What makes Team-BHP the boss of Indian online communities, even though web forums are dying?

Sriram Sharma May 26, 2017 11 min

Story Highlights

  • Team-BHP's motoring community, run by a bunch of passionate and dedicated auto enthusiasts and driven by a closely moderated discussion forum, continues to have more influence and skin in the game compared to mainstream auto publications.
  • Managed by five full-time team members and 30 part-time moderators, the forum spans a variety of auto passions, from regular reviews of new cars to classic cars, superbikes and off-roading.
  • New member registrations are screened and manually approved every week, and users are expected to write an elaborate note on why they want to be a part of the community

The group of 13 bike enthusiasts from Mumbai was angry. Two months had passed since they had booked, with huge down-payments, superbikes at an official Kawasaki dealership in Navi Mumbai. The dealer had made no deliveries, and wasn’t responding to phone calls or emails. Kawasaki refused to deliver the bikes as they hadn’t received any money from the dealer.

The bikers were stuck between a fraudulent dealer and a passive manufacturer. Instead of filing a court case, they posted their accounts of being defrauded on Team-BHP.com, India’s largest community of motoring enthusiasts. Within the next 45 days, all of them finally received their bikes after Kawasaki decided to take a hit on their balance sheet and deliver the bikes rather than risk their reputation in what’s now the world’s largest two-wheeler market.

The story didn’t get much play in the media — a handful of publications wrote about the incident. Yet, it demonstrates how Team-BHP’s motoring community, run by a bunch of passionate and dedicated auto enthusiasts and driven by a closely moderated discussion forum, continues to have more influence and skin in the game compared to mainstream auto publications.

Despite the habitat loss, Team-BHP.com has weathered this decade like a boss, growing in engagement and traffic.  

As Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram harnessed the network effect and grew in importance over the past decade, internet forums, the first online communities before the advent of social media, slowly but inevitably turned into virtual ghost towns. Most witnessed a gradual but irreversible decline in engagement and traffic. In 2011, an NYT columnist chronicling its stagnation declared the internet forum ‘an endangered species’. Yet, despite the habitat loss, Team-BHP.com has weathered this decade like a boss, growing in engagement and traffic.

As of April 2017, Team-BHP boasts 24 lakh unique visitors a month, and over two crore uniques annually. According to April stats on SimilarWeb, its monthly total visits surpass some of the biggest names in Indian auto media and VC-backed marketplaces in India. Based on total monthly visits, Team-BHP is just 600,000 monthly visitors (16%) shy of BBC’s biggest media brand — Top Gear.

Caption: Team-BHP serves an audience of 21 million visitors annually

Team-BHP’s biggest draw is its web forum, which runs on a modified version of VBulletin, a popular internet forum software. Managed by five full-time team members and 30 part-time moderators, the forum spans a variety of auto passions, from regular reviews of new cars to classic cars, superbikes and off-roading. At the time of writing, there were close to 750 users logged in simultaneously, with around 24,000 people lurking on the forum.

Members flaunt their Team-BHP membership in the form of bumper stickers and merchandise, and there is a strong sense of pride around belonging on the forum itself. This is in no small measure due to the strict entry policy and rules of engagement on the forum — some have compared getting in to cracking the IIT-JEE. But more on that later.

In a detailed email exchange with FactorDaily, Rush Parekh, the founder of Team-BHP shared his philosophy for building and sustaining a community of auto-enthusiasts, the site’s ‘no-advertisements’ policy, and how Team-BHP was the first to break many stories that were ignored or under-reported in mainstream auto media.

Rush Parekh, founder of Team-BHP funded the community out of his pocket for the first seven years of operation.

Team-BHP’s war against ‘corrupt auto media’

Long before the Team-BHP.com domain was registered by Parekh in 2004, a proto-community of around a dozen enthusiasts gathered on MSN Communities, drawn by their collective distrust of traditional auto media outlets. The founding team envisioned a community for car enthusiasts, where they could access unbiased and accurate information. They determined that the only way to maintain this stance was to follow a ‘no advertisement stance’, by refusing all car advertisements.

A strict editorial policy against any kind of paid content — be it sponsored content, advertorials, or native ads — has substantially boosted the quality and trust in the community, Parekh says. “It was not an easy decision for sure, but we’re very firm in our belief. It’s been 13 years. Forget direct car ads, we even block any that are served through Google AdSense,” says Parekh.

Parekh goes by the handle ‘GTO’ on the Team-BHP forum. Team-BHP was funded out of his pocket for the initial seven years or so, supported by another business that he had going in the education field. Since 2011, the community keeps the lights on by serving non-car ads via Google Adsense. True to his claim, I didn’t encounter any car ads on the forum; only ads for auto accessories and components. Other monetisation avenues spotted on the site include affiliate links to insurance marketplace Coverfox, and an online store where users can purchase branded Team-BHP swag.

The community’s adversarial and outsider stance can be seen in this thread by Parekh, where he breaks down how the auto media is herded around by PR agencies when producing a car review. “I don’t believe one can objectively review an Elite i20 (for example) on one hand, and accept a 25-lakh rupee ad campaign from Hyundai on the other. It’s simply impossible.”

“I don’t believe one can objectively review an Elite i20 on one hand, and accept a 25-lakh rupee ad campaign from Hyundai on the other. It’s simply impossible.” — Rush Parekh

You heard it here first

As the community doesn’t depend financially on the auto industry, it has enabled honest content, reviews and opinions, and fostered a community that’s often the first to break news on many burning issues surrounding auto ownership in India.

“Who spoke first about the Swift’s poor brakes, Kawasaki’s dealership cheating customers of deposits, Skoda’s horrendous service levels, the poor reliability of European luxury marques or Jaguar’s horrific after-sales, or defective parts of some models?” asks Parekh.

I reached out to a few auto enthusiasts to share their opinions and experiences as a Team-BHP.com forum member. Almost everyone had a favorable opinion about the community, praising it for its high standards of decorum, while some had some unsavoury things to say about not being allowed in.

“They crack down big time on trolls and non-relevant answers, or if you post stuff with grammatical errors and typos. Membership is slightly tricky at times,” says Anil Patrick, a former journalist-turned entrepreneur. Patrick appreciates how the forum acts as a foil to mainstream auto media.

Members of the forum love to flaunt being part of the group with bumper stickers.

“The auto media’s objectivity is becoming questionable with each passing day. How do you trust guys who are out on paid junkets every day to provide unbiased reporting? And I literally mean every day,” he says. “Auto journalism now focuses more on cover-ups than editorial ethics. User communities like Team-BHP take brands apart if they screw around. Auto-journalism standards don’t come close to Team-BHP quality guidelines.”

Auto media’s objectivity is becoming questionable with each passing day. How do you trust guys who are out on paid junkets every day to provide unbiased reporting?”  

Patrick recounts the example of how Triumph India sold an 87 BHP Street Triple in India for over a year claiming that it was the 105 BHP engine sold globally. “None of our Indian journos caught on, and gave it glowing reviews while parroting Triumph’s falsehoods. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they couldn’t put it on a dynamometer. What’s unforgivable is that they did not report the reality for nearly a month, even when all this came out,” says Patrick. A 44-page thread on the Team-BHP forum makes it quite evident that its members were the first to pick up on this development.

“I do remember the Kawasaki issue, which was broken on the forum,” says Tushar Burman, an auto enthusiast who covers India’s automotive scene on Motovore.com. Burman, who worked at a Pune-based newspaper at the time, was among a handful of journalists who followed up on the story. While not a frequent poster, he said that it’s a useful resource for finding user opinions on minute details not typically covered by the press, “for instance, could I use X tyre on Y vehicle, and whether anyone else has tried it.”

The devil is in the details

Team-BHP has capitalised on its early mover advantage in the space by attracting the most passionate petrolheads in the country, and publishing incredibly long and detailed reviews, each with hundreds of photographs and extremely layered discussions. On average, five team members contribute to every car review. As a content management system, the forum works particularly well for this use-case, as you get a firehose of information on one page, followed by passionate debates on the pros and cons of a vehicle.

New members are encouraged to write a verbose response on why they want to join the community.

“We’ve only gotten more particular about the quality of discussions and articles published,” says Parekh. He credits effective moderation, a relentless focus on content quality, and a rigorous new member approval system for Team-BHP’s edge. New member registrations are screened and manually approved every week, and users are expected to write an elaborate note on why they want to be a part of the community, with a warning that one-line responses are almost certain to be disqualified. Around 2,500 – 3,000 people apply to be a part of Team-BHP every month.

“It certainly helps that Team-BHP was born in 2004, when the internet in India and local automotive websites were in the nascent stage,” Parekh says. “Of course, that’s not the only reason — there were two other Indian car forums that were launched much before Team-BHP and had prominent backers. Still, one of them shut down (Indiacar.com), while the other is in the doldrums,” he adds.

The only other notable community in this space is the motorcycle-centric XBHP, which receives around four lakh visits a month, according to SimilarWeb. “They are a mixed bunch. Moderation levels are not so stringent, and the focus seems to be more on sponsorships and their magazine,” says Patrick, sharing his view of the community.

 

Though they have an active motorcycle and superbike section, Parekh agrees with the observation that Team-BHP is more focused on four-wheelers than over two-wheelers.

“Admittedly, we do focus more on cars than motorcycles, and that’s not by design. Perhaps, it’s because a larger number of moderators and BHPians are into cars over motorcycles. I personally like motorcycles… but I love cars,” he writes.

Why moderation matters at Team-BHP

Team-BHP started off with practically no rules, but eventually posted 14 of them in response to problems or issues they saw on the forum. Team-BHP’s 30-strong moderator team monitors the forum on a daily basis, screening an average of 20-25 reports flagged by forum members.

Moderators delete zero-value posts, correct poorly-typed posts, and enforce rules of decorum. Chat and SMS lingo is a ban-worthy offense. Moderators first offer a couple of warnings to the poster over any potential infractions, and put a temporary ban on erring users. Permanent bans are meted out to those who don’t stick to rules despite warnings or temporary bans. Around 250 members have been permanently banned from the forum.

Team-BHP’s moderator team pose for a snap with its founder Rush Parekh .

“You’ll rarely come across a forum with such a high level of decorum. It’s probably why we have 13-year-olds as well as 65-year-olds posting on the same thread,” Parekh says.

VC money vs tight-knit community

A virtuous cycle of in-depth and independent reviews, combined with the largest community of Indian auto enthusiasts, have helped propel Team-BHP into a position of authority. “There is no other large resource on Indian cars (online or print) that is independent of the auto industry’s advertising rupee. Even internationally, ‘Consumer Reports’ from the USA is the only one that comes to mind,” Parekh boasts.

From his vantage point, Parekh has chronicled India’s automotive landscape, examining how auto-makers have evolved in the past decade. He expects an even more drastic change in the next ten years — as self-driving tech, electric, hybrid/fuel cell cars become ubiquitous, and disruptors like Uber change the equation around car ownership. “In terms of volumes, India will only grow and grow. I frequently say that the next 20 years belong to India,” he says. As the admin of Team-BHP, he leads from the front: “I’m the top poster on Team-BHP and also the most active moderator.”

Parekh dismisses the likelihood of a new rival forum gaining traction in the age of Facebook groups that accrue thousands of members within a matter of days, or VC-funded auto communities. He is confident that no rival, no matter how well-funded, can beat Team-BHP’s quality of discourse or the level of engagement its members have. “You can’t throw VC money on a new forum and expect it to evolve into a close-knit community,” he says.

 


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.