Steven's Notebook

Look Ma - No Hands!

On Online Forums

Josh L. at Microsoft has been doing some investigation into online forums – what makes them successful or not – and has collected the results so far into an excellent post entitled MVP Summit Views and Issues with Threaded Discussions. His findings include a couple of items, including one that I’d guess would surprise most.

  • Volume Kills Community

That’s right. When you’re first starting a new forum it may be difficult to believe, but there is such a thing as too much traffic. There are two things that cause new visitors to flee in terror. The first is if there are no messages at all, which is kindof obvious. “Nope, nothing to see here, back to Google.” The other is being overwhelmed with too many messages, thinking that they’ll never possibly find the right answer or that replies to their questions will be lost in the chatter.

  • Notification and Bookmarking is Needed
  • Working Offline Needs to be Enabled
  • NNTP Collaboration is Important

These go hand-in-hand, though at first it may not seem like they do. They’re all elements of user interface and offer users flexibility. They all spring from the fact that not everyone wants to visit your forum every day, or using the same methods you do. The third may be of interest to only a limited number of people, but for those who are comfortable with newsreaders it’s very important. Josh includes it in working offline, but let me highlight this:

  • Provide a feed of new items via RSS

Again, give people an option to have new items brought to their aggregator rather than having to come visit your site every day. RSS is becoming more widely used every day, get yourself ahead of the game rather than finding yourself answering your users with “not yet.”

I’m a content administrator for two non-work sites that both have forums and a project manager for my company’s support forums, and you can bet that I’m pointing the development teams/program managers for them to this list. Just change “Microsoft” to the name of your community and the same comments can apply.

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