Online Message Boards & Communities: "Think of It Like a Nightclub"

Bridget Frey, Redfin’s newest engineering director, recently joined us from Lithium, the software provider for our for-consumers-and-by-consumers online discussion site, Redfin Forums. Bridget hosted a brown-bag talk at Redfin yesterday about how to build online communities like Redfin Forums, and especially about how to get the most out of a software-provider like Lithium.

We aren’t sure whether to pursue every one of Bridget ideas, but we’ll probably go with a few of them straight away! The brown-bag program is usually open to the public. Past speakers have included former Delta CEO Jerry Grinstein, former aQuantive CEO Brian McAndrews, iLike co-founder Hadi Partovi, Picnik co-founder Jonathan Sposato and many others. Here’s what Bridget had to say…

People participate in communities for many reasons but the fundamental question is what’s in it for me. Think of it like a nightclub.

It shouldn’t be a silo; it can’t be separate from the brand, from the website. Our forums at Redfin are sort of a silo; people in the communities aren’t featured elsewhere on the site.

Sephora is a good example of a website that draws on data from Lithium’s forums, with a branded forum called “beauty advice.”

This discussion is featured on a main page of the Sephora site. Sephora also features the top contributors, changing the selection criteria for top contributors all the time so that contributors stay motivated. Top contributors on Sephora get a profile page that lets them choose their ten-favorite products. You’re not just a log-in, you’re a real person & you get to express your personality.

To host its discussions, Sephora started with a Facebook page, but this had a few problems:

  • it’s hard to have a discussion on Facebook,
  • it’s not easily integrated with,
  • different users at Sephora all have to use one Sephora log-in,
  • the search-engine ranking benefit accrues to Facebook not

To solve these problems, Sephora integrated Lithium discussions so that a Facebook post shows up in the discussion forum or vice-versa.

What Do You Do on Forums?

You can do a lot of different things with online discussions.

You can host an idea exchange about, for example, features to add to a website, in which the Kudos or like or +1 button is a vote for the feature proposed. In its own forum, Litihum has 350 features for its products suggested by customers. Even if an idea isn’t acted on, and contributors get frustrated, it is good overall for Lithium.

Lithium discussions also allow you to upload photos and videos, a Lithium feature that we haven’t turned on but probably just should; real estate is very visual.

You can also create a knowledge-base, in which the posts are organized by topic and the content is edited and updated rather than simply discussed. It’s like a wiki, but it has workflow with security, so you can decide who gets to author and edit articles. The content can be worked on by a small group of people, then commented on by others. Forums posts can be nominated to be incorporated as a knowledge-base article.

You can also encourage folks to post discussions to Twitter and Facebook. People are more likely to share discussions they’ve actually contributed to rather than, say, real estate listings. You can also allow for private messages to a contributor.

Who’s in Charge? Moderation Tactics

You have to tame the trolls.

Lithium-powered forums have  an analytics suite that shows how much traffic the forums are driving and who is contributing… we can thank the biggest contributors, or address problems they’re complaining about. You can monitor who leaves, and who is up and coming.

You can see the average response time for a question, so you can try to be more responsive.

Lithium also helps us monitor our social media buzz. Mentions spiked from zero to one yesterday!

Moderation is also important. You can search for key terms like a competitor’s terms. You can require some users to go through a moderation workflow before posting.

After the presentation everyone started talking and asking questions. We were all excited about what we could be doing better with discussions! Maybe you are too. What would you like to see Redfin do with its Forums?