random highway shots
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Josh Barraza asked if I could write about merging two active online forums and the issues that can challenge such an idea. Thank you for the suggestion, Mr. Barraza.

Multiple forums can be merged. It doesn’t just have to be two. It can be more than that. But, for the sake of this article, to keep it simple, we’ll speak as if it is two forums that are merging into one, since that is the most common scenario.

When two forums are merged, the two separate databases are consolidated into one, meaning all members, posts and content will now constitute a single forum. If one forum had 400,000 posts and another had 300,000 – there is now one forum with 700,000 posts.

Most likely, one forum, or the brand of the forum at least, is coming to an end. If you merge XYZForums.com and ABCForums.com, you are going to pick one of those two names for the new merged forum. It will usually be the one that receives the most traffic, has the best search engine rankings and/or the strongest overall brand. If that means ABCForums.com, then XYZForums.com is simply redirected to ABCForums.com.

When all is said and done, you have one bigger and, hopefully busier, online forum.

What Can Go Right

The general reason that people merge forums is because they believe that the combined forum will be bigger, better, more active, more useful and, as such, will attract more people.

It’s the best of two forums added into one. The members, the activity, the staff, the traffic, the revenue – what was spread out across two forums is now in one.

This is the ideal outcome. That’s what everyone who merges forums is trying to do. Sometimes, it works out just like that. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

It is worth noting that a lot of mergers are between forums that have low activity or where activity has dropped off. In these cases, it is also done as a way to spark growth and to consolidate resources. You see less well established, really active forums trying to merge with others – but it does happen.

What Can Go Wrong (People)

Unfortunately, plenty of things can go wrong. These wrongs can generally be sorted into two categories: people and technology. Let’s tackle the first one.

Each online forum is like its own country. It has its own culture, social norms and guidelines. If you think about it in that context – as if you were trying to merge two countries – you can start to fathom the challenges that will present themselves.

People establish a relationship with a particular forum and they may not like the fact that this other forum is going to be wedged into it (“wedged into it” being the negative way to look at it). Especially if they are XYZForums.com and their forum will officially be no more after the merger. This can make them feel like they are a guest on ABCForums.com, which is an awkward feeling when you’ve spent years on the old, now merged forum.

This is really the biggest issue: the people aspects of community and making sure that everyone will feel comfortable because, if they don’t, they will leave. You have to be very careful.

What Can Go Wrong (Technology)

Another headache lies in the technical considerations of this task. You can’t just merge the two databases, even if both forums use the same forum software and have the same database structure. Why not? Overlapping data.

What if two people have the same username? What if someone is banned on one forum or not on the other? How will you handle private staff forums? The two forums each have their own organization of individual forums and sections, how will these be merged and fit together? If you have the money or the talent, a programmer can help you sort through these issues. But, they still represent a big challenge.

Finally, perhaps the scariest thing of all: once you merge forums, there really is no going back. The two forums are now one. Trying to split them back into two, beyond being a nightmare technically, will leave both forums in a worse state than they were before the merger.

Minimizing the Challenges (People)

Since the biggest challenge is culture rejection – members of one forum rejecting the other due to a difference of culture – it is best to try to match cultures. You don’t merge a forum where people personally attack each other and use profanity with a forum that is work friendly and where people are respectful. That’s a culture clash and makes no sense.

You should announce the move way in advance and give people time to get used to it. When you do announce it, be detailed. Explain why you are doing it, what changes will be happening, why the two forums are a good match and why it means great things for the combined forums. Read the replies and try to address any reasonable concerns that arise.

But before you announce it publicly, I would recommend discussing it with your staff to see how they feel. Ask them what challenges they see and how they can be addressed. This will help you to gauge how the larger community will react.

This should be done at both forums. On the forum that will be keeping its brand – the name that the combined forums will be known as going forward – there should be a heavy emphasis on welcoming the new members from the other forum. This should be done in public and it should be done with the staff of that forum. Welcoming people has to be a consistent theme and message. If it is, you’ll have gone a long way to dealing with one of the more important challenges that you’ll face.

Finally, consider how you can ease people in over time. Announcing it early, long before the actual merger, is one way to do that. But, maybe you can do some other things to help make the transition easier, especially for those from the forum that will be closed. One idea is that you can offer them a forum style that matches with the design of the closed forum. You can do it for a limited period of time, if appropriate. Small things that remind them of the old forum will help, much like an old piece of decor helps to turn a new house into a home.

Minimizing the Challenges (Technology)

The biggest challenges are personal, but technical challenges can also halt a project like this. As I mentioned, if you are a programmer or have the money to hire one, it can all be solved, but it does require some planning.

When merging members and post content, if a particular username exists at one forum and not at the other – no big deal. But, there will be plenty of usernames that exist on both forums. Probably, the first check that you should have in place is to see if matching usernames have the same email address associated with the accounts on both forums. If they do, then that account can be merged. But, even when the account is merged, you will need to decide which of the two forums will be given precedent of the profile data.

What did the cloned sheep say to the other sheep? I am ewe.
Creative Commons License photo credit: beckstei

For example, you have the username Patrick on ABCForums.com and XYZForums.com. Both of them have the same confirmed email address, so you know they are the same person. But, on one of the profiles, the member has listed his location as Boston, MA. On the other, it has been listed as Los Angeles, CA. Which one is it? You can give preference to the older account by registration date, the account with the most posts or, perhaps, the account on the forum with the surviving brand.

Oh yeah, that’s another issue. Registration dates. Just to give you an idea of how deep this can run. Being a member of a forum for a long time is seen as an accomplishment. Let’s say I registered an account on one forum on June 16, 2005 and then I registered on another one on December 1, 2011. Then they merge. My registration date on the merged forums should not show December 1, 2011.

With merged accounts that fail that first check, you can decide what to do with them. You can bring up a list of all accounts that fit this criteria and manually decide if they are the same person or if they are different people. If different, one account needs to be changed – for instance, you could add the number 2 to a username. If there are two members with the username Frank and one has 500 posts and one has 0 – the one with 500 posts should generally get the username due to their time investment in the forums.

It gets even trickier because people can get upset if they lose their username. And even once you have this all sorted, expect to find accounts that belong to the same person and be ready to handle them as you handle any duplicate accounts on your forums.

But, the accounts themselves are just one technical issue. If you have someone who is banned on one forum and not the other, you’ll need to decide what to do with them. Will you merge the staff forums into one? (Probably a good idea). How will the new forums be organized? What forums will be merged? These are the types of things you will need to think about and decide on.

Don’t forget that if each of the forums runs a different platform (like if one runs phpBB and the other runs vBulletin), the database will also need to be converted to the structure of the platform that you intend to use on the merged forum.

That’s not all! There is much more. You’ll find overlap after overlap. For example, each forum has a 30th thread and a 100th thread and a 500th thread. This thread ID will likely be the main way that threads are organized in the database and fetched for display on the forums. As such, if you have two 30th threads, it’s going to mess things up. If you think you will just take the contents of one database and add it to the other, you are very, very wrong and you will kill your community.

Bottom line, you need a competent programmer to go over these issues with you and take the time to develop a sound strategy that ensures that the history of both forums is respected.


That is actually a really good way to conclude these thoughts. The main thing that you are trying to do as you merge forums, if you want to be successful, is to ensure that the history of both forums is respected. Doing so is tough, but it’s necessary and, if you pull it off, you’ll be much happier and the merger will have a much greater chance of being successful.