Thursday, June 26, 2014

Capitalizing On ForumCon 2014

I attended ForumCon 2014 in San Francisco last week.  I assumed it would be something like the social media events I attended last year, with an emphasis on SEO and other marketing methods.  It turned out to be a much more valuable view into a sector of the digital economy I have not analyzed in a long time.  My photos may not have the greatest resolution, but I was there for the knowledge and not the visuals.

I don't know the demographic breakdown of the attendees.  I got the impression most of them ran online forums and were in the market for hosting services, developers, and moderators.  The conference sponsors have solved forum monetization with advertising networks and affiliate marketing.  I was lucky enough to sit with my friend Ania Dziadon, and she shared her insights from running EasyFinance and AddOptimization.

One panelist mentioned that affiliate marketing is a natural way to monetize a forum because users who engage content through regular discussions are likely to make online purchases.  I don't spend enough time on forums like Reddit or Quora to understand how their audiences are segmented, but I think forums with very broad coverage are more easily monetized with ads than affiliate links.  Follow my thinking.  The RTB ad network can instantly configure display ads as discussion threads address new content.  The critical thing is to have a site moderator agile enough to enable new ad links as users create new discussion threads, or to just automate that function.  I get the panelists' complaint that display ads need special configuration, especially for mobile, but I suspect that interstitial ads (like those that appear between game levels in the mobile game sector) are worth a shot on some forums.

I learned a new term from one of the panels:  "user funnel."  That may be a different way of addressing the "conversion funnel" that tracks a forum user's progress to a sale, but then again not every forum will monetize with affiliate sales.  I share the panelists' concerns about large-format data tables displaying poorly in mobile, but my solution is probably not what they want to hear.  I would relegate data tables to separate files that can be downloaded from a link in a forum.  Video and audio embeds in a forum should display much better than data and I've seen a few forum sites where that isn't a problem.

It was cool to see David Spinks discuss a "lean startup" interpretation of online community launches.  That's exactly what new forum owners need to stay viable in their early months.  David has a good article at The Community Manager on how a lean community leverages that model.  A lean community should act like a product that solves user pain points.  The expert definition of a "Minimum Viable Community" kept coming up throughout the day when forum owners described how they add value.  The lean community method relies on metrics from social network analysis like strong ties, weak ties, and network density.  David's presentation was the first mention I'd heard of the sense of community theory in the context of online life.  I wonder if measurements of membership and influence are the same as in real life given the ease with which users can construct multiple online personas.  David's work at CMX Hub is worth a look for folks who get serious about adopting his approach and lowering users' barriers to entry.

Another speaker shed some light on valid metrics to track.  Unique visitors, loyal email subscribers, and monthly influencer reach by social media platform were a few favorites I heard mentioned.  I don't know what tools forum users prefer but I got the point that viable communities have an authentic language and true superstars.  Controversy with an emotional hook will engage a community.  I've seen that on popular political discussion sites, but IMHO controversy may not translate into sales.  That would mean people must buy something when they're angry, and online shopping is supposed to be as pleasant and frictionless as possible.  Controversy probably monetizes ad-driven Web communities more than affiliate-linked communities.

The talk on forum moderation brought me some revelations.  The truisms I learned in the US military about having mission statements, using two-way communication, and celebrating little successes all came out here as moderation essentials.  I had to wonder why forum owners thought disabled veterans made good full-time paid moderators.  I realize many injured vets have limited career options and may prefer an online job that allows them to work from home.  Moderation is a low-paying, unconventional career choice and forum gurus made it sound like another dead-end job.  I know that we vets sometimes have to take what we can get, but this kind of offering keeps veterans out of high-powered careers.  It must appeal to people who want a digital nomad's lifestyle.  They key metric for a moderator's efficiency is cost per comment processed, and machine-assisted moderation reduces that cost.  I was surprised to learn that disabling a guest login feature increases user engagement, presumably by requiring people to commit to registering an online identity.

I learned another new term during a break in the panel action:  "supply-side platform (SSP)."  It is the content publisher's mirror image of the RTB ad networks' demand-side platform (DSP).  Don't ask me what it takes for a publisher to run an SSP.  I'm still trying to figure out how to maximize my own revenue from a DSP.

Startup pitches are a staple of tech conferences and the Tech Fest did not disappoint me.  I liked the one from Solve Media that inserted brand ads into captchas.  Requiring users to type an ad tagline or jingle is a brilliant marketing innovation that forces users to engage a brand.  They didn't win the pitch competition but I don't think I've heard the last of them.

Forum owners face challenges in growing their communities beyond 100 members and I paid attention to the talk on building addictive communities.  It's the kind of knowledge I can use as a self-publishing Web presence even if I never run a forum.  The motivating forces of pleasure, pain, hope, fear, social acceptance, and rejection avoidance matter as triggers for community participation but I've had difficulty transposing them to my Web readership.  Fear might work best for me.  I'll frighten the heck out of people so they don't miss a single article I write.  Seriously, real forums make social acceptance easy when people can show off their personalities and gain peer approval.  Getting people to follow habitualizing steps is the key.

The speculation on the Web's future was all over the place.  Here's my own take.  This is the single most important paragraph in my article.  Apps will somehow have to drive user collaboration and sharing so that app traffic will make it to discussion forums.  I think Disqus will be able to do this well.  The realization that image comments are winning hits, views, likes, shares, and whatever else over text comments is more evidence for me that digital civilization is regressing to a pre-literate stage of human maturation.  Images are easier to upload than typing text, and they obviously require less cognitive effort to process.  People are already stupid and they're getting more stupid by the day.  I'm not done with my ranting.  Discussion forums show us what happens when low-information proles have access to tech.  They flood the culture with nonsense like cat pictures and offensive comments.  I tried to relate to these people by posting LOLcat pics myself and it did not help me connect with average, stupid humans.  Stolen copyrighted photos on Instagram and Pinterest prove that most humans do not respect property rights or the rule of law.  I say bring on machine-based moderation to ban stupidity and illegality from the Web.  That is my main takeaway from ForumCon.

The final talk on purposeful design was excellent.  The limited scope of design in approaches based on aesthetics and content is less useful than something more purposeful.  Breaking design down into steps that build a clear purpose and manifesto into all decisions means design permeates even the most routine functions of a mature enterprise, or in this context a Minimum Viable Community.  I must have anticipated this approach when I published the Alpha-D Investment Philosophy on the Alfidi Capital main site.  I agree with the speaker that design should be simple and elegant, and I'm pretty sure my web design meets that goal, but the difference for me is that my design does not solve problems for anyone else but me.  That's the way it has to be.

ForumCon was a pleasant surprise from VigLink.  There were plenty of action items I can use to refine my own Web content.  I won't ever run a forum but I appreciate the hard entrepreneurial work forum owners put into moderation, conduct policies, design, and monetization.  Hats off to you, forum people.