Running an online forum can be very rewarding, but to keep it online and running smoothly it can take up a lot of resources especially money and time. For some, a forum started as a hobby can become a responsibility that demands full-time attention.
When that happens, people are sometimes faced with a choice. Do they cut back and focus on their day job, because they have to support themselves and, perhaps, a family? Do they close the community or sell it to someone else, or can the community become what they do full time?
Even if you aren't in that boat, even if you don't want to generate any profit, there are likely costs associated with running your forum and at the very least some people would like to cover those costs so that they aren't losing money.
No matter what position you are in, there are a five principles that you should keep in mind to increase your effectiveness and treat your community with respect.
1. Know Your Options
Display advertising is common and that is for good reason: it is a mature, known medium that many advertisers are comfortable with. It works great for many.
To know what will work best for you, you need to educate yourself. There is so much more than display advertising. Among the forms of monetisation available to you include in-text monetisation, classified and thread-based advertising, sponsored brand placement and integration, affiliate programs and CPA (cost-per-action) networks, product sales, premium memberships and subscriptions, mobile options and monetisation on outside sites where you maintain a presence.
Spend time evaluating these options so that you know what they are capable of and how they can help you.
2. Understand Your Audience
What works for one forum won't work for another. One size fits all is not the right approach. Each audience is different and is more or less receptive to different types of monetisation. As the manager of the community you are possibly in the best position to gauge this. You can also speak to members directly to see how they feel.
3. Experiment and Tweak
If you want to get the most out of your efforts, experimentation is critical. One of the greatest things about monetisation in general is that all of it is tracked. You can see what works and what doesn't. You can compare different methods, tweak different settings and see if you can improve your performance.
I encourage you to try new things. Even if you try something and stop the experiment in a month, at least you now know how that particular form of monetisation performed and can. In addition, one of the ways that you can better understand how your community feels about a certain method is to try it.
4. Disclose Where Appropriate
With some forms of monetisation like display advertising it usually isn't necessary to disclose. People know what a banner ad is and it isn't mistaken for being a forum post or an actual form of content.
In-text monetisation for example allows you to generate revenue from links within text content posted in your forums. It can be sensitive and some of the most successful integrations are where the forum manager announces that the service will be tested or put into use. If there is ever a case where you feel people may be confused that something on the page is there because someone paid for it, then that is a case where you should consider disclosing the activity in a noteworthy way.
In addition, if a person who posted a review or an opinion of something stands to benefit financially or otherwise from sales of the thing that was reviewed, whether that is through affiliate links or because they are associated with the company, that relationship must be disclosed - not just for ethical reasons, but for legal ones.
If you are ever in doubt, ensure you disclose.
5. Balance Revenue and Experience
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the success of your efforts will depend on how well you balance the need to generate revenue with the need to create a positive member experience. I agonise over this, but it is only something that can be accomplished through thought, observation and testing.
Over monetisation can kill a forum. I want to help people do it right and that is why I wrote Monetizing Online Forums, an ebook that I was able to release for free, thanks to the support of Skimlinks. In the book, we discuss the various monetisation methods in detail and how to integrate them into your community, in the best possible manner.