How To Build An Online Community With Steve Kamb – Ep. 36

In this interview I had the opportunity to reach out to Steve Kamb.

Checkout the Interview on YouTube here:

Steve runs a website called Nerd Fitness that is targeted to help others “level up your life, every single day”. It’s basically a fitness site that is themed around nerd topics such as video games.

When you really look at the topics separately most people tend not to mix the two but Steve has managed to create a massive community with over 100,000 e-mail subscribers and he gets 1 million visitors to his blog every month.

Steve found himself going through high school and college struggling with exercise, he spent around 6 years struggling with diet and exercise. It was not until he started working with a personal trainer that he started to see amazing results. He knew there were others out there who were just as confused and overwhelmed. So he decided to start the Nerd Fitness Blog in 2009 on a mission to help others improve their lives. Steve ultimately wanted to build a large community of people just like him, people who were nerdy and struggling just as he did.

I personally grew up playing games like EverQuest and World Of Warcraft, spending hours upon hours leveling up my characters always looking for the next best quest or items to acquire, dungeons to raid or places to explore. Steve’s Nerd Fitness community was the type of blog I wish I discovered sooner.

Steve’s blog contains similar exercise guides that have both beginner and advanced exercises. Let’s say you are getting started without a gym membership and you are just a beginner, Steve created a guide called the Beginner Body Weight Workout. You can even jump into his Advanced Bodyweight Workout. These types of workouts are great because they do not involve going to the gym and mostly just use normal household items such as kitchen tables or chairs, or even a gallon of milk.

I really like how Steve has been able to incorporate a lot of home fitness guides similar to these programs. It fits perfectly for people that would like to manage time between playing video games, being healthy and staying in shape.

Steve shares some great transformation stories on his blog from members of the community who have followed his guides and achieved amazing results. Steve’s community will use these transformation stories to encourage others to show what is possible in the Nerd Fitness community. The members are there to backup one another and help people reach their goals whether or not there goals are based around strength training, endurance, or weight loss. It’s not very typical in my opinion to see a serious gamer heavily involved in fitness. Steve emphasises that he wants fitness to be fun and enjoyable for people, no one wants to run on a treadmill for 3 hours straight. Steve has done that by attracting a community of people who enjoy both gaming and staying in shape.

Are You Ready To Build Your Own Community?

Creating Epic Content For Your Community (Even Before You Have One)

Take Action, Suck and Learn!

In the beginning… Steve sucked at blogging!

He copied every other fitness blogger and produced 5 boring generic articles a week. Even though they were quick, generic and short… they did nothing to help Steve grow and were actually a lot of work to produce.

All the effort and time resulted in around 100 subscribers!

Bullshit Myths About Blogging

  • Everyone on the internet has really short attention spans

  • Nobody likes to read long articles

  • Nobody is going to get through a long article

  • You need to post everyday

With some luck though, Steve came across How NOT To Suck At Blogging by Adam Baker. Reading this post he realized his blog posts sucked!

How To Write Great Content

With the realization that his less than 500 word posts sucked. Steve took a completely new approach and began producing two quality posts a week. Writing a post that would cover a topic completely and he would actually enjoy reading.

How did he do this?

Easy enough right?

Well yes… In two weeks Steve began to attract readers.

Steve was able to land an epic guest post on another blog that really boosted his subscriber count and started to attract new readers.

It was easy to stand out from the bland recycled tips people were reading of ‘Get Fit Quick’, ‘5 Super Foods’, ‘Exercises to Flatten Your Stomach’ etc.

People were sharing his content and resonating at the fresh approach.

How To Build An Online Community (CHEAT CODES!)

Steve took fitness to a new place. Taking Star Wars references and making you part of his Rebel Army hitting the gym.

So what’s the significance? Why did this work?

Apart from the breath of fresh air for readers of fitness content… The content filtered hard!

Epically detailed, involved, personality filled and nerdy references turned a lot of people off. This not only turned a lot of people off but also filtered away people that just skim articles and never take action.

The benefit being that the people that stuck around LOVED the content. By the end of an epic post, the reader that stuck around understands who you are, what you stand for, what steps they need to take and why they are going to come back to read more!

Hard Work and Having Fun

So after two weeks with this new approach and some promising results. Readers were sharing his breath of fresh air content unlike any other out there.

Steve still wasn’t great at writing though and had a long way to go. He had to keep working and working. As he produced more and more… He got better and had much more fun.

After 4+ years of posting, Steve has over 560 articles, 470 of which are 2000 words or longer!

Right now Steve’s personality shows easily in each post. Throwing in obscure movie and video game references that readers love stumbling upon to show them they are in the right place. Really writing what he enjoys, using analogies and references that connect him closer to his community.

The Basics Of Building An Online Community

Why Did Steve Start a forum on NerdFitness?

Steve spent hours and hours on gaming forums like the IGN forums growing up as a kid. As he participated on the IGN forums he found himself building close relationships with others and finding people in the community that had very similar interests as him.

Steve found while blogging on Nerd Fitness for the first year his followers would comment and e-mail him asking questions, members would even start discussions within the comments section of various blog posts. Eventually this became too much for Steve to handle himself being unable to answer every e-mail or help everyone looking for it. Steve wanted the community to become something more than “a boy and his blog”. He wanted a way for his fans to interact with each other regardless of being there for them at all times or not.

As opposed to talking about himself on the blog, he started looking more at the NerdFitness site as a community as opposed to a guy who just blogs on his site. He decided to start a forum because he knew this was something Nerds such as himself were interested in. Creating a forum would allow him to create a community of people who could help one another. This gave him the capability to create a common vision for what the community would become. After 1 year of consistent blogging he got to a point where he realized he needed to start a message board for his community. In our interview he talks about how he landed a guest post bringing him more traffic, subscribers and community interaction requiring him to make a change.

Starting a forum has the benefits of allowing a community to interact with one another by answering questions, helping other members, discussing topics based on a specific niche, giving members the opportunity to meet up in person and even running contests or challenges for members.

Are we an Empire or are we starting a Rebellion?

Since Steve’s blog community was also focused towards Nerd-like topics he decided to ask everyone what to call the community, using a Star Wars reference the community ultimately voted on becoming “The Rebellion” after Steve asked his community what they preferred, an Empire or a Rebellion.

Steve recommends that you only start a forum if it fits with your niche. He mentions in our interview he sees that it’s common a lot of people will start a forum because they see other people doing it so they decide to do it too. You want to make sure you have the audience before you start. Steve mentions in the interview if your niche caters to older people it might not make sense to create a forum because it’s less likely this will appeal to them as a place to communicate. A good forum niche example would be a community of car enthusiasts for a specific generation of that car. Some forum alternatives might be to start a Facebook Group or use Google Hangouts to interact with members.

Nerds might be better off in a message board style community where other types of communities may find communicating on Facebook easier. Facebook for example is great for smaller groups of people. Pick the best platform that will allow you to engage with your community. Regardless of the platform you choose create a way to consistently interact with your community so they keep coming back for more.

Picking A Forum Platform

Steve says they have gone through 3 revisions with his forum but mentioned he has not managed it entirely by himself. Currently the Nerd Fitness forum runs on a platform called IP Board.

As the forum grew Steve mentioned moving away from the phpbb forum platform. Phpbb is a free and open source forum which is a great starting point for people looking to build a forum without additional costs. Steve also previously has used the VBulletin platform. IP Board prices vary based on how many active current users are browsing the forum.

Ask your most active community members what platforms suits them. Ask questions like:

  • What types of platforms do you use in other places? Think Social Networks or types of Forum platforms.

  • What is working well for you and why?

If you host your blog or website with WordPress most hosting companies include Cpanel which gives you the capability to automatically install forums directly to your site with ease.

You can checkout the Nerd Fitness forum over at this community page.

When Steve originally started the forum he kept the topics very basic. Currently you will see that the forum has many sub-categories to interact in based around different niche topics.

When starting out it does not make sense to add a lot of topics for discussion if you are still just building your community.

Yaro Starak of talks about this very topic in his article on Building an Online Forum Community.

At first when you start building categories and individual forums you might get carried away with all the interesting forums you can create. You dream of your users lapping it up and talking away about every little area of interest you can come up with. This is the first major mistake you can make. You end up creating way too many forums that have no topics in them. Even if you do manage to bring some quality visitors to your site, they hit your forum and see an empty place and then move on. No one feels compelled to join an empty forum.” – Yaro Starak

Starting with the very basics will be your best option when just starting your forum, over time you can then expand and add further niche categories to cater to your audience as you see fit. If you create general categories to start out you should give yourself the ability to branch out as you grow.

Basic categories can include general topics, introductions, and off-topic discussions. Every niche will be different so you can use those as a starting point and branch out from there. Remember it’s important not to create too many categories when starting out otherwise you will find you have many sections of the forum without much interaction.

Sub categories naturally evolved in Steve’s forum when a giant blob of topics wasn’t conducive. Over three years as the members, topics and site grew it was an easy decision to create sub categories.

Every niche will be different, most forums tend to add a unique spin to their forum topics. Adding sub-forums as the community grows will be important to keep your community active.

Private Forums

I also asked Steve about creating private forums, he mentioned with the release of his new course The Nerd Fitness Academy. He stated that he wants to help as many people as possible so he has tried to keep all of his content available for free, although with his new course he will have a section dedicated for members of the Academy program. The Nerd Fitness Academy is geared towards women, the private forums allow them to express themselves more freely, be vulnerable and support one another on a deeper level than through the public message board.

Many forums typically will create private areas for membership courses or special incentives. One example would be over at the Warrior Forum you can pay $40 to get an upgraded inbox to store more private messages and you get access to their “War Room” where many members share a lot of valuable free information and tips with other private members.

One example of another niche is  a car enthusiast forum for late model Nissan 300zx for years 1984-1989. Considering these cars have been around for over 20 years it’s good to keep topics fresh. The forum has off-topic forums where members can discuss humorous photos or even eBay listings that come and go.

Getting The Party Started

In the interview Steve talks a lot about how important it is to have an active community before opening the forum to the public.

Steve uses a great example of why this is important. Imagine hosting a house party in a crowded city open for the public (I picture college parties here).  You only have a couple people at your party. A few people come walking by and see that the “party” is dead so they keep walking, then a few more people come by and also see the party is dead.

What happens?

People will go elsewhere and never stop to join the party if it looks dead, this is exactly the same thing that will happen with a forum. If someone finds the forum for the first time and there is no recent activity from the community they will most likely leave and go elsewhere. It’s very important that you already have an active and engaged community before you decide to start a forum.

Before Steve opened the forum to the public he created way for people to submit applications to Beta test the forum. He ended up finding 20 active members that were active commenters on his blog. These people helped organize the forum, post workouts, ask questions and gave feedback on what they like and dislike.

These people were the diehard fans that were active and engaging on the blog daily! The people that were really involved by posting and talking to people.

Steve knew everyone by name at the start. Everyone was so passionate and interested in leveling up their lives. He had them start creating topics and engaging with others members as a way to “get the party started”.

Steve also stressed the importance of accepting people who wanted to be in the community, if someone criticized his writing style on the blog he would flat out tell them the community he is creating just might not be the right fit for them. The key here for Steve was to target the right people that fit into his community and filter out those who didn’t.

When he felt the forum had enough activity he opened it up to the public adding another 100 members to the forum. Today Steve has almost 700,000 posts on the message board and almost 20,000 members.

Members commonly keep the forums open while at work or in their free time consistently posting on a regular basis adding new and valuable content for others to consume. The forums have become large enough that members are able to interact with one another to provide help and support to one another by answering questions and giving feedback.

Unique Titles And Member Incentives

A lot of forums use specific titles for each users profile. For example, when a new user signs up they may be titled as a “Newbie” on the Nerd Fitness forum where as seasoned posters will achieve different titles based on their post count. On Steve’s forum someone with over 1000 posts has the title “Renegade” for example. Moderators will get “nerdy” titles to help them stand out among the normal users.

Steve wrote a blog post called What Is Your Profession as a great way to allow members to choose titles and a theme when they join the community.

As members are able to contribute to the forum by helping others you may be able to start contests, and come up with give aways such as prizes.

Steve talks about his Hall Of Heroes sub-section of the forum where members will receive recognition, special titles, a t-shirt and other member incentives from contests or community challenges.

Other forums may include “rep” features for adding reputation or “thanks” features allowing other members to see how much a particular user has been able to contribute to the forum. A lot of forums also tend to put a lot of weight on post count.

One example would be on the Warrior Forum users will openly offer a free “Review Copy” of a course or program but insist anyone reviewing the content must have a post count of 50 or maybe even 100 if they are going to be considered first. Here is a post from October where the person requests anyone reviewing their up and coming product must have at least 30 posts to be considered.

Managing Forum Spam

Spam can be very overwhelming on a forum, I asked Steve how he currently handles Spam on the Nerd Fitness Community forum. Steve mentioned when previously using the Phpbb forum platform during every new user registration he will request the user answer a specific question related to his community. Since it’s a fitness community for Nerds he would ask “What is the name of Mario’s brother?” Since most people know what the Nintendo game Mario Brothers is, the obvious answer would be Luigi.

On the new platform he asks users to fill out a CAPTCHA form and they must also click a link sent to their e-mail address to confirm their account prior to signing into the forum and posting on the forum. This is a sure way to prevent bots signing up and posting junk on the forum.

An awesome resource for finding members who have been previously banned from other forums can be found at Stop Forum Spam. This is a massive database of spammers that have been collected to help manage spam better.

Handling Hundreds of New Members

As the forum grows new members will typically be joining the forum and posting introductions on your forum. When Steve initially started the forum he was answering member questions, giving away incentives for contributing members, welcoming them into the community and helping out as many people as possible going above and beyond what most people might do. Doing the non-scalable work when starting out is what has allowed him to build the community he has today.

Find a few long term members that would be willing to help with new members that are introducing themselves on the forum. In Steve’s case these people were long time members who he came to trust that were willing to contribute for free.

Find those die-hard fans who will be willing to suggest improvements, help keep the forum running properly. Ask them to welcome these new members, help them get started with content and any questions they might have. This is a great way to keep people coming back for more, if members are given a helping hand and  community support they will be more likely to come back and start participating on the forum.

Rules For The Forum

Every forum needs a set of rules, you are not always going to have a 100% clean community and this is why moderation and rules are an important part of any forum. Don’t be afraid to filter out those who don’t belong in the community. Steve has mentioned receiving emails from people who don’t agree with his blog writing, or content. You can’t satisfy everyone and you shouldn’t expect too, it just might not be the right community for them.

Creating a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) and Rule guidelines should be an important step before opening a forum to the public. Come up with a set of rules based around your niche and make sure no one is taking advantage of anyone else within the community. Some examples might be harassment, spam, promotion for self gain and other inappropriate behavior.

Steve created a detailed page called Rules Of The Rebellion you can read over here. This is a great way to show the community what their mission is and what is and is not allowed in the community.

Finding Moderators

As your forum grows you will want to find people who can help moderate spam and make sure that posts are following the rules. I typically find most forums award moderation rights to those who are both knowledgeable about the niche and are active enough to help out with regular moderation. Find people you trust and maybe even get on the phone or Skype with them to see if they are a good fit for helping you moderate your forum.

Ask the people that are really helpful one at a time.

Hey.. I really respect the answers and support your giving. I’d love to recognize that and give you a cool new title.”

Show the community that you are a big deal and can really help out members. In the Nerd Fitness community moderators get to choose their own titles. For example Staci’s title is Master of Deadlifts.

Find them one at a time and ask who they think would make a great moderator.

Organizing what they are responsible for and which sections they will moderate.

Ask these members questions like:

  • What tools do you need to help out the community?

  • How can I make this better for you?

  • How can we create a better experience for new members?

Then act on these suggestion to see if they work.

Steve currently has about 30-40 moderators on the forum who are unpaid volunteers. These could be die hard fans or knowledgeable major forum contributors.

Good moderators should be people that are committed to the community. They are able to get along with other members, treat others politely, and are willing to help other members when they need it.

Setting Up Goals For Starting a Forum

Goals are very important if you want to conquer a lot of tasks. Setting up a forum is not an easy job and will take some time to learn.

When setting up these goals use specific times and dates for when you expect to complete each task so you are more accountable for your work.

Checkout these awesome productivity articles before you start:

How To Be More Productive With Your Online Marketing Efforts by John Shea (Yeah that’s me!)

3 Ways To Work Smarter by Melanie Duncan

I highly recommend using a program such as Evernote to track your goals.

Step 1. – Determining Your Audience

Determine if you have a large enough audience to start a forum and if it makes sense for your niche. If you are going to start a forum make sure it makes sense, Steve did not start a forum until 1 year after starting Nerd Fitness.

Determine if you will be creating a forum based around a niche that has a need. I’ve seen a very niche topic have multiple forum communities for the same topic, eventually what happened is the best forum of the group ended up being the “Go To Place” of all the forums in this niche. The other forums ended up fairly dormant lacking new posts and hardly worth visiting.

As I mentioned, I posted on a few car forums for years. Over time the forums with less people helping others or actively posting new and exciting content dwindled and eventually the board owners just stopped hosting the forums due to there being bigger and better forums already serving that community.

Do you have 20 people that will help you “beta test” the forum? Find those 20 people who can help you “get the party started”. We want people to stay at the party, not pass by it. If you are struggling to find friends start emailing people in your niche who might be willing to help.

This article about emailing people by Derek Halpern of Social Triggers covers some simple tactics on how to do this.

Step 2. – Picking a Platform

I’m going to assume if you are starting a forum you have an audience, a blog and a website already in place. It is very important that if you are going to start a forum you must have an audience prior to creating a forum. You don’t want people to go to another party do you?

When starting out I’d suggest using a free system until your audience is large enough that you need to upgrade.

I have used Phpbb forums with success and Steve has previously as well. Steve has also used the VBulletin platform. Depending on your needs you may want to do your own research. I suggest checking out this awesome comparison site over at ForumMatrix.

Steve currently uses IP Board which is a paid service as mentioned earlier in this post.

Step 3. – Setting Up The Forum, Registration, Administration & More

Once your forum is installed you will need to setup your registration process. Verify you have a good CAPTCHA system or unique niche question in place. Remember the Mario Brothers question Steve used?

Many forum platforms provide you with the ability to pick custom theme layouts and designs. Pick a color scheme and layout that makes sense for your community. This will vary depending on the platform you picked.

Verify that each new registered user has the proper privileges to post and not make any major changes such as edit or delete posts. Most forum platforms are fairly straight forward when it comes to setting specific levels of forum rights. Some forums require registration in order to view the forum content, this should be a choice based on your discretion.

Create a basic set of sub-categories for discussion topics to start. Within each sub-category create pinned posts with Frequently Asked Questions and other important information about the forum for new members.

Step. 4 Posting Content

Once your beta testers are posting content make sure you are replying and adding both new topics and added value to all of the posts your beta group has started. It is important for you to be an active member, not only as a moderator and owner but as someone who participates in the community as well.

Allow members to contribute free content with “How To” Guides, Useful Pinned posts and quality content.

Make sure you are actively replying and engaging with all of the comments on a daily basis to keep the conversation flowing. Consider using content from current blog posts.

Step. 5 Generating Forum Traffic

There are many ways to generate traffic to a website or forum, this section of setting goals will provide you with some basic guidelines you can use to start bringing in more traffic.

Find related niche sites or communities to help drive members to your forum and website, use a link in your signature to your forum while participating on other forums to drive referral traffic. The idea with this is that if you are actively posting in forum threads people will at some point read through those threads from top to bottom passing by each person’s signature who has contributed to the thread. If you include an interesting link in your signature you will find that some people will start clicking through on that link bringing those people over to your website or forum.  Check out this training video over on the QuickSprout university about driving traffic with forums.

As your community grows ask the members about running contests, challenges or other forms of consistent interactive content. Steve runs a 6 weeks challenge on his forum keeping users engaged and actively coming back to report progress on their fitness journey, depending on your niche try to come up with creative ways to keep members coming back.

This is a very powerful way to keep members coming back, another way to add to this is to highlight members based on contributions, success stories or other forms of good deeds worth mentioning. A car community might have a “car of the month” where as a fitness community like Steve’s might highlight a members fitness transformation story. Combine this with a contest to generate buzz around your forum.

Step. 6 Conclusion

Using this as an outline should give you a good perspective on how to get started with a new forum. My best take away from this interview with Steve was the guidance on finding a small group of people to get the forum interaction started before looking to open it up to the public. Building a forum will without a doubt take some time and dedication. Follow the information provided in this article and stay consistent, with time you will see results. Hopefully this article will help you learn how to build an online community.

Resources and Contact Information

Forum Links


IP Board

Forum Matrix

NerdFitness Links

NerdFitness on Facebook

NerdFitness on Twitter

NerdFitness on YouTube

NerdFitness on Pinterest


How To Find Steve

About Steve & Nerd Fitness

Contact Steve

Steve On Twitter

Steve on Google+

This article was also co-written with help of Jamie Cheng.

Looking for more content just like this? Be sure to check out the Blueprint Entrepreneur Magazine on iTunes