Building a Community-Powered Website with WordPress

Community-powered websites encompass everything from Facebook to Twitter to Reddit. And if you’re thinking about setting up your own online community, WordPress is the perfect platform for creating and engaging with your own custom audience.

The advantages of building your own community-powered website are numerous: increased traffic to your site, the “passive” creation of SEO content, and direct access to your most passionate potential customers.

In this post, we’ll start by digging a little further into the benefits, trials, and tribulations of building your own community-powered website, then show you which type of community site is right for your needs and help you through the setup process.

Why Community is King

Two of the hardest tasks facing any site owner are reliably driving people towards a particular site and then taking ownership of the relationship with that audience.

There’s no shortage of internet behemoths out there willing and able to put you in touch with an audience for their own benefit. Whether it’s via paid channels such as Adwords or Facebook Ads, organic means in the form of SEO, or general social outreach, there is a myriad of proven ways and means of attracting a one-time audience.

The downside to most of these approaches is two-fold:

  1. One way or the other, you’re paying: Whether it’s Adwords dollars or the costs associated with creating content marketing and social marketing, you’re going to be putting your hand in your pocket somewhere along the way.
  2. You’re at the mercy of a third-party: One little tweak to an algorithm or change to terms and conditions and the party could be over. You’re essentially renting an audience rather than owning it. Facebook’s relatively recent tweaks to its organic reach are a great example of how quickly things can change.
Facebook organic reach graph
Convince and Convert’s Facebook Page Reach graph shows how quickly the hammer can come down if you’re relying on external sites for your audience.

By contrast, creating your own community on a web property you control puts you firmly in charge of the relationship with your audience and gives you a tangible business asset that can be built over time.

Let’s briefly step through some of the main obvious plus points adding a community element to your site can bring:

  • Predictable, repeatable traffic: Whether in terms of new user growth or repeat visits, community-based traffic will settle into predictable patterns over time that you can both rely on and seek to iteratively improve.
  • Organic creation of SEO content: Assuming you make your site accessible to search engines, an active community regularly churning out high-quality material across a tight set of defined interests can be an excellent source of organic SEO content. For a large scale example of this in action, look no further than the success of Quora.
  • Direct access to passionate users: Whether online or offline, service or product based, half the battle in most businesses is targeting people who have an inherent interest in your core offering. Running a community puts them at your virtual doorstep and keeps them there over time.
  • Outsourced marketing: Engaged community members naturally attract new people to your site and essentially act as an unpaid arm of your marketing division.
  • Ideation: It’s hard to beat a committed community for suggesting future options in terms of either products, offers, or services. With a well-run community in place, you’ll have an instant hotline to real user needs and desires.

Why Running a Community Website is Not a Part-time Job

If you’re an experienced WordPress developer or designer, you’ve almost certainly run across that dreaded client who’s looking to implement a Facebook/Instagram/Reddit clone in WordPress over a weekend with a view towards instant riches and a care-free future. Don’t be that clueless!

The reality is that dipping a toe in community site development will involve a potentially significant outlay in terms of time and money at some stage along the way. The tools are technically there in WordPress to get up and running for very little outlay in either department, but hidden dangers lurk in the wings.

Let’s look at three obvious ones in a little more detail.

1. You’re Subjecting Yourself to Increased Technical Complexity

WordPress has come a long way when it comes to putting community functionality within reach of ordinary site owners. More often than not, however, you’re still faced with a significant step up in terms of overall technical complexity.

To cut a long story short, shared hosting is almost certainly not going to cut it as your community grows. You’re going to have to start moving further up the hosting stack at some stage and begin looking at options like VPS and managed hosting. You may also find yourself needing custom development work sooner rather than later.

You’re also almost certainly going to be dealing with other people’s data which adds a significant extra burden in terms of backups, site security, and change management as you grow your site.

2. You Face a Significant Moderation Overhead

Community sites are natural targets for some of the less savory elements of the internet. Left untended, they can easily devolve into cesspits of spam, hate speech, and porn.

Even with active moderation in place, things won’t always go to plan. MetaFilter and Reddit have faced significant issues over the years, and both Facebook and Twitter are consistently accused of not doing enough in this regard.

Regardless of what type of community solution you go for, you are going to have to actively monitor the output and interactions of that community and be prepared to continually step in where necessary.

All of the technical solutions we’ll be covering below offer automated elements to help with managing this burden, but there is no substitute for manual moderation and an active presence on your own community. You should also start considering the subject of community guidelines and oversight as soon as possible.

3. You’re in the Public Eye

My final point is a brief one and for some people it will be a non-issue. In addition to monitoring community output, you’ll also have to embrace the fact that you are now dealing with a potentially large number of real world people in a very public setting.

If this is a thought that makes you nervous, that’s a fear you’re going to have to come to terms with very quickly indeed in order to make a go of things.

Deciding Which Type of Community Site is Right for You

Options for community sites in WordPress can be split into two broad categories:

  1. Forum-only: A stripped down forum solution is a great way of dipping your toe in the world of online communities without betting the farm in terms of implementation. It’s an excellent option for first-timers, small niche websites, and e-commerce sites looking to offer simple post-sales support.
  2. Social network: Facebook and Twitter have shown the riches on offer if you can lock in a mass audience but, realistically, you are going to be after a more niche network to gain any real traction. Ideally, this will be based around clear shared interest and you’ll be able to tap into an existing customer base or offline community.

Regardless of which option you go for, it’s crucial that you have a very clear understanding of who your potential users are and what you want them to do before pulling the trigger. Building a community takes hard work and if you’re starting with wishy-washy definitions at the outset, you’re setting yourself up for a world of pain when it comes to attracting users.

Begin by researching active communities in the area you’re planning on targeting and noting down the key functionality they offer, along with any marketing or branding that grabs your attention. Don’t just click around on these sites, actually register and engage, and pay close attention to the mechanics of the site in terms of elements like registration and user messaging options.

Chowhound screenshot
Research active community sites in your niche to get a feel for your potential audience. For example, if you’re looking at a food site, check out existing offerings like Chowhound.

You’ll also want to put some effort into creating user personas for your website. Successful communities attract specific audiences and you want to put as much effort into defining who you expect those people to be as soon as possible.

Adding a forum to your site is the simplest way of testing the waters and it scales well to other solutions so we’ll start there when it comes to implementation.

Creating a Forum-Based Community Website in WordPress

Long before our current crop of social media overlords stalked the earth, forums were happily puttering along as the default community option of choice on thousands of websites worldwide. To this day, they’re an excellent potential community add-on and are well-served by WordPress in terms of implementation.

We’ve gone deep on the complete set of forum implementation options available in WordPress before here on the site, so we’ll limit ourselves to the top three options for getting started quickly.

  • 1. bbPress

    bbpress

    As the official WordPress forum solution, bbPress is many site owner’s first port of call when it comes to adding a straightforward community option to their site.

    Its main selling points are simple installation, seamless integration with WordPress’ user model, and the attractive price point of being completely free. If you know how to activate a plugin, you’re potentially just a few clicks away from adding discussion forums to your site. Check out our guide to setting up a support forum with bbPress for a no-nonsense walkthrough of how to get started.

    Going back to version 2.x, bbPress should play nicely with most WordPress themes by default which saves you having to worry about managing another theming layer with your site.

    In terms of integrating additional functionality, there is a range of bbPress-specific plugins available targeting common use cases such as enabling private replies and setting up private groups.  Check out our recent more on popular bbPress plugins for details.

    bbPress in action on WordPress.org
    bbPress in action on WordPress.org.

    There are a number of high-profile examples of bbPress in action online including the WordPress.org support forums, CSS-Tricks forums, and the WPML support forums.

    Interested in 1. bbPress?

  • 2. Simple:Press

    simple-press

    Simple:Press is one of the leading WordPress forum solutions and the core plugin is free to use on as many sites as you wish.

    Paid plugins are then available covering a range of further functionality with prices ranging from around $7 up to $19 per plugin. Simple:Press also offer pricing discounts via member discounts and bundled offers. Support tiers are available via membership options running from $10 for one month’s support up to $135 for top-tier yearly support.

    Full documentation of Simple:Press’ core feature set is available online, and additional plugins are available covering commonly requested features such as private messaging, topic subscriptions, and custom profile fields.

    Simple:Press is optimized for multiple devices.
    Simple:Press is optimized for multiple devices.

    A straightforward showcase section is also available on the Simple:Press site highlighting live implementations such as Chickens in the Road and Sweden’s Friskyttarna.

    Interested in 2. Simple:Press?

  • 3. Forums by WPMU DEV

    wpmu-dev-forums

    If you’re looking for a lightweight forums and messageboard solution that you can drop into either single sites or across a Multisite network, our own Forums plugin is an excellent choice.

    It’s available as part of our membership package and ships with a solid range of standard forum functionality and the ability to integrate with other WPMU DEV plugins such as Pro Sites.

    Interested in 3. Forums by WPMU DEV?

    Creating a Niche Social Network in WordPress

    If you’ve got your eyes on offering more comprehensive community options in WordPress, some form of mini-social network is likely to be your next port of call. We’ve put this as the second option as it may well incorporate an existing forum solution as part of overall functionality.

    In the context of WordPress, the number of serious candidates for consideration here is extremely limited. Despite solutions such as WP Symposium Pro making steady process, there’s still really only one game in town – BuddyPress.

    Taking Your Community Site to the Next Level

    The solutions we’ve covered above can all be implemented quickly and give you more than enough power under the hood to attract an initial audience.

    As your community expands, there are specific areas you’re likely to want to dive deeper on in order to maximize your return as a site owner and make day-to-day site management simpler. Let’s step through some of the more obvious areas to investigate.

    Incorporating Paid Membership Options

    One obvious route to monetization on a community site is incorporating premium content that’s available only to signed-up members. Running a fully-fledged commercial membership site brings its own set of concerns – concepts such as customer lifetime value and churn rates are going to move to the top of your worry list pretty quickly.

    If you’re looking for a comprehensive deep dive on the subject, check out Brenda Barron’s recent piece here on WPMU DEV. The good folks at Digital Marketer have also put together an excellent overview of exact steps to take to drive initial signups, and Copyblogger’s take on the topic is also worth a read.

    MemberMouse membership plugin
    Solutions such as MemberMouse provide a full range of membership functionality.

    In terms of technical implementation, this is not something where you want to roll your own solution. The last number of years have seen an explosion in WordPress plugins aimed at providing fine-grained control over membership content. The current crop of leading membership plugins all enable you to easily take payment, set up advanced membership levels, and have total control over restricting access to your content.

    Some of the more notable options to explore include MemberMouse, MemberPress, Restrict Content Pro, and our own Membership 2 plugin – all of which include options for integrating with bbPress and BuddyPress.

    Integrating Advertising on Your Forum

    A successful community will naturally attract a lot of eyeballs to your site. At some stage, you are going to be tempted to try and monetize that attention in the form of advertising. Brenda Barron’s recent best advertising practices piece will get you up to speed on the business side of that particular equation.

    If you’re planning on pitching direct to advertisers, get familiar with standard internet ad sizes and make sure you understand the basics of putting together an advertising rate card for your site.

    Advanced Ads plugin
    Plugins such as Advanced Ads make managing ad inventory on your community site simple.

    On the technical side of things, integrating advertising could be as simple as dropping in a bit of Adsense code into your theme all the way up to integrating with an OpenX ad server. Check out our recent free advertising plugins piece for handy options to help manage ad placement within WordPress if you’re on a budget.

    Alternatives to WordPress Community Solutions

    With a little tweaking and patience, there’s not much in terms of community websites that can’t be accomplished entirely within WordPress. It’s not the only game in town, however.

    Discourse forum software
    Discourse offers a new take on the forum concept.

    As part of researching your own implementation, it’s no harm to at least cast your eye over some of the non-WordPress options out there for further inspiration. Here are four further options to run the rule over.

    1. Discourse: The brainchild of Jeff Atwood of Stack Overflow fame, Discourse is a modern take on the concept of forums and worth a look in terms of ideas if you’re thinking of sticking to the forum-only option.
    2. Drupal: Though its complexity can be offputting, Drupal was originally designed with “community plumbing” in mind and there’s not much it can’t be made to do in that regard. Sites such as Drupal Gardens take a lot of the traditional hassle out of site setup and maintenance for non-technical site owners.
    3. SocialEngine: SocialEngine gives you a PHP-based, out-of-the-box community solution that’s available in both self-hosted and fully-managed cloud versions.
    4. SocialGo: A fully managed solution, SocialGo enables you to set up a social network in seconds with either the Classic or Pro package.

    Further Resources

    Hopefully the resources and info we’ve provided above should be enough to get you started with creating your own vibrant community within WordPress. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears along the way in making that community truly thrive, however.

    We’ll finish things up with a few killer resources to consult for taking a big-picture approach to community growth:

    Building Community with WordPress

    Adding a community element to your site is an excellent way of taking full ownership of your relationship with your audience and potentially adding an incredibly powerful sales and marketing engine to your existing online efforts.

    WordPress puts a number of tools at your disposal to take away some of the heavy lifting. Let’s review the main points we covered:

    • Consider starting small by implementing a simple forum solution
    • Scale things up with BuddyPress when the time is right
    • Strategically add elements such as paid memberships and advertising into the mix to maximize value
    • Keep studying examples of successful communities elsewhere online to thrive and grow

    We’d love to get your take on community building. Are you weighing up options for implementing your own community in WordPress? Or do you have tips and tricks to share? Let us know in the comments below.