User Story: Building The Tripawds Community With Simple:Press Forums
This article is the second in a series of “user stories” where our users describe how they built their sites using Simple:Press. In this post, you will learn how Jim Nelson used Simple:Press to create a thriving community that has grown to 8900+ members and 200,000+ posts!
Tripawds is the world’s largest support community for three-legged pets and their people. Ask me 12 years ago if managing Tripawds would be my primary job, and I would have laughed out loud. But that is exactly what has happened. In late 2006, when our dog Jerry lost a leg to cancer, my wife and I sold our house, our profitable graphics business and nearly everything we owned. We bought an RV to travel the country together as a pack and enjoy whatever time we had left. Meanwhile, I started a simple blog to keep friends and family informed about Jerry’s condition.
Shortly after we started sharing his treatment plan and results, emails came in from people with questions about amputation recovery and care for their own dogs. We received many emails, every day. But we didn’t always have answers. Our Jerry was just one medium sized Shepherd mix dog, missing a front limb due to one specific type of bone cancer. There was so much we didn’t know about things like mast cell tumors in Pugs, or how a large Rottweiler might cope without his “spare” leg.
Determined to help people facing the same challenges we were, I installed discussion forums in 2007 after researching my options and discovering Simple:Press. It allowed me to quickly set up a platform where people could communicate directly with others undergoing the same circumstances – and ease the burden on our email in-boxes.
The effort paid off. Today the Tripawds Forums are home to more than 13,500 registered members participating in active discussions on 15,390+ forum topics with 216,00+ posts from members, and more being added every day.
As the number of forum users grew, Tripawds blossomed into a respected resource that many veterinarians now suggest to clients facing the pet amputation dilemma. Over time Tripawds evolved into a WordPress multisite network hosting more than 1,500 three legged dog and cat blogs, a live chat, online store, popular pet amputation podcast, and many other helpful resources and direct assistance programs paid for by the non-profit Tripawds Foundation.
If I had to attribute our community growth to one thing, it would be the decision to install discussion forums and my choice to use Simple:Press. Whatever your passion happens to be, Simple:Press can help you enjoy the same results.
How Simple:Press Forums Help Build Community
Never underestimate the power of a forums-based community. While social media platforms can provide instant gratification to users, these outlets do not organize and archive content well, and their groups are rarely moderated with the kind of dedication and expertise found in discussion forums. I know: I’ve managed a few popular Facebook groups over the years. In that corner of the Internet, member turnover is transient, and a poor information hierarchy makes it difficult to help those who stay. It’s also frustrating if not impossible to search for previous posts or point people to specific discussions on particular topics.
Users get a better level of support in discussion forums. Community members who take the time and effort to register on a website and participate in forum discussions tend to be more passionate about the subject matter. They’re more welcoming and helpful toward others. And they stick around much longer than the average Facebook group members I have encountered over the years.
My own community is a perfect example of the staying power of forum users. At least a couple of our earliest Tripawds members still actively participate in the forums on a regular basis – more than ten years after their registration date and long after their own Tripawd has passed away. They know where to quickly find existing answers to common questions asked by new members, and often teach others new to forums how to navigate and search on their own. The result is a community where members “pay it forward” – not only by sharing their tips and experiences but by helping others find the information they also seek.
Forums also encourage lasting friendships to develop within the community. Without the distraction of persistent, unrelated updates in users’ news feeds, useful advice gets shared with sincere empathy for common challenges. For example, in my Tripawds community, experienced members often recall the stories of dogs and cats and share them with new members whose pets are facing a similar situation. Some of these friendships evolve offline too. Tripawds members around the globe often meet in person, such as a Tripawds Party covered by the Guardian Newspaper. This event attracted members from London, Germany and throughout the U.S. to gather in Richmond, Virginia where they exchanged real world hugs, laughs and tears.
Under the Hood: Building Forums for Continued Growth
With an organized structure for sharing and searching information, discussion forums facilitate developing vast amounts of content over time. When it comes to managing this information, Simple:Press makes it, well…simple. Over the 12+ years I’ve been administering the Tripawds forums, we have had a handful of users who have found the platform very difficult to navigate. Most of these admitted they were “not very technical” people. On average, however, new members who have never even used forums before adapt quickly to navigating the Tripawds platform. For those who have trouble, we created short tutorial videos illustrating basic forum functions like posting, replying and searching.
A basic installation of the core Simple:Press plugin is packed with features for developing robust discussion forums. There are also various add-ons which provide a wide variety of functionality for adding value, enhancing the user experience, and simplifying administration. The following are a few specific methods I have implemented for making our forums as user friendly as possible, while keeping them easy to maintain.
Organizing Forum Structure
Starting by categorizing forums from the beginning helps maintain an organized information hierarchy which users can easily navigate and search. Simple:Press allows for creating Groups of different Forums, which in turn contain Topics on related subject matter. Sub-forums can be created for further categorization. Forum administrators, or users granted the right permissions, can also move topics and rename topic titles to keep the discussion on track and well organized.
Moderation is Key
Moderators are a key component to any discussion forum software. Creation of usage guidelines and moderation are also vital to keep forums from getting out of control. The core Simple:Press plugin provides for assigning Moderator capabilities to specific users, but also allows for configuration of user groups with specific permission levels for extending capabilities to certain users. As any properly managed discussion forum grows, the community will tend to moderate itself, with Moderators often only required to step in when absolutely necessary.
The Ongoing Fight Against Spam
Fighting spam is a fact of life for any forum moderator. One method we use to prevent spam in our forums is to moderate the first post of any new user. This is easily configured via the core Simple:Press admin options, as is the ability to set up an anti-spam screen to prevent bots from posting in the forums.
Admin Bar Facilitates Forum Management
With such busy forums, one Simple:Press add-on we use to simplify administration is the Admin Bar. This allows forum admins to be keep tabs on all new activity by checking for spam, approving posts awaiting moderation, and replying, which can all be done in one place without reloading numerous forum pages. This is an especially vital tool for forum admins who like to review every post and ensure it is responded to. We do this in the Tripawds forums to not only make sure users’ questions are getting answered, but that other members are not providing poor advice.
Empowering Members to Report Posts
Even with all the moderation tools Simple:Press offers, forum admins cannot be everywhere all the time. Certain posts are bound to be missed. This is why we use the Report Post add-on, which brings us back to the power of community. We recently added the Report Post function and posted detailed guidelines for its use. Tripawds members can now privately bring any forum post to our attention, if they believe another user is providing medical advice without proper veterinary credentials, or identify spam posts, fundraising links, and other reasons we have set forth in our reporting guidelines.
We use the Simple:Press Private Messaging add-on as encouragement for users to join the Tripawds community. Anyone can participate in our forums, but only registered members have access to the PM system which allows members to communicate privately without exposing their email address in the public forums. This is just one of the members-only benefits we offer for registering, in addition to bypassing post moderation, subscribing to reply notifications, uploading user avatars, and more.
Child Themes Create Customized User Experience
Visit enough sites running Simple:Press and you may start to notice many of the forums tend to look alike. Anyone with a basic understanding of WordPress can adjust the look of their forums with the core plugin, by assigning different color overlays or uploading custom icons. Just as with WordPress, Simple:Press offers a number of different themes for customizing forum layout and design. With a little deeper understanding of the codebase, admins can use the Child Theme framework to further personalize forum design and functionality. I am no expert programmer, but I have customized the look of the Tripawds forums with many changes to the Reboot theme thanks to the excellent Simple:Press documentation and expert help provided in the support forum.
Our user base tends to be less technical than the average experienced forum user, so I created a child theme to implement various feature and style modifications that cannot be overridden when updating the forum theme. For instance, I removed the Quote Reply button from displaying on mobile devices after noticing many users quoting entire posts rather than simply posting replies. I have also reordered the position of certain buttons to avoid confusion, and removed labels from appearing under special rank and user group badges for clarity. Simple style modifications include adjusting colors to match our site, adding rounded corners to forum boxes, and creating round user avatars. All this was done by adding the desired edits to theme template files and stylesheets within the provided child theme framework.
Building Your Own Community
At the end of the day though, WordPress and Simple:Press are just tools. There is a lot of work that go into building a lasting community. And a lot of that effort is building content. Useful content.
Whatever your subject, publishing quality content comes first – and lots of it. Achieving this requires consistent posting of informative articles and helpful resources. Make it organized, archived, and easily searched.
If you also provide a safe, welcoming place where like-minded individuals can interact to share stories, answer questions, and support one another, you will automatically perpetuate an endless cycle of high quality content loved by search engines and users alike.
Summary: Three Paws Up for Simple:Press
If you haven’t guessed by now, I am a long time user and avid advocate for Simple:Press. Check out my activity in the support form to see just how long. The functionality and configuration options of this plugin never cease to amaze me. I often find myself wondering if some feature or function is possible, only to discover that is already built in to the core software, or available as an add-on.
I highly recommend Simple:Press for anyone striving to gain a foothold in a niche market by building community through a discussion forum platform on their WordPress site. And if you have never considered the idea, I’m certain you’ll find that setting up forums will help grow an engaging community of support for your own endeavors, whatever your passion may be.
About The Author
Jim Nelson is the Co-founder, CTO and President of the Tripawds Foundation