Thank you for the question, Mr. Magruder. This gives me an opportunity to dig into the topic of forum structure and how to select your individual forums and then I’ll come back around to the crux of the question.
There is an old, oft-repeated piece of advice that says that you should start with as few forums as possible at the start. This is a good guideline to follow. You should start with as few forums as possible while also having a reasonable structure that fits your community.
For example, if you have a sports community, you could have just one forum. Call it “Discussion.” Everything goes there. However, that’s not really a good idea, is it? You need a little more structure because structure provides prompts for content, giving people an idea of what to post. Plus, that forum will become a big mess and it will be harder for people to find discussions focused on the topic at hand, which is sports.
So, instead, you should probably have forums for the most popular sports that you believe people will be discussing at the start. So, maybe you give baseball, football, basketball and hockey each their own forum. And then maybe you add one more for the discussion of any other sports. You don’t want to get too specific, but want to have some definition.
You add a general chat section, for off-topic discussion and then maybe an introductions forum and, if appropriate, an announcements forum. So, instead of 1 forum, you have 6-8. It’s more forums, but it’s also likely a more successful route.
As it becomes clear that members within your community are discussing a particular sport frequently, and you feel like it could use it’s own section, you can add it and move all of the discussions around that sport to the new forum dedicated to it.
The idea isn’t to have the lowest number of forums you can as much as it is to have an organizational structure that reasonably accommodates the types of discussions that your members are having. You want to showcase your community’s activity in an attractive manner, which gives potential new members the right impression and guides them to the activity that will compel them to join in. You want each section to be reasonably active. The definition of that will vary by the overall activity that your community has.
You might have forums that drop off in activity and may no longer be needed. You can always delete them, but be sure to merge the content within them into the forums where they will now fit best. You never want to lose genuine activity. You might also have temporary forums, created to capitalize on an event or moment in time, that eventually will be merged, as well.
This brings me back to Mr. Magruder’s question. What do you do with the most popular forums? Should you want some forums to be vastly more popular? And, if not, what should you do about them?
I think it is fine to promote individual forums or sections of your site. It makes sense that some might have an ad or some sort of prompt in their header saying something like, “Chat about the latest martial arts movie releases in the Martial Arts Entertainment forum.” Or even directly them to a particular thread to post reviews of a particular movie.
I don’t think there is a reason to try to push a particular forum to be bigger than the others, though. I would say that it is not something to specifically strive for, it is just something that will happen. It will usually be the most general, mainstream forums that will be the most popular. For example, on KarateForums.com, the three most popular forums are General Martial Arts, our sort of catch-all forum for things that don’t fit better elsewhere, Karate and General Chat. That is a pretty common thing and it’s neither bad nor good. Just understandable.
I wouldn’t promote an individual forum as much as I would promote putting discussions in the forums where they fit best because that is where the value of organization comes in. If you have a forum that is vastly more popular than others, it might be worthwhile to look at the topics that are being discussed and see if there is a pattern that you can follow to spin off a new forum from the big one, a forum where that particular topic can be further catered to.
While changes to your forum structure should generally be deliberate, well considered and spread out – don’t ever forget that the organization of your forum is not something that is set in stone.
You don’t have to set it and forget it – you can evolve it over time. Generally, the changes are small, but, over the years, I have launched a couple of aggressive reorganizations on both KarateForums.com and PhotoshopForums.com and those changes helped to give us clarity and to move us forward.