Creative Commons License photo credit: LOLren

As people endeavor to add more features and sections to their forums and communities – more than “just” discussion threads – there is a great opportunity for additional value for all parties involved. But, in the thirst to be “more,” it can be easy to forget the cost that you may incur.

This can include things like articles and dedicated editorial, product reviews, Facebook-like profiles with comments and a wall, member blogs, chat rooms, wikis, photo albums and plenty of other dedicated sections that receive top billing, or close to it, on your community.

These sections can all be great, meaningful parts of your community. So, what’s the problem?

Spreading Your Activity Out Too Thin

When people ask me what they can do to increase the activity on their community, one of the normal things I’ll tell them is to try to showcase the activity that they do have in the most attractive way possible. For example, it’s better to have 3 active forums or sections, than 1 active forum, 3 somewhat active ones and 7 inactive ones. With 3 active forums, you are generally showcasing the activity that you do have in the best way, because people see that there is interest in those sections and that encourages them to contribute.

The same is true for all of the sections of your community where a member can post something. Let’s say you have “just” a forum where you receive 100 posts a day. So, you decide to launch a dedicated reviews section, a photo album and user profile walls.

After you do this, possibly after some initial activity, you notice that the forum posts per day drop to 70, while you are receiving 1 new product review every couple of weeks, a handful of photo uploads a week and profile walls are sparingly used. What happened? Well, people have more areas they can contribute to and more areas to spend time in. They can’t invent more time in the day, so they spend their time in different ways. Is it a good change? It depends on your perspective. But, I think most would consider it counterproductive in this case.

Bringing it back to new members: what is more attractive? A really active forum, or a semi-active forum with a semi-active photo gallery and a largely inactive reviews section?

It’s Not All About Gains

It is important to come to a simple understanding when you are launching additional sections. You may be able to grow as a whole, but there is a good chance that each individual section will not grow. Some will grow, but at the expenses of others. This is totally fine and should not be viewed as a bad thing, necessarily.

For instance, if all you have is discussion threads and you add these additional functions and all sections have healthy activity, it is natural that some of the people who used to spend all of their time on your site in your forums now will split their time between the forums and these new sections. This means that their participation in your forums will drop, but that their participation in other areas grows. The same is true if you have a site that is focused on photo sharing and then you launch some text-based forums.

You must take it as part of the whole of your site. You may see less contributions in what has been your primary function, but your traffic may still grow. That’s not to say that it has to happen that way. Sometimes, everything will grow. I don’t know if that is common, however. Bottom line, you should be reasonable in your expectations and understanding of the end result.

Plan Your Expansion Carefully

Proper planning greatly increases your chances of success. Assuming it isn’t some top secret thing that not a lot of people have, you can ask your members if they’ll be interested in whatever you are thinking of launching. If some say yes, ask those people if they will help you to get it started and to keep it going.

This core group should receive pre-launch access to the new section so that they can start using it and get some activity going. That activity will help you a lot at launch time – people will see others already participating and will be more likely to jump in.

Start small and expand. Don’t launch 7 things at once. Launch 1. If you are “just” forums and you want to have a photo gallery, a wiki, member blogs, etc. – pick one. Pick the one people are most excited about right now. And make that one your focus and make it great. Then, once you have it established as an inseparable part of your site, you can look to the next one.

Nothing Wrong With Being “Just”

Expansion should be for the right reasons. It shouldn’t be due to some sort of pressure to be more than “just” forums or “just” something else. Don’t take what you have now for granted.

Forums are dead. Forums need to evolve. I’m here to save forums. Have you heard any of these before? I believe these types of statements come from a lack of perspective. Forums aren’t dead and they don’t need a savior. They have evolved in the ways that matter and you shouldn’t mistake platform diversification for platform death.

In short, there is nothing wrong with being “just” forums or “just” photos or “just” articles or “just” anything. Discussion forums are great – they are where the deepest engagement around topics and interests takes place on the social web. They offer a familiar, comfortable format for many, one that makes them want to participate. There is nothing wrong with playing with that format, testing, trying to improve, adding new stuff, launching new features, etc. That’s wonderful. But, don’t let anyone convince you that there is anything wrong with focusing on being “just” forums.

When the addition of new functionality comes from the right place, with the right research and the right motivation – that is when you have the potential to do something really powerful.