Building a Successful Coin Forum

February 5, 2013

by Bernie Tavenner (Coin Scholar)
via Coin Scholar

For the past several months, we have been primarily focused on publishing our site, branding it, and creating new features, such as our Auctions Research Tool. We have created a unique site for coin collectors, one whose features do not exist on one domain anywhere else on the web. Our big blunder was that we thought this would trigger an organic growth of membership…boy, were we wrong!

This begs the question: What does it take to build a successful coin forum, let alone *any* successful discussion forum?

First, let’s ponder the problems with building a successful community, as well as certain issues unique to coin forums.  We’ll list the six we are currently focusing on in an easy-to-read, numbered format.

  1. Age of the average coin collector.  This is an enormous problem, because online communities are much more readily embraced by those generations who have grown up around the Internet – namely, twenty- and thirty-somethings. However, numismatics is a rapidly aging hobby. When we first created this site, our goal was to engage all generations, but for different reasons. We wanted the older generations to join the Community so that young numismatists would have mentors; the knowledge must be passed on, and what better way to do it than in a real-time social network?
  2. Marketing.  Let’s face it. If a site’s prospective visitors don’t know about it, then it is not going to get members! Marketing encompasses ad campaigns, such as Facebook ads or Google AdWords. There are a slew of different strategies, analyses, and services to consider in a successful marketing campaign. We haven’t even brushed the surface here.
  3. Reputation.  In our opinions, reputation is vital to any Community, whether it be new or established. The problem is that good reputation does not necessarily drive growth in membership or participation in a coin forum.  But bad reputation will certainly drive away visitors and members. It’s just human nature that folks remember bad events for a very, very long time; regaining trust is not an easy thing for anyone to do.
  4. Forum posting and site activity.  Again, this is an area best chalked up to human nature. If a site is already vivacious and active, it continues to grow organically – sometimes exponentially so. We humans are still herdlike animals; it’s just the way it is. But how do we provide the impetus – the motivation, if you will – for the *initial* growth?  And we’re not talking about paid posters here. In our view, that is no way to encourage a healthy Community.
  5. Link Building.  Like number 2 above, there are a host of strategies related to the concepts of link building and backlinks. (For interested readers, a fairly in-depth analysis of link building can be read at Let’s Build Websites. Mitz points out how important it is, how easy certain backlinking strategies are, and how many links one needs in order to generate site traffic.) The key takeaway is that we need to focus on this crucial SEO task in order to make our coin forum successful. However, numismatics is not exactly as ubiquitous as, say, politics or current world events. Therein likes the conundrum. For example, how can we become a healthy, “go to” Community if the most authoritative numismatic sites only have Google PageRanks of 4 or 5?
  6. Social Media.  Although the topic of social media outlets (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, and Google+) could certainly be grouped under many of the above topics, we believe it should more appropriately be distinguished as a subject all on its own. In the 21st century, people are constantly bombarded with information in every aspect of their lives. Oftentimes folks just want to get short highlights about what’s going on in their topics of interest…in our case, coin collecting. Venues such as Twitter allow readers to quickly determine if one of the contacts they are following has posted something that piques their curiosity. We have spent an inordinate amount of time and money to get our sites looking just right. How do we leverage this?

Certainly we could list more bullet points that just the ones above. But we have always been of the belief that biting off more than one can chew will usually result in failure. That is, we believe in taking a few important problems and dealing with them in an in-depth manner, rather than taking several problems and only superficially addressing them.  So…what *should* we be doing?

Obviously, we cannot wave a magic wand to change the average age of numismatists, such that the hobby has more folks willing to embrace the full capabilities of the Internet. We don’t think we’d want to anyways. Frankly, coin collecting needs the grizzled veterans to teach the greenhorns…it’s as simple as that. We also need the young numismatists to assist the older cohort in using new and improved technologies. On the other hand, how do we at Coin Scholar engage older dealers and collectors in a more meaningful manner? How do we explain in no uncertain terms that numismatics will go the way of philately if major changes do not occur in the mindset of the veteran collector?

We don’t have the answers to these tough questions. You’re talking about a revolutionary change in thinking here. For example, collaboration in Skype, Apple FaceTime, or Google Talk could replace your average meetings. For text only requirements, Private Messaging and Google Chat would suffice. And how about the use of more current web browsers? It’s amazing to us that so many folks still use Internet Explorer when far better performing browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox are available. This is not a trivial point; performance actually matters when one is trying to load tons of coin images!

In terms of marketing, we know what we have to do. Most successful sites have to market their product, albeit to varying degrees. There are so many variables, such as age of the website, brand name, and so on, that it is impossible to give a one-size-fits-all answer. The trick is to target ads to a very specific demographic, but at the same time not too specific such that your audience becomes too small a subset of the population. Complicating matters even further, we have to consider whether we want to target U.S. coin collectors, Chinese coin collectors, or both! From what we have seen, this is a process of trial and error that we would like to master.

Yet after having spent thousands of dollars and countless hours on logo designs, social media branding (see below), custom site development, and web deployment, we are averse to spending more money right now. It’s a fine line we’re dealing with…we know that marketing is absolutely critical, yet at the same time we have expended an enormous amount of effort with minimal results. Keep in mind that everything on our site is free and requires a lot of time and effort to implement. So, we need to carefully consider how (and when) we are going to begin an effective marketing campaign. We believe targeted Facebook advertising is the way to go. If any reader has suggestions on marketing our coin forum that we have overlooked, please let us know!

But perhaps more important than anything – especially on the Internet, where there is a never-ending amount of information that travels at lightning speed – is one’s reputation. We don’t care whether it’s a person, a company, or a plain old website; nothing is as important as one’s perception. Rest assured that there are coin dealers we refuse to ever do business with, just because of the frequency and seriousness of negative feedback we’ve read. However, something else that is usually overlooked but that also plays into the reputation factor: Quality of a company or person’s website. Sorry, but this is the Internet Age. If a business does not care enough about its online presence to impress its readers and/or buyers, then how can they be expected to care about any other aspect of their business? In the old days it would be the equivalent of having a brick and mortar storefront with peeling paint, a rusted sign falling off its hinges, and broken windows. Not too impressive, eh?

Our reputation has always been the most important trait to us. We’d rather our coin forum succeed or fail with our dignity intact, rather than resort to the typical tactics (spam, link trading, etc.) so often used by forums trying to “break the mold”. But really, our honesty only allows us to keep our current membership…it does not really aid in the growth of the Community. If we don’t have the answer, we’d rather point folks in the direction of someone who does, even if it helps their forums more than ours. We also pay attention to every little detail on Coin Scholar, from color themes to features. Now we just need to figure out a way to translate it into membership success.

Speaking of which, there are a few tried and true ways to increase membership and forum activity, especially on a coin forum. First, the forum owner could hold a contest to give away something, such as an ungraded silver Panda or standard coin supplies. It would certainly increase membership and site activity in the short run, but would it be fleeting? There is no cookie cutter answer to this question, but the word of mouth certainly wouldn’t hurt. We have been considering such a contest but have not yet decided on the specifics.

Second, the moderators and/or site owners need to stay engaged by posting, blogging, and commenting on a regular basis. It sounds easy to do, but when you are just starting out and have no readership, it can be demoralizing to say the least. Stick with it, it will pay off. At least try and publish one blog post a week, and use your forums to link to articles your readers may find useful. We plan on increasing our forum posts very soon, and not just topics related to coins. Our goal is to broaden conversations to economics and history as well, because coins are directly affected by both. If you have a wiki like we do, it would also behoove you to use it for your “how-to” and generic research content.

Third, some forums offer enhanced newsletter capabilities. Use them if you want to re-engage inactive members or if you just want to give status reports to the Community. Unfortunately, this is one of those features that works best when you have a lot of members to engage! Keep it in the back of your mind like we do, though, and design your newsletter templates for the future. Again, branding is everything and you want your newsletters to look professional but to the point. Our social network is fortunate in that it is embedded within our framework. We can tweak it for event notification, personalization, and many other functions. If your forum does not have the ability to do this, you may want to consider finding a plugin that does, or developing one yourself.

Link building is yet another important factor to consider when building your coin forum. In certain respects it is its own, subtle marketing strategy, in that you are creating a path for both humans and spiders to find your site content. It is such a complex topic that it could certainly fill a few blog posts on its own! The easiest way for us to explain the art of link building is to point you to WebConfs for some background info on backlinks. After reading that, you can understand our current link building strategy. It is primarily comprised of the following: Writing high quality, useful content which also contains links to other pages within our site; Backlinking – preferably to specific site content, and not just our home page – on external numismatic discussion forums and blogs; and publishing guest articles on sites like EzineArticles, which will also generate backlinks.

Just as important, though, is the use of social media to do all of the above. Media such as Twitter and Facebook are here to stay and they are crucial to marketing your site, building your online reputation, and generating easy backlinks. Even though these backlinks are not considered as valuable as links on authoritative coin sites, the value is acquired when others retweet and share them, thereby expanding readership on highly visible platforms. Given the significance of social media, it cannot be understated how important it is for your media home pages to look professional. First impressions are everything and a Twitter page with the default theme will not foster credibility among potential visitors.

We made sure our Coin Scholar Twitter page looked unique, contemporary, clean, and concise. We strongly recommend you visit our page to get some ideas for designing yours. Young coin collectors are very particular about where they want to spend their time online. Dealers and recreational numismatists should always keep in mind that the difference between a sale and a fail is usually a few seconds of surfing away from an uninspired page.

While this blog post may raise even more questions among our readers, it should be viewed as a good starting point for folks looking to start their own coin forum. We don’t have all the answers, that’s for sure. In fact, we have a lot of work of our own to do in order to grow Coin Scholar. The key is to always be willing learn from your successes *and* your failures. The failures can actually be more informative in the long run…they have been for us!

About Bernie Tavenner & Coin Scholar

The Internet has revolutionized how we all conduct business, share personal experiences, and search for information. Embracing these rapid changes does not have to be viewed as an ordeal or a “necessary evil”. Rather, we look at it as incredibly beneficial in our drive to further the field of numismatics.

Think about it. 20 years ago, how easy was it for Morgan collectors to keep up with, say, the rapid changes in VAM varieties? Were the published lists complete? What about errors in print? In the Information Age, it is significantly easier to share new discoveries, compare notes with fellow numismatists, or even image a coin and email it to a professional for advice.

Even so, numismatics is showing its age, so to speak. We founded Coin Scholar with the mission of ushering our beloved hobby into the modern era of social networking. Ever since we began our database aggregation in the spring of 2009, we surfed the web looking for a professional web application that could consume it. Our searches turned up empty. As a software engineer with years of experience building application frameworks for others, our Head Collector knew what needed to be done to serve the numismatic community.

It was during the summer of 2011 that we decided to build the software ourselves. At first we were hesitant about developing a new application framework, especially a complex social networking platform. It meant that our numismatic data analysis — our primary passion — would be indefinitely put on hold. A year later and after building upon the fantastic efforts of others, we can honestly say we are as excited as ever about the future of numismatics.

Bernie Tavenner is currently employed as a senior software engineer in the aerospace industry. Originally hailing from Virginia, he grew up with a passion for antebellum American history and numismatics. He has recently dedicated his time to building a social network for U.S. and Chinese coin collectors and is considering other, similar ventures that take advantage of 21st century social media technologies.

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