This is a guest post from Benjamin Plass, a ManagingCommunities.com reader, who is the Head of Community Management for Goodgame Studios.
Every community manager has goals. Everyone wants their community to grow. The forum structure influences this growth. It is therefore very important to understand and adjust it to your needs and overall goals.
To make your community grow, you have to engage your first time visitors and new members. The conversion from reader to a posting member is a big step and as Patrick has discussed, the majority of your users will just be reading.
This means that there is big potential to get your community to participate. Of course, making a first post is a success, but it won’t make your community grow if those first posters don’t keep on writing. An active community is an attractive platform, but only if people feel they will get a quality answer to their question or feedback regarding their news, thread or post, will they contribute. Retaining the converted members thus is the second big goal in community management.
One last thing that will become more and more important once your community keeps on growing is recruiting members as moderators, external community managers or whatever you want to call these freelancers. The bigger your community, the more spam, trolling, and derailing of threads. There are, of course, more goals, but I will focus on these as an example to explain my thoughts regarding the best forum structure.
So, you may be wondering, how do these three goals and the forum structure fit together?
Recruiting New Members
First of all, we want a new member to return and, in the best case, to post. If we want them to return, they have to find the info they are looking for. The newbie needs to understand where they can post questions, find information, and general discussions. To actually convert that visitor to an active member, we need an “ice breaker” to make sure that people feel they can easily get that first post out of the way.
To achieve this, I recommend two very important sub forums: a category where people can present themselves to the community and a sub forum for beginner questions including frequently asked questions, or FAQ. I always add a subtitle like “New to the forum? Tell our lovely community more about you!” or “Ask anything related to [your community topic] – there are no stupid questions!”
Where are people entering the forum in the first place? In the upper part of the forum! Thus you want these two sub forums and the sub forum for general questions about your forum topic to be the first three categories they see. We want them to be the first topics new members see, to be easily accessible, with a call to action in the subtitles. We want the best service possible in these forums, so that means fast response times and the best answers your team can give.
Getting People to Stay
Our second big goal is to make people “regulars” that continuously read and post in your community. General discussions are very important for retention, but there are two other factors that we should consider in our forum structure. What’s the most active sub forum in basically every forum? It’s usually not an on-topic forum, but the exact opposite. It’s the off-topic, small talk forum. And it’s not even hard to understand why: naturally off-topic consists of more content than on-topic. Your community focuses on one topic, maybe a few things related to each other or a brand that deals with different products, but the off-topic will usually be big(ger)! People want to be entertained; it’s not just your primary subject matter that makes them come back to your community.
A lot of communities hide the off-topic section at the very bottom of the forum, which I think is a mistake. It should be visible, easily accessible and therefore appear in the middle. Connected to the off-topic discussions and need for entertainment is another reason that people commit to a certain community: friends. You want your members to build a social network, meet new people and finally make friends.
Introduction and off-topic sections definitely help with this. Members will naturally make friends as they share in common interests. If common threads develop in your forums, around a certain topic, profession, location or hobby, you may consider adding new sub forums that encourage people go even deeper in their discussions. These types of sections can be beneficial to both new and regular members. If a newbie wants to contribute then these will be the categories where they can start building a relationship with the community.
The third goal is recruiting. Since you have a forum structure that makes people want to post and categories that keep them active, your community will grow and soon will be too big to be managed by just one community manager. Hence you will probably want to add moderators that will help you with the moderation of the forum. Some forums put a call out for moderators and feature these application announcements in the upper part of the forum to make sure everyone sees it. This is a waste of space (space that could be used to convert people to active posters) and it will generate a lot of useless applications.
The people that can really help you will be people you already know on your forum – and will find applications even at the very bottom of the page. Actually it’s a great filter because you will just get applications by members that know even the last inch of your community and, in the end, these are the users that will be the most helpful.
To summarize, the upper part of the page should be reserved for new members, general discussions and news. Help your first time visitors with great accessibility! The more general the topic and the bigger the audience of the topic, the higher it should be in the forum structure. Things that might help your new members shouldn’t be hidden.
In the middle part, you’ll find the topics for everyone, but also the off-topic sub forum. Entertainment is king and will help you build a lively, active community. The more specific a discussion or sub topic, the lower it should be in the forum. If want to discuss special topics or you are trying to recruit moderators, use the bottom where people will find these things if they really need the info or are really motivated to help you. The target audience is way smaller than in the other topics, thus it shouldn’t be as prominent within the structure as the other sub forums.
Benjamin Plass started as a moderator in one of the biggest German music forums, MZEE.com, back in 2002. In 2007, he started working as a community manager for the world’s biggest poker school, PokerStrategy.com, and helped build the Spanish speaking section into one of the most popular for the company within two years. After having finished his studies, and receiving a diploma in Marketing and Services Management, Benjamin began working for Mail.ru Games and is presently the Head of Community Management for Goodgame Studios.