The Changing Landscape of Automotive Forums
Who can really deny that “Birds of a Feather” stick together? You see it everywhere in society itself and anywhere that a group of people get together. Be it a basket weaving class, a baseball game or getting together at a concert, common ground is important to society and to individuals themselves. From a car perspective, I’m sure in the early days people who were enthusiastic about the steam car would get together and have discussions over the latest invention or direction of the market or where you could actually drive these beasts.
In the post-war boom of the late 40’s through the 60’s, you could find car enthusiasts at drive-in’s, cruising the boulevard or at road side fast food establishments. Later, as urban sprawl became a way of life for Americans, the small-town get-togethers gave way to car enthusiast mailing lists, distributed by the U.S. Postal Service.Little did we know that those mailing lists represented the embryonic stage of today’s forum environments.Postal mailing lists were replaced gradually by email lists, which fell out of vogue in the early Internet days in favor of dialup bulletin boards.With the expansion of the internet into every nook and cranny of today’s society, auto enthusiasts quickly embraced online forums.
What started initially as people with common automotive interests conversing in parking lots and local restaurants has grown into dedicated online car discussion forums.As a natural occurrence and progression of the old mailing lists, these forums were typically founded and managed by the same enthusiasts who invested the time into hand-addressing and stamping every envelope or managing eMail lists of long ago.
Forums range from manufacturer fan sites, to individual model discussion forums, to regional or even specific forums which cover activities such as drifting, drag racing and auto-crossing.If there is a group of individuals with similar interests then you can be assured there is an online forum for them to discuss the latest trends and to allow these like-minded individuals a place to hang out and meet others and share the hobby that piques their interests the most.
One of the issues faced with running an online forum is expense. While some low-end or brand-new forums may use in-house solutions, a successful forum will rapidly be confronted with the ever growing need for bandwidth, and eventually, full hosting services. While many forum owners dig deep each month and pull a chunk of change from his own pocket, it’s often not long before they start to seek an alternative.Advertising and finding sponsors for their forum can usually provide sufficient revenue to cover basic bandwidth and support services.
Staffing represents another area of concern for forum owners.While most start out as a couple enthusiasts with big dreams, few are capable of successfully navigating the choppy waters of bringing in “outsiders” to assist with the forums.Finding someone who shares the same enthusiasm, has the requisite writing skills,good judgment and who shares the mission and vision of the forum owner is a task in and of itself.Most of these folks give their services voluntarily, as a means to be involved in something bigger and better.
Running a successful forum requires enormous commitments, ones that few people are able to sufficiently make. After all, you’ll spend countless time, effort and money on developing an idea, creating a forum, promoting your site, pursuing membership, posting content, optimizing for search results, speaking with advertisers, researching content articles and the list goes on. All that time and effort does not even address the day-to-day investment of managing a staff, keeping up with technical bugaboos and putting out those inevitable “fires” that seem to come at the most inopportune time.It’s sometimes enough to sour even the most dedicated forum owner on the entire idea.
Recently, there has been a disturbing and sudden shift away from enthusiast-owned forums. Companies such as Internet Brands and Cars Direct have begun purchasing automotive forums as fast as they can get the owners to sell.Most of these are forums that have either succumbed to financial or technical problems, staff issues, or a decline in participation due to lack of interest in that particular vehicle.Anyone want to buy an Oldsmobile Bravada forum?
Why are these forums of any interest to these corporations?
The answer is simple:Revenue. The sites themselves are established, have members who visit regularly, usually already have site sponsors footing the current bill and do not have any staffing costs as those who manage the site are volunteers. Upon purchase, the first step is to move the forum to an existent server farm which, through economies of scale, will lower overall operating costs.Next, they implement additional ad software on the site to increase revenue. If you are utilizing one of these forums you have probably seen the adswhich automatically appear as the second post in a thread, or you see IntelliTXT ads which consist of highlighted words within a post that pops up an ad if you accidently move your mouse over them. With each change, the companies make more and more revenue off of the membership (up to a point). That’s great for the company but what about the enthusiasts who make up the staff and forum membership?
We’ve had several discussions with site owners who have sold out and left the business along with the staff they leave behind.Almost universally, the story is the same: Once the site owner is out of the picture, the new owners install paid Administrators to “manage” the site and the volunteer staff.These Administrators are generally not car enthusiasts and if they happen to be then the odds of them being an enthusiast for that particular make or model is pretty low. Their sole role is to ensure the forums exist as an ad-revenue stream for the new owners and to occasionally deal with obvious problematic issues.
As the management of the site becomes less a labor of love, and more a function of “business as usual”, some critical changes take place.Updates on the forum’s progress towards its original mission is no longer provided.Neither information nor direction is given to the staff, which results in a general feeling of apathy amongst even the most loyal of members.They become less invested in the shared goals of the forum, and less protective of its “greatness”.Lagging content rapidly translates to dwindline search engine results as membership starts to drop.
In pursuit of “web domination”, additional purchased forums are added to the same server farms.As a result, bandwidth and server response times diminish. What once was an active and thriving community of car enthusiasts, sharing a common goal and dream, turns into an informational wasteland where the only remaining members with any major technical knowledge eventually go elsewhere. At times this can happen quickly, while in others it takes a while longer for the passionate members to become jaded.
A true enthusiast site is easily identified by a few key characteristics:
Staff – The staff share a common mission, work well together, enjoy each others’ company, and generally consider their colleagues as good friends.They pass this enthusiasm and loyalty on to the members, who often aspire to become site staff as well.
Events – Forum members and staff coordinate meets and events to share their enthusiasm for their vehicles and engage in community activities (shows, races, cruises, etc) involving their cars.
Knowledge – Staffers not only own the vehicles that are the topic of their sites, but they also spend a great deal of time working on their cars, and thus gain an expertise that can’t be replicated by non-enthusiasts.
Members – The great working force of successful forums.From providing help to lending an ear to fellow enthusiasts, you are the forum.Where staff members may be the nerve center of a forum the dedicated members are the life blood. The forums are for you and you help steer their development.
By now, you’ve probably come to the realization that what we do is not about the cars, it’s about the people.Forums which exist solely for revenue generation are NOT to be confused with a true enthusiast site.
It’s a shame and it seems to be happening more and more today.These revenue-based sites do a huge disservice to the car community. They’re often well-indexed in search engines, and a car owner seeking information may stumble upon them seeking an answer to a question. After a day or two of no responses, or inaccurate answers, the hapless searcher leaves, frustrated with the forum experience as a whole.The remnants of these once-vibrant communities litter the Internet landscape, serving as a stark reminder that success is often fleeting without dedication and enthusiasm. Those who have been purchased and have not yet withered away have a bleak future. The eventual loss of valuable information for the community as a whole is something most of us do not think think about but it is an eventual fact.
For those of you who are members of a TRUE enthusiast site, take some time to thank the staff.Whether it be in the form of seeking new members, contributing new content, or just a simple “Thank You” to the staff for their efforts. Be proud that you support an environment that is getting more scarce each year and that you are associating with those who feel the same way you do.
To those of you running TRUE enthusiast sites, our hats are off to you.As we look to the future in this changing forum landscape, I’d encourage the real enthusiast sites to work together, look out for one another, and collaborate to provide auto enthusiasts with the best possible forum experience – THAT is our mission and our goal.
Authors:Matthew Moody (audtatious) and Greg Childs (AZhitman), NICOclub Administrators