We recently had a chat with Ben Scott founder of the UKs leading web design forum www.webdesignerforum.co.uk about why he created the forum, how he went about getting people to the site and engaging with it, how he finds inspiration for his new design projects and more… He also provides some very useful information onhow to kick-start a forum plus some handy tips onoptimising forum content for search engines.
Could you provide a bit of information about yourself and webdesignerforum.co.uk? E.g. Your background in the industry, how long the site has been running, who uses your website…?
Sure, I’m 26 and I’ve been creating websites commercially for around 6 years now. I’d consider myself to be an “all-rounder” when it comes to the web with strong focus towards Web Design, SEO, marketing plus I enjoy the challenges of creating Affiliate based websites. The Web Designer Forum was launched on the 5th September 2006, so coming up to 4 years now, it provides users a constructive and friendly environment to discuss topics focussed around web design. The user base consists of a good mix of both male & females with the age range being predominantly late teens through to mid-thirties.
How did the idea for the forum come about and did you have any specific aims when you first launched?
The idea to create WDF materialised from a noticeable lack of UK based forums that focused solely around web design. There were a handful of Design/Webmaster Forums that had sub categories for Web Design but apart from that, it seemed there was a good market for a UK based forum to come onto the scene. To be honest I didn’t have any specific aims when it launched nor any that were on a grand scale, I simply had a passion for creating websites plus an intrigue into what challenges I would face in running my own forum. Finding a domain name that is targeted towards the subject or product can be crucial, so couldn’t believe my luck with very first search for a relevant domain name (www.webdesignerforum.co.uk) was available, so without hesitation snatched that up straight away.
With the acquisition of such a highly relevant domain name, the gap in the market plus my own personal interest in the subject really left me without any doubt or disbelief that I have no good reason not to give it a good go. Researching commercial forum software I opted for Invision Power Board over vBulletin, I believe at the time this decision was based on better community features, control panel options/layout, plus the overall look appealed to me more (c’mon I’m a web designer, have to get the priorities right!). As mentioned above there wasn’t any set aims, I really just wanted to create a UK based forum that was perceived as a valued resource to web designers. People learn better in a constructive environment, so wanted to make sure the atmosphere was warm & friendly and encouraged user participation, I took the approach “If I was member on a forum, what would I want to get out of it”, so applying this concept to my own forum, it soon built up a reputation upholding the values to which it was initially set out to provide.
Currently the aims are to keep evolving the forum based on feedback from members plus and incorporate the snazzy new features each software iteration brings, we have recently launched a “Graphic Design” section as we got increasing demand to do so.
How did you go about getting people to the site and then engaging with it enough to sign up and leave comments?
That was the fun part and where the real challenge begins! As a budding web designer, with free time on my hands (Well more so that I have these days) I decided to put my skills to use, so I embarked on a mission to create some quality, free “member only” CSS/XHTML website templates and spread the word about these using Social networking websites and as well as other forums. The templates were VERY well received and made a huge contribution in kick-starting forum traffic and also letting people know of it’s existence. People joined to download them, I would engage any new member with a friendly message, firstly thanking them for joining, links to popular categories and also if they have time to introduce themselves to the forum. I did this because I was generally thankful for anyone who joined and took the time out of their day to participate and also make them aware that we do more than just offer free templates.
Next I created some nifty (At the time) CSS tutorials on creating a horizontal rollover navigation using only one image and also a drop shadow background effect for websites. Again, I spread the word about these on social networking sites which proved to be just as popular (if not, more so) than the templates, these two single tutorials equated to over 100,000 views! Once a modest user-base was created, I thought “OK, how can I reward members” so I created a “Member of the Month” award which rewarded the top contributing members with an Amazon gift voucher 1st: £10 2nd: £5 3rd: Special Badge, I wanted a strong focus on rewarding members who were helpful & respectful to others, this including greeting new members, replying constructively to topics, creating topics of help and interest etc etc. This method worked great in enhancing the warmth of the community and certainly encouraged more users to join and participate.
With the ever growing rate of members joining the community the next step was to create a newsletter highlighting various rewards we had on the forum and also the hottest topics, this further encouraged user participation and acted as a little reminder that we exist!
Your website is top of Google for a lot of your core keywords, what SEO activities did you undertake to help achieve this?
The domain name plays a big part for all those “Web Design” related queries “Web Design Forum” & “Web Designer Forum” rank very well indeed as the SEO strategy was built around these keywords in the beginning. Individual topic and category pages have been optimised for the relevancy of the page, so if a user created a topic called “Which web design software?” – Then you would notice this title appears correctly formatted as the url e.g. /which-web-design-software/ plus at the start of the <title> and also within a <h1> tag on the page – so the whole page is fully optimised and relevant to the topic. I’m seeing more and more traffic coming to the forum each month because of this and a steady rise in long-tail keyword searches. In order to maximise the discoverability of all the forums content I implemented an XML sitemap which contains a list of all the members, topics, posts & blogs and pings the top search engine’s when any new content is added.
Google loves fresh content and due to the nature of a popular forum you’re creating a constant supply which I’m sure plays a part in ranking WDF highly. As well as the above I’m sure there’s plenty of people who have linked to WDF over the years which has contributed towards the forum being recognised as a reputable resource and being ranked well within the SERPs. BIG thanks to all those who have done so! :o)
What are the challenges and rewards of running such an active and popular forum and what advice would you give to anyone looking to start their own forum?
1. You’ll need knowledge, passion and patience. If you’re looking at succeeding in starting a forum I think first and foremost it’s important to have a good knowledge about the subject and/or a passion for it. For example, I’ve known of a few cases where someone has a great idea for a forum and they could make £x amount each month as they’ve seen similar websites do. These people only see the glory side in running a forum and naively undermine the attention a new forum requires to succeed. These type of people will find that topics will go unanswered due to lack of knowledge in that subject area, no exciting industry news posted (As they can’t identify what it is) , don’t know how to deal with that particular demographic (Each forums member-base is different) etc etc. So to reiterate this, you need to know about the subject and be willing to put in the hours to respond to questions and create some yourself. You can even sign-up yourself up a few aliases on the forum and talk with yourself….sounds wacky but it helps to generate content and give the perception of it being an active forum, which is integral when starting out.
2. Shout about it! As the misquoted saying from Field of Dreams goes…“If you build it, they will come”… couldn’t really be any further from the truth when it comes to forums, you’re gonna need a heck of a lot of time and dedication to get it off the ground!
Getting people to join and participate within a new forum is one of the hardest tasks, as:
1. You’re already up against forums with well established user bases & hundreds of thousands of posts…
2. You’re forum looks a baron wasteland in comparison
3. What can you offer users that’s different from anyone else?
As far as forums go, there actually isn’t much else you can offer that hasn’t been done before. But, don’t give up hope yet, all is not lost…experience has shown that many members just prefer the comfort of smaller forums, where they feel their voice can be heard and can find content much easier than wading through a sea of topics and spammy posts. Your new, up-and-coming forum will be like a breath of fresh air as you’re able to provide a warm and welcoming haven that’s spam free where you can really personalise the experience and engage with members individually, this will encourage them to tell their friends on other forums and get them to join yours! Remember once you get hold of them, don’t let them go! Keep them engaged and happy. Much like I did with the templates, if you’re able to create something new and exciting for your forum, I couldn’t recommend this enough…. I’ve noticed many popular blogs these days simply provide lists of helpful resources e.g. “Top 20 SEO Tools” or “Free icon resources” etc etc – Why not do the same for your subject & create these as sticky posts within your forum and post the links to social bookmarking websites to raise awareness.
I found when starting WDF the following couple of points really helped the forum in generating a fantastic user-base.
1. Offer unique content: Be the first to offer content that no other forum/news provider can provide e.g. write lists, competitions, exclusive stories etc.
2. Engage with members: Greet them, send them a PM ask them how they are finding the forum, how can you improve things?
3. Competitions: Run competitions that would appeal to your forum demographic.
4. Reward top contributing members: For example “Member of the Month Awards” where the prize could be along the lines of a gift voucher, a banner or a special badge or status that sits alongside their username within the forum.
5. Send out a regular newsletter to your forum members this will show you’re an active forum and also encourage repeat visits back to your website.
6. Sign yourself up as multiple aliases on your forum and talk with yourself to generate content and increase activity. No one likes a dead forum.
If you can get a dedicated server, then I would recommend doing so as I found running a forum in a shred hosting environment would certainly experience performance issues. This is definitely recommended these days as Google has recently opened up saying it uses site speed to help determine search results.
How active are you within social media to promote your website and how do you see it developing?
Not as active as I should or would like be, that’s for sure! I haven’t really harnessed the potential of Twitter & Facebook that I know could be beneficial for the forum, if the days were 36 hours long I might be able to fit something in! I use Twitter to notify members of the monthly “Website of the Month” competition and also various topics of interest but much more could be done! I see social networking sites playing a massive part in how we discover new content (they already are), there’s been a noticeable rise in niche specific, sites DesignBump is a recent example of this, it’s like Digg for Web Designers. There’s people always trying to release the “Next Big Thing” – but it seems Youtube, Digg, Twitter & Facebook have it in the bag for the moment, so would encourage people to use these services and other popular sites to maximise the reach of their content, until the next big thing happens! – Don’t forget to add social networking links on all your web pages that you feel should be talked about.
The forum does have a re-design planned and also to create a new logo (I think this has been on my to-do list for a year now!) – Hopefully 2010 will be the year for it! – I’d like to see more tutorials added and also some CSS wire frame templates that people can download and use/learn from. Would be nice to get some video tutorials made and also a WDF blog full of tutorials/tips/tricks and resources, perhaps even create an inspiration gallery!
Turning to web design in general, what hardware and web design/ illustration software do you use yourself and why?
I live in Essex and commute a lot so I needed a system that was portable and powerful enough to work in both web & print design and handle running multiple applications, so the obvious choice for me was a MacBook Pro 2.5Ghz with 4Gig of Ram. I’ve also got running Parallels Desktop which gives me the ability to run windows applications within a Mac environment, this works out a treat for cross-testing your website in multiple browsers and having to occasionally open a Windows only program without having to restart your system.
How do you find inspiration to start designing a new website from scratch?
I remember in the early days of web design I used to scour many of the popular CSS showcase gallery websites and bookmark all designs I felt inspired me in some way, whether it was colour scheme or perhaps logo styles and keep them in an “Inspiration” folder. I tend to flick through this before any new project to get some inspiration and hopefully apply some of the techniques. This is not to be confused with a “I’ll rip that off later” folder, as I would pay more attention to the structure of a site, the fonts used, how much spacing between sections, CSS properties etc as opposed to the design itself. I still encourage people to look at these sites for inspiration and to help clear designers block when you’re having “One of those days”. – Just don’t steal designs!
Nowadays being actively involved with the web on a daily basis, I tend to naturally be exposed to many different websites each week, so I’m constantly being inspired and educated in techniques of modern web design. Because of this, when it comes to actually creating a website I find myself to have accumulated plenty of inspiration, so when I approach a blank canvas I can create varying styles quite naturally without having to rely on visiting other sites. This isn’t always the case when designing and project brief determines your creative freedom, if it’s a subject I know little about then it may well take longer as I need to research the industry & existing websites to gain a better understanding of the demographic and who i’m designing for. I still feel it’s good to go back and explore CSS galleries from time to time to keep up-to-date on some of the exciting creations that are being made by many of the highly talented designs out there.
For picking colour schemes I rely on a very nifty tool, https://kuler.adobe.com/. I normally start with a base colour this is normally to suit the demographic, corporate brand or picked from an image supplied from the client, I then use Kuler to create complimentary colours based on this. I do encourage people to try it out, it’s a very powerful and useful product!
Are there any resources on the internet you use that you would recommend for beginners and advanced designers?
Well, you may or may not have heard about a highly active UK based web design forum? No? – well here’s one that’s worth checking out: www.webdesignerforum.co.uk. I am a HUGE advocate of the CMS ExpressionEngine, a flexible, feature-rich content management system that’s highly flexible! It’s amazingly powerful and you’ll soon be saying WordPress who? https://expressionengine.com/. Firebug is essential for help in debugging & helping develop your website: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/1843
A couple of blogs worth looking at are www.sitepoint.com and www.smashingmagazine.com. https://net.tutsplus.com/ & https://psd.tutsplus.com/ can both be useful if you are looking learn some cool effects.
Lastly (But not least) I’d like to thank every single member of the Web Design Forum and a EXTRA BIG thank you to the moderators that help keep the community spam free.