Setting Up Discussion Forums Using Vanilla

Use Vanilla Forums for work, to discuss ideas, or just to connect people across the organisation.

The need for, and the means of, communication between individuals of similar interests has existed since time immemorial. Discussion forums like Google Groups have scaled interaction to higher levels. Everyone benefits from an interaction. The people who contribute at some time are on the receiving side the rest of the time. This development of knowledge is what enables progress in science and technology.
Vanilla Forums (VF) is a discussion forum based on the LAMP stack, which can improve the levels of interaction and collaboration within your organisation.

Why another forum software?
There are many discussion forums on the Internet that employees already participate in. They could be officially representing the company in some, and sharing their personal views in others. Having a forum within the organisation (on the intranet) helps the company in many ways. Companies need a barrier to prevent confidential information from flowing outside. Also, the overexposure of employees on public forums or social networking sites could result in the company’s image taking a beating. Further,  a discussion forum on the company intranet can complement real-time interactions. Most individuals are hard pressed for time at work and may lack opportunities to meet for discussions.

Forum conversations can enable more people to join the discussion at a convenient time.
The greatest benefit of intranet discussion forums will be greater productivity. They help break the ice and get like-minded people to form groups. Such collaboration, given the right direction, could lead to better ideas, a better workplace atmosphere, and also can act as effective bottom-to-top communication.

Hosting an intranet discussion group

While there are many discussion forum products available, Vanilla is ideal for informal interactions on the intranet. Its set-up and configuration are very simple. It has an easy registration process, and a good number of plug-ins that add features. The look-and-feel of the product is just right for people to hang out. The default theme is simple and attractive enough to get started with conversations. Whether it involves pictures of the recent team outing, or speaking out against a petrol price hike, the forums allow different categories of discussion, and also enable tagging them.

Vanilla features
Vanilla is available as downloadable software and also as a service. If you prefer Vanilla as a service, you need to choose a monthly subscription fee based on the size of the organisation. Though we focus on the downloadable version, you can grasp Vanilla’s features and flexibility on the subscription option.
Easy to get started: The most important feature of any discussion forum is to allow new users to get started without much learning. While other software could have more features, Vanilla beats them because of its easy-to-use interface.
Popularity-based sorting: The discussions are sorted based on popularity and likes. This makes it easy for users to find hot topics.
Highly portable: Vanilla is implemented in PHP, making it highly portable on various platforms.
Customisable: This software was created to be customisable—regarding not just its look-and-feel, but its functionality too. The architectural premise was to keep the core light and fast, and allow extension in the form of plug-ins and applications.
Easy integration: This software has the option to integrate with social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Mobile client support: Vanilla comes with a mobile theme suited for smaller screens, which is a delight for users on mobile devices.

Setting up Vanilla
You need to have the LAMP stack pre-installed; minimum versions include PHP 5.2.0 and MySQL 5. Download the software from http://vanillaforums.org/. Unzip the zip file into the Web server’s htdocs directory. Create a database named vanilla via the MySQL prompt or phpMyAdmin GUI. Visit http://localhost/vanilla in the browser, assuming the directory name under htdocs is vanilla. Fill the form with the username (admin role), the password and enter the database name as vanilla. Submitting the form will take you to the Vanilla administration page.

Customisation
Homepage layout: Vanilla has options to select the homepage of every user, to suit their interaction mode. The choice is between discussions view, categories view and activity view. Discussions view shows all discussions in reverse chronological order, in any category. The categories view groups discussions based on category, and only shows the discussion and comments count. The activity view shows new posts and new users added to the forum.
Banner customisation: The forum banner can be customised to suit the kind of forum being hosted—including changing the title and logo. Figure 3 shows a changed logo.
Look and feel selections: Vanilla has options to change themes and layouts based on user devices. The default theme is for desktops, but there are also embed-friendly and mobile viewing versions.
Messages to the community: As administrator, you can set information-based (e.g., new categories created) and warning messages (reminders of forum rules and company policies) on any of the pages on the forum. You can choose not only the messages, but also which page to display them on, where to display them, and whether or not the user can close the message. You can also enable or disable the appearance of a message.
User addition: User addition can be done by the administrator or through the self-registration option, which is best for a community that’s growing large. Administrators, however, can assign new account permissions based on the role the user will perform.
Roles and permissions: The roles define the amount of control a user has on moderation of discussions and over other users. At the very minimum, the users will be able to view their own profiles. At the other end of the spectrum is the administrator, who has full control over users, themes, moderation, categories management and spam control.
Registration: Many modes of registration are supported. The basic method lets the users choose a username and password, and requires them to enter CAPTCHA words for sign-up. The CAPTCHA security check should be configured by using the Google service. Another interesting registration process is ‘registration through invitation’ the same way GMail became popular, through invitation emails for new users to join.
Moderation: The forum gives you many options to control spam and posts as well as create ban lists.
Discussion categories: Categories, like directories on a file system, separate topics of discussion, and let users focus on discussions they prefer.
Flood control: This feature moderates the rate of posts to avoid some users hogging the discussion (or, in Internet use, automated posts).
Archive discussions: Based on the volume of posts, administrators can choose to archive older posts by date. This helps to reduce the clutter on the home page.
Tagging: The author of a discussion can create tags for easy search. Tagging is a non-hierarchical way of grouping discussions. More than one tag can be assigned to a discussion. For example, a post on the SRK controversy at Mumbai stadium can have the tags of cricket, IPL, Bollywood and Mumbai.
Plug-ins
Version 2.0.18.4 of Vanilla comes with 16 plug-ins as part of the software bundle. The plug-ins include integration with Internet communities like Facebook, Google, OpenID and Twitter; and have value-add features like a WYSIWYG editor, statistics, etc. In addition, the administrator can select plug-ins from a repository of hundreds of them at vanillaforums.org.

Promoting adoption
Setting up the forum is the easiest part; the real challenge is to get people to use it. Web 2.0 collaboration sites like blogs, wikis and discussion forums thrive on the network effect; the more people that join, the higher is the value to all. So here are some tips to promote the forum, which will be useful in the early days after the launch.
1. Analyse the purpose of forming the discussion group
Identify the main purpose of the discussion group. Is it to discuss ideas on innovation or for discussing anything under the sun? Though the group could later change the scope of the discussion forum, provide a clear objective.
2. Identify popular categories
Create high-level categories that are of interest to the group the forum caters to. At least have a few initial threads of discussion that allow new users to participate.
3. Identify the influencers
It takes a few highly motivated influencers to get started with such endeavours. Identify them, and ask them to share their valuable thoughts through this means. Paradoxically, most talented people may not be the best writers, and the best writers may not be the most talented! The challenge is to identify the right mix for your discussion forum.
4. Focus on content first, then the number of users
Never make the mistake of advertising the discussion forum to all as soon as it’s launched. New users visit the place, see the empty forum, and may never return. First focus on having engaging discussion threads. Then, preferably, use the option of ‘registration by invitation’, so that news about the discussion forum spreads by word of mouth.
5. Have patience
It could takes weeks or months for people to visit and evaluate the discussions. The Vanilla statistics feature will give you an indication of the level of activity, so that you can measure the traction. When you feel that interaction levels have come down, introduce a new plug-in, and advertise it on the main page using the ‘Message’ option.
6. Remember to back up periodically
The biggest lesson I have learnt from hard experience is to have periodic (daily or weekly) back-ups of the discussion database.
Setting up and promoting a discussion forum using Vanilla is fun, and worth the time spent. It could become the most happening thing in your organisation.

 
References
[1]    Vanilla Home [http://vanillaforums.com]
[2]     Hundredth Monkey Effect [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundredth_monkey_effect]

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