Online discussion forums are now so commonplace that many people think they couldn’t possibly be too much trouble to set up and maintain. In this post, John Espirian explains how he developed and delivered a combined forum and mailing list for the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.
This article first appeared in the November/December 2014 episode of Editing Matters, the magazine of the SfEP.
The SfEP forums, our online message boards, celebrated their second anniversary at the beginning of September. John Espirian, the SfEP’s internet director, explains how we got there. He’s not promising any cake and candles, though.
It was around the summer of 2010, less than a year after I’d joined the Society as an associate, that I was informed by the then internet director, Nancy Duin, that we really ought to get on with a proper replacement for the old Yahoo! Groups email system, which had long been home to SfEPLine and our other mailing lists.
Okay, I thought, that couldn’t be too hard. I’d been using web-based forums for a good few years, and surely it wouldn’t take much to install a simple, cheap bit of kit to get the job done. Oh, but we’d need a system that could push messages from the web out to email. And it would also need to accept responses from emails and put them in the right thread on the web. This was going to require a bit more thought.
Together, we spent many months poking and prodding the system
A few commercial solutions looked attractive until I discovered that some providers wanted many times our modest budget just for the initial set-up – and there’d be significant annual maintenance charges on top. It quickly became clear that any off-the-shelf option would be way beyond our means.
Undeterred, I tested a handful of open-source solutions and came across one such system, Phorum, that seemed to fit the bill. After installing and configuring some plug-ins and even rewriting small sections of the core Phorum software, I called on several SfEP members and associates to help with pre-release testing. Together, we spent many months poking and prodding the system, knocking it into shape in time for release just before the York conference of 2012.
Fast-forward two years and the forums are now considered by many to be one of the key benefits the Society offers to its membership. As I write this article, we now have 1403 forum accounts. In the last month, 512 of them have been ‘active’, meaning the account owner has logged in to the system at least once. By most measures, that’s a healthy rate of user engagement.
It’s no small operation to run our online community: there are eight forums in the ‘Core forums’ group, including the regular haunts of SfEPLine, Newbies and Marketplace. But SfEP forums we also maintain forums for our local groups. And there are forums for the special-interest groups. And don’t forget forums for the SfEP council and for moderators. In total, we run 64 forums – rather more than we were bargaining for when SfEP forums were first started.
The sheer number of posts on SfEP forums has been mind-boggling. To date, SfEPLine has handled more than 14,000 posts, and the private council forum – released a full two months after SfEP forums came into existence – is home to more than 18,000 posts. If we add up the contributions in all forums, we reach a colossal 51,000 posts. On average, that’s about 70 posts per day over the last two years.
Ever since the days of the Yahoo! Groups lists, the Society’s discussion groups have relied on the efforts of many volunteers. With the service now being used more than ever before, I hope people will recognise the great benefits that the forums offer to our users. Just as important is to acknowledge the tireless efforts put in by the moderators to keep the ship afloat. They answer queries, deal with complaints, suggest process improvements and much more besides.
A lot of research and effort has gone into setting up and maintaining the SfEP forums and their mailing lists. Finding the right software and testing it ahead of release took a lot of time, as did creating the help content – videos, screenshots and text – to help web and email users. And of course there were (and still are) other tasks such as producing terms of service, documenting moderator processes, creating mailboxes and setting up mailing-list rules.
Brainpower, time and energy
I’m sure none of us underestimates the costs associated with keeping things running, even if those costs are most often counted in units of brainpower, time, energy and commitment. It’s this sort of investment that’s helped to make this endeavour such a success over the past two years.
And finally, where would we be without the fantastic community of members and associates who so often fall over themselves to be helpful to their colleagues? Without them, there would be no bustling hive of knowledge from which we could all benefit. So, let’s be thankful that we’re all part of such a great group of people. And that is something deserving of cake and candles.
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Who wrote this?
I'm John Espirian, the relentlessly helpful technical copywriter. I've written about IT and the web since 1998, and I'm a former Microsoft MVP. If you need B2B web content that explains how your products, services and processes work, I'm your guy.
The Espirian blog provides writing tips and how-to guides on improving your online presence and marketing your business.
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