Building a Discourse Community

Jeff Atwood August 1, 2014

Sure, anyone can set up their very own Discourse in 30 minutes or less. But how do you get people to go there?

I often describe Discourse as an interesting dinner party.

Think of categories as rooms, topics as tables, replies as conversations. Your goal, as the dinner party organizer, is to found your own successful restaurant with Discourse, a place where the entertaining dinner party never stops.

What is your community’s purpose?

The first thing new arrivals will want to know: what the heck is this place?

Every community has a purpose. What’s yours? That’s what your pinned welcome topic, or banner topic, should explain. Think of it as the menu you post outside the restaurant, or maybe the sign on the top of the building outside. It lets people know what to expect – Italian or Indian? Fast food or three course meals? Casual or formal?

This is prime real estate; it will appear for every visitor, forever, and people are busy. So:

  • Keep it brief
  • Put your very best copy here

That pinned or banner topic should be at most a few paragraphs, an elevator pitch or mission statement describing what your community is and does. For those who want to learn more, it can also link to a deeper explanation of your community, the benefits of joining, and so forth.

Where is the conversation?

Your next order of business is to seed your site with interesting topics and replies. This is so important there’s a global banner we display to staff until your site has reached a minimum threshold of content.

The worst thing you can do is open with a blank site. That’s like trying to get people to sit down at an empty restaurant!

Those initial topics are critical:

  1. To further explain what your community is. The topics you see on the front page right now? These are the kinds of conversations that happen here. This is what we tend to generally talk about. This is what our community is.
  2. To provide examples of the sort of content you want. To let everyone know that yes, topics like these are welcome on our site. Create more discussions like these!
  3. To invite participation. Have some getting to know you topics for people to share about themselves, and some topics that are open ended and encourage replying with opinions, stories, or pictures.

Recruit friends, recruit colleagues, recruit power users, do whatever it takes to build out an initial solid base of content. Send out invites! You can’t launch your community without it.

Who’s here?

Leadership comes from the top. The presence of staff speaks volumes about whether your community is alive and thriving. Don’t just say you believe in this community, demonstrate that through your personal participation and enthusiasm. Lead by example. Reply to questions people have, help your community learn the ropes, gently guide and shape the community as you go.


If you are lucky enough to have celebrities on your staff, or in your community, take advantage of that! When someone notable – the owner, the sponsor, the founders, the developers, the artist, the author, the MVP – pops in and responds, that is a huge draw. It says this community is important because it’s on the radar of cool, interesting, busy people too! Even a little participation by celebrities goes a long way, so try to schedule that.

Half of any community is showing up regularly. There’s no substitute for simply being there, each day, every day. Welcome and respond to new users as they arrive. Listen to their feedback. Encourage everyone else to do the same over a period of months and soon you’ll have a core of regulars that form the heart of your community – maybe even a few members so engaged they could eventually become community moderators.

Imagine a restaurant with a bustling, visible, helpful staff, where the owner periodically checks in from table to table to make sure everyone is having a good experience. That’s the kind of place that, over time, earns repeat customers … maybe even fans.

How do we find it?

Once you’ve done that, make sure people can find your community.


Start by linking it everywhere:

  1. From your website in your main navigation
  2. In newsletters and email
  3. From your blog
  4. On Twitter, Facebook, and other social media

Have some special launch fanfare when your community opens. This will drive an initial rush of new community members, some of whom will stick around and seed early growth. Configure Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social logins to make it easy to sign up and participate. Consider offering small rewards or perks for people who sign up and become active users.

As they say in real estate: location, location, location. Half of every great restaurant is easy access (including parking), and a convenient location.

Start with yourself

Be patient. Building communities is hard. It takes months if not years.

Although we strive to make Discourse as fun and engaging (and as free and open source) as possible, software alone can’t guarantee the success of a community. But you can! Integrate your community into your daily activities, strive to regularly create unique, interesting conversation among friends – and your community will be off to a solid start.

For additional advice, see our blog post on succesfully launching a new Discourse community.

Stick with it and see what happens. I promise we will too.

Notable Replies

  1. Avatar for blau blau says:

    I am using Discourse to move an existing community from a mailing list to a collaboration space that is just a bit more structured, but still free-flow.

  2. Hi @blau Yesterday a pilot has started as an alternative to the wikimedia-l mailinglist. How far have you come with moving an existing community? What have you learned, what can you share?

  3. Avatar for blau blau says:

    Hi @Ad_Huikeshoven, moving an email-only community to D, things that worked and were appreciated:

    • has better thread management
    • gives context to discussion (just scroll)
    • information stays there and is easy to find again
    • search
    • wiki posts
    • mobile support (web)
    • email support (mainly for those on the road)

    Things that did not go as expected:

    • surveys:
    • @ group broadcast: it’s just noise, those who do not respond nor particpate won’t change behaviour.
    • moderation and flagging did not catch up (this may depend on the peculiar nature of the community)
    • guidelines enforcement: e.g min topic title length. This was strongly rejected and made fun of.
  4. Avatar for blau blau says:

    I mean polls, yes. They work, but in the past if I changed the poll itself or the info below it it broke the poll. Don’t know if it has improved, since I don’t use it often.

    Second, I mean the ability to tag a whole grout wit the syntax

    @groupname (similar to @username)

    You can fine tune it creating a group of users, and in the group options decide who can tag the whole group.

  5. Just refreshing this topic.

    Discourse is the very best forum web app.

    WOW. Genius.

    Using it’s integration on all of my Ghost blogs.

    THANK YOU is all I can say!

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