Written by J. J. Baker, www.seaplaneforum.com
How to start an aviation forum in 2011:
So, you’ve thought about starting your own aviation forum, right? Maybe not. But, I am about to tell you what to look out for anyways, just in case you had a senior moment and decided to engage in such silly endeavors. Especially in our funky world, driven by almost nothing but the mighty dollar, things are often much different from how they appear.
We’ll cover a few important aspects of how to do it, what to avoid and most importantly, how to protect yourself from being burned, taken for a ride, advantage of, or maybe even sued. Everyone wants something for nothing – so here it is. A whole lot of perceptions and personal experiences in starting and running a discussion board in one of the worlds smallest, yet most definitely terribly cut throat industries: General Aviation! Unless you are the President of AOPA, EAA or some other large Aviation Organization, or you got started just when your aviation buddies first learned about the fact that computers rule the world, it’s going to be a rough path.
Decision Making Process:
Deciding on running your own aviation related blog or discussion board is usually the result of realizing that something you care for has no common place. Something you wish to see get more exposure, does not get enough. Something that isn’t very inviting to newcomers, needs to become a bit more inviting & interesting. Lets take Seaplanes, for example. This small, silent and rather affluent fraternity of General Aviation has been one and the same for the last 40-50 years. Technologies have changed, the big players from the 70’s are still the big players of 2011 and the age demographics of average seaplane pilots is generally above 50 years of age, likely higher. It is highly unlikely for 20-30 year old pilots to have reached a high enough step on the career ladder, to afford a $80.000 to $400.000 flying dumpling. It takes years to build up the experience to be able to afford today’s insurance ticket, cost of maintenance and other costs of owning a plane that can swim. However, it seems as if a newer generation of pilots is growing up to shape the future of seaplanes. They can’t do so without some guidance from the old guys. How do you get both generations together? By exchange of information, and getting to know each other.
Lets be honest. There are thousands of discussion boards out there. Type specific groups, organizations, non profits, tail wheel groups Piper, Cessna, Beechcraft, Dornier, Maule, you get the picture. The forum market is chuck full of providers. Why would anyone join yours? Why would anyone care to build a new discussion group on something that is covered in part by other forums? Well, because not everybody wishes to be type specific. Seaplanes, for example can be found in many flavors and they are by far not limited to one specific type. Also, not everybody belongs to Associations who may provide a more or less inviting forum for it’s members. Why should you have to pay money to find information and learn more?
Lets assume you decided to start a discussion forum on Knitting or Quilting. You would instantly face heavy competition from all the ladies in the field, claiming to be experts. You would incidentally find out that some of them run their own forum with thousands of members. You, and your new discussion board would have a small group of followers, compared to the big gals, and they may not be all to happy about some of their members checking your place out. Make sure you remain non competitive to other forum providers. While the aviation market seems small, if looked upon from the outside, ego’s and ID’s are bigger than the world. Stepping on the wrong toenail is a guarantee to get slapped. Being friendly with people who have no desire to see you around is not easy. I recommend to have a group of people who are on your side, as your advisers.
Money spins the wheel and time greases it!
Like it or not, if you want to get started with your own forum, you will need a bunch of money and time. Select your domain name and hosting company carefully. The dedication and service you get from your host will determine how much outside help you will need, a lesson yours truly learned the hard way. Outside help does not come cheap. A whole armada of little 16 year old nerds is out there, charging HEALTHY money for taking care of your database in case you cannot spend the years to learn phpBB coding. While phpBB remains top of the line in terms of ease of use, it is extremely hard to learn when it comes to making changes. Almost nothing is a matter of a simple click of a mouse, things happen when MOD’s (Modifications) get installed. You will have two choices: 1. Try it yourself and shut your discussion board down, or; 2. Hire someone to do it. If you’re not a database guru, do the number two thingy, as hair loss and heart attack may be prevented.
Avoid Trouble & Lawyers
Lets be honest again. It’s a fairly litigious society these days. Thousands of lawsuits are launched every day, often not with the purpose of winning an argument, but out of despise and in trying to make a point. Often lawsuits are pursued in an effort to increase market visibility. I have never actively followed the flight planning market, I do not use online flight planning software. But, I learned a whole lot about it when Flight Prep started shooting little bazooka rockets towards a small developer, in pursuit of their latest and greatest patent. Rest assured, someone has filed a patent on kissing and making babies, so do both wisely. While (IMHO) Flight Preps suit is nothing but a “huge new age marketing gaga” (why spend money on magazine advertising if you can have better exposure by taking a little place through the cleaner?) it is nonetheless damaging the little guy. If you’re not able to hire “proper legal counsel” you will likely wrap up and close shop. So – keep in mind that at any time, one of your non competitive competitors may charge you like a bull. They may smile at you like a honey nut cheerio, before doing it.
Discussion boards also attract controversial subjects, hence the lack of performance, lack of style, or lack of skill of some individual may be challenged, triggering that person to pursue you legally. While for a forum administrator, this is called a “risk of doing business” your membership needs to be intimately aware that there is no privacy, and that their statements do not reflect those of your forum or yourself. If Chuck advises you to land your seaplane upside down, to protect the paint on the floats, and Gary goes out and does it… who’s to blame? Is utter stupidity covered by common sense or no? Lets say this: You’ll find out when it happens. Meanwhile, DO WHAT YOU CAN, to keep shootings, bloodbaths and stabbings to a minimum. Don’t let Achmed the pocket terrorist, get you in trouble with the Secret Service, or the CIA. Watch your back, nobody else will do it for you.
Moderation & Policies
Make sure you have a somewhat clear set of ideas and policies as to where you want your message board to go. Nothing beats upset members who are not sure if they can or cannot say things, and even less beats you having to relocate every other topic to a non visible corner of your forum, just to avoid upset with your readership. Sometimes it’s best to simply shed certain members, who knows when they’ll strike again, and how far from a computer you will be when they do. If you can, find someone to help you with soft moderation (helping members figure things out) early, otherwise you will do it forever. It keeps you in touch with your members, no question, yet it also costs a LOT of time.
Advertising & Making Dollars
Eventually your forum will grow and start to present itself as a fun and relaxed community. Requests for improvements will be made, and you will have the duty to figure out that as a underemployed college student, you won’t have the money to make it all happen. In fact, you will find yourself strapped for cash, when it comes to simple upgrades and modifications. Unless you have a ghost relative, who knows how to bail you out of the worst catastrophic events, you’ll simply go broke and shut your board down. I knew early on that I could not fund everything and that my time would not allow me to become a geek. You’ll want to keep your place attractive to younger people, while not confusing the older members to much and this ain’t easy! For me, accepting donations and selling small advertising in the forum of a Forum Sponsor Section was the only way to go. Sure, you can make a dime and a half with Google Ad’s, or installing a banner advertising system, but eventually your members will feel like cash cows. Advertising (especially if it wiggles and flashes) is perceived extremely negatively.
Also, consider the dependency you create by taking in large wads of cash for advertising. That company will surely not appreciate a critical evaluation of their customer service department to go down on your message board. Before you know it, you will be censoring members comments, to keep the big guns happy. While many of the big forums out there claim to be products of love and passion, a simple fact is: If you pulled the money plug, they’d shut the board down instantly. Many of them are in it for nothing but the money. Some of them consider members who post on your pages too, as traders. This all will happen with big cheesy smiles and nice emails to boot, and by the time you figure out that you’ve just peed on a big dogs favorite tree, it’s too late. Nevertheless, never stop reaching out to other forums and their owners. Eventually the dumbest donkey figures out that you are not out to take business away from them, instead, if they have a brain, they will figure out that there should be a common focus in all of this. Members & Information. We can do it as a team, or we can pretend to be enemies. Don’t let others animosities rule how you run your discussion board. You and your members should make that call.
With all of that said, consider carefully if the market you wish to cover is not already saturated. Just because there are a bunch of other discussion boards, does not mean that you cannot exist, however, Aviation is tightly knit and upsetting one big dog can have a rats tail. You will be spending a lot of time and money, and before you do that, you should DEDICATE yourself to the cause. The bumps in the road will come and it will essentially cook down to how badly you want the board to survive and how strongly your members support your endeavor, not only with their activity and participation, but also financially. If it’s truly a pure passion game, you won’t need to depend on large ads and banners. Instead you will put your part of the deal on the table, hoping that someone else will see a value in what you are doing. Remember: SMALL things make bigger things happen. Focus on details and smaller things, and the larger things will come automatically. FOCUS on your members. They make the place what it is.
Stay focused & have fun!