Hyperlocal Voices: Geoff Bowen, Sheffield Forum

Archive interview first published March 23, 2013 for Online Journalism Blog.

Sheffield Forum

For the latest in our Hyperlocal Voices series, Damian Radcliffe talks to Geoff Bowen the Founder of the Sheffield Forum. Now one of the UK’s largest forums, the site launched just over 10 years ago.

During that time it has attracted considerable amounts of traffic and a huge archive of community discussions. With over 150,000 registered users and up to 500,000 unique visitors every month, there are now more than 6.4m posts on SheffieldForum.co.uk, and this is increasing at a rate of around 2,000 per day.

In a social media age, what Geoff’s experience shows is that forums continue to offer a highly relevant means for local communities to come together and communicate.

1. Who were the people behind the forum?

I am the site’s founder and handle the technical and business development. Originally it was just myself, but over the years a large number of volunteers have joined me to help deal with the huge number of users and posts we now receive.

2. What made you decide to set up the forum?

Back in 2002, while living in Sheffield as a freelance web developer, I spent an afternoon on the web trying to find recommendations for places to get Sunday lunch in the Peaks. I was surprised not to find a forum where local people could discuss this and more pressing local issues!

Part of my ‘day job’ at the time was developing a couple of US-focused forums (relating to cooking and fitness, of all things!) so I decided to use my skills to create a forum for Sheffield. It was very much a side project to start with.

3. How did you go about setting up the forum?

Sheffield Forum came online in December 2002 and was based on the free phpBB forum software.

Setting up the forum was relatively straightforward as I had done it for other projects, albeit those were done with slightly more expensive and complicated software.

4. What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

It was more the existence of forum software that influenced me. It made it so easy for people to come together and discuss things in an organised manner. Features such as emails notifying you when others had replied were ideal for building up a loyal audience.

5. How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

I see the forum as complementing local, traditional, media – although it’s becoming clear that they don’t share this feeling!

In my opinion there will always be a need for professionally trained and experienced journalists to cover local news. Their stories then naturally create discussions within the local community, which is where forums such as ours step in to provide an independent venue.

6. What have been the key moments in the forum’s development?

Being a forum our key moments tend to relate to hitting user milestones.

In terms of tipping points, as it was originally a hobby project, I never monitored this – but my gut feeling is that user numbers started to snowball sometime around the 5,000 user mark.

We now have over 150,000 registered users (and yes, we delete spam registrations!).

7. What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

Sheffield Forum gets around 450-500,000 unique visitors per month and these users generate 5-6m pageviews.

In terms of changing over time, comparing our last full month (Feb 2013) with the previous 4 years gives us: 522,000 (2013), 462,000 (2012), 411,000 (2011) and 313,000 (2010).

As you can see, we are continuing to grow even after 10 years – albeit at a slower rate.

8. What is / has been your biggest challenge to date?

The biggest challenge for any forum owner (or UGC site) is to gain a critical mass. In the early days you can do things like buy Google ads, or ads in your local media, but ultimately you need your users to become loyal and to spread the word to their friends.

There’s no secret sauce, it’s just a matter of hard work and providing a platform that encourages (and makes it very easy) for users to get involved.

9. What discussion, story, feature or series are you most proud of?

I think it’s more about what we’ve helped our users to achieve by providing the forum. We know of couples who have met on the forums and who are now married. I also know people who have sold their houses and found new jobs.

10. What are your plans for the future?

I’m planning to continue operating forums, including the ‘sister’ forum Leeds Forum.

In terms of the Sheffield site, given the daily volume of posts, we need to come up with better ways for the users to find the content that’s relevant to them.

Away from the Sheffield site, I am also keen to look at taking over existing, struggling, forums and using my decade or so of experience to try and get them going again – the Mary Portas of forums…!

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