The forum has long been the mainstay of the classic car club since the late ’90s as the primary means of community driven information. Before that, the technology available to clubs was restricted to the mailing list server where an individual would send an email to the ‘group’, and the mailing list server would forward that email to the community. Mailing list servers are still around today, Yahoo Groups is still in widespread use and has evolved over time to still appeal to certain groups of users.
In today’s world, just as it was in the late ’90s when the mailing list server was coming under threat from the forum, we are confronted with another evolutionary reality – social media.
So is Facebook, and in particular the Facebook Group sounding the death knell of the community forum?
We have spoken to many car clubs, including forum based car clubs about the rise of social media and the impact that Facebook has had on their forum and the story is the same. Everyone it seems is witnessing a steady decline in the number of new signups and postings to the forum with a heavy move to Facebook Groups. So why is this?
Yes it’s true. Love it or loathe it, Facebook has made a very good job of making their system easy to use.
With our constant on-the-go lifestyle we find Facebook on our laptop, our tablet, and on our smartphone. Building the online community has never been easier.
Even if we’re under our car working on a particular job, we can take a photo, add a sentence and post. Before we’ve finished the job, our phone will have ‘pinged’ many times notifying us that people have replied or commented. It is simple to use, convenient and easy.
By contrast, most people find using a forum to be more laptop based. We upload photographs to our favourite photo site, write out our post, link to our photos and post. Receiving replies require manually checking because there are no automatic notifications to tell us – unless we are configured for email notification. But that is not as instant and convenient as Facebook.
So yes, Facebook is easy. We have even discussed the subject with many club committee members of forum based clubs and they too, with their head half hanging in shame, admit that they use Facebook Groups too, perhaps more than they should, because it is so convenience.
So what does the forum have going for it if Facebook is so good?
The forum is all yours !
This is the key to the value of the forum.
- You own it
- The information within it is yours
- It encourages solutions
- You can decide what you do with it
- The forum archive is searchable
- Google will search and index it
By contrast, with Facebook
- You don’t own any information and you can’t export/migrate it
- Information is very ‘transitory’. As more posts get added, early ones sink down the list and they’re almost impossible to find in six months time
- It encourages community chat
- Which posts are shown is controlled by Facebook
- Facebook can change the rules at any time without notice
- Searching for information is very difficult
- Google are less likely to search and index Groups
Well that looks like a real positive for the club forum, but how do we influence people’s behaviour to use the forum instead of Facebook?
The short answer is that you can’t. You can encourage it, but you can’t make that change. Back in the late ’90s when the forum was the only avenue open, forums were more than an organic technical repository, they were also the hub of the community and also fostered general discussions. It is much of that community that has drifted over to social media and it is this that clubs must embrace. We discussed in an earlier blog Why do we need social media? how clubs should be the focal point of all things club related on social media, and we need to reiterate that point again here. If you don’t have a Facebook Group already, you really need to ask yourself why not? If you don’t have one because of your forum or because you have a Facebook Page then you really need to think again. Anyone can start a Facebook Group about your car(s) so make sure it is your club that does it. If there are already a number of Facebook Groups that exist, don’t worry, start one anyway. Co-existence of Facebook Groups is commonplace and most people will belong to them all – but as the club, you are the focal point of technical and historical information that earns you kudos before you’ve even lifted a finger for your first post. If you’re not there in Facebook Groups, then someone else is going to have that audience and you will lose out.
So how can we encourage use of our forum?
Well this is social media, and one of the purposes of social media is to share information. All too often we’ve seen technical questions asked in Facebook Groups, and the answer given in laborious detail in a follow-up Facebook post. It is easy to fall into this trap, but if your answer is already in your forum’s archives, don’t answer the question again – share it!
Take every opportunity you have on Facebook (and any social media) to share your content to your Group, other Groups and periodically to your Page. This will pull social media visitors to your forum and continually drive them towards your forum which will help keep your forum community alive. As an additional effect, it will also help you with Google!
Google’s index and your forum
Google is the number 1 search engine and they too keep changing the rules. If you’re finding that the number of visitors your forum is receiving from organic searches (assuming you’re tracking your analytics) is reducing, it could well be the result of the many changes Google have implemented over the last few years. Much of what Google do in their search algorithms is only known to them. But what is widely known is that social signals (link sharing on social media) are having a major impact on the search algorithm. These social signals are a very good indication of what people are talking about, interested in, and the pages that are being shared are likely to be good quality content to have made it worth sharing in the first place. So take advantage of this – sharing your forum posts on social media can also have a positive effect on improving the ranking of your forum in the Google search index – and we all like to be on top of that one.
There is still a place in the classic car club for the forum, its use has changed and it is no longer the central hub of the community. This is simply a fact of technological evolution and peoples’ behavioural changes. Facebook and social media must be embraced and seen as another avenue to reach out to potential enthusiasts, and to integrate its use with your existing forum. You may never see the number of visitors and posts that you once had, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t valuable.
For forums (and indeed websites) to be successful, they need to be seen to have engaging quality content that makes it worthwhile for visitors to view and sign up. If it doesn’t, why would they? In current times, with so much available for free across the internet “because we’re the club” is no longer enough, people need to see the proof that the club is worth investing in.
For many clubs, the forum may still dwindle, but it should survive, it just may no longer be the mainstay of the club, and for many clubs, this could mean a re-think to their whole online strategy for the future.
However for the reasons listed above, no club should ever go Facebook only. You will never own your information and you’ll never be able to properly search it. Going this route will lead to an online community-based club with no archives and no home – and you don’t want to build your house on someone else’s land!