allow them to enter their Adsense ID into their forum profile and then have your forum randomly pull that ID a percentage of the time on threads that the user started, thus giving them a share of the revenue from their own posts. I think this is a great way to encourage user activity. If it sounds too technical to tackle, don’t worry, people have coded hacks for this very thing that carry simple installation instructions. The one for vBulletin is here.
I tried this method and unfortunately it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, I only got a handful of new members. I still have a lot of faith in this method though, I simply think that members have to see some earnings from the beginning or they get discouraged. So for a new site with little traffic it’s not really going to be that effective. Down the road though if you’re already established but trying to grow quickly and or get the edge over a competing forum I think this is definitely something to consider.
Paying for Posts
There is also the option of paying for posts directly. Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t post in SitePoint’s forums asking for paid posters. You can follow the example of these people and hire out to individuals, but much like the contest option you have to worry about policing each individual poster and spend more time sending payment to everyone. I personally prefer something a little easier.
Due to the recent growth of the paying for posts phenomenon many companies have sprung up offering forum posting services. These companies hire, pay, and police the posters for good behavior. You just make a one time purchase and they handle the rest. The prices are also reasonable, at least in my opinion. It sounded like a great option to me.
Now, there are issues to worry about here. I was worried that these companies would send me a bunch of posters with poor English skills, people who would post off topic, or maybe just immature teenagers who’d fill my forums with “leetspeak” garbage. So I contacted many of these companies about reviewing their services, and ended up reviewing two of them, and yes they knew they were being reviewed when they provided their services so there is always the possibility that they were treating me better than their normal clients. Though hopefully if any of you try their services you’ll post your own review in the comments here.
The first company I reviewed was Inb0x.com, they got back to me ultra quick, quicker than any other company I contacted. The work was done in about 2 weeks after that, as I requested. Their posters seemed to be mostly from the UK and as such had excellent English skills. I got two mid level packages which were 300 posts for $65.99. I had them post on two brand new forums of mine, one which I considered to be an easy topic, and one which I considered to be a hard topic.
As to be expected the easier topic one was done first, and they seemed to struggle more with the harder topic, but they honestly beat my expectations with the harder topic. The writers seemed to actually research the topic before trying to post, and their posts were much better than I had hoped for.
I did not mention that I did not want them posting in general chat, however Inb0x.com did post more in general chat than the other company I reviewed, having a total of 36% of their posts in that area.
Inb0x.com also offers 75 posts for $22.99 and 700 posts for $145.99, which would be the package I recommend as I really think a forum needs around 1000 posts to get the ball rolling.
The second company I reviewed was PostOnMyForum.com. These guys got back to me quickly as well, but it was to tell me that they were too busy to take on any additional work right at the moment, so it was a couple weeks before they were actually available to start with the posting.
Like I did with Inb0x.com I requested two mid-level packages, here they are $95 for 300 posts, and had them do one on each of my forums. It took these guys a little longer than Inb0x.com to complete their work, however I believe this was due to a few of their workers slacking off. When I mentioned this to them they promptly removed and replaced the slackers, giving me the posts the slackers had done for free.
Another difference is that PostOnMyForum.com has the option of allowing writers to post under multiple usernames. I initially accepted this option, as I thought that it would increase the appearance of activity. However I would not do so again. The reason is that when allowed this freedom the writers seemed to post a lot of “yes I agree” type replies to their other posts. This increased their post count but did not really add much in quality content to the forum.
Most of PostOnMyForum.com’s posters seemed to be from the US, though they did seem young. Like Inb0x.com it seemed that on the harder forum they did do research before posting, which is good, however I feel that they didn’t do as much research. As far as posting in general chat goes only 22% of their posts were in those areas.
PostOnMyForum.com also offers 100 posts for $35 and 1000 posts for $285, and again I recommend the largest available package if you really want to get things moving.
Overall I was very pleased with my experience with both forum posting services and I am definitely going to have to recommend using such a service if you have a new forum and can afford it. Using these services can allow you to fast forward months or even years ahead in your forum’s growth and so eventually the advertising revenue earned from that increased growth should more than cover what you paid for these posts to begin with. I know that next time I launch a forum I’ll be doing this, and I may even do it again for the two new forums I mentioned here.