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  Best Use of Boards?
I am the online community manager for a community of mothers and manage over 400 moderated message boards. I want to accommodate the myriad tastes and interests of our members, but don't want dead boards which infer a dead community. I'd like to hear from other community managers about their criteria for killing or consolidating a message board. Thanks.

Many thanks for your question.

Your query strikes at the very heart of what maintaining community entails. Rather like a garden, your community may require pruning or constructive "cutting back" in order for it to bloom with consistent growth and develop to its full potential. You might also be required to make some difficult choices when things don't grow according to plan within your community.

It is worth stating at the outset that it is extremely difficult to set criteria by which one can readily ascertain when the time is right to exercise some removing of "dead wood". However there are some signs to look out for when considering particular boards and board dynamics which we will outline here.

It's important to consider the merits or otherwise of complete removal of board topics or groups of topics versus archiving them. Where it is possible (which means both technically and practically) the general advice is that archiving should be aimed for. For one, it provides continued access to old messages and resources, and second, archiving does not interfere with current discussions. An alternative to archiving is moving topics/threads en masse, leaving behind a link which those who are interested can follow. This is especially helpful in the event that members are able to create their own topics. Sometimes, a topic will be created by one member and stray posts/topics regarding that particular topic will be placed elsewhere on the boards. A tactic here is to move such topics/threads to a category which by default is not shown fully until clicked on. There are several message board tools which allow this to be easily done and which will also create a link from the original location of the messages to their destination location.

If deletion is the only option or the value of archiving topics or boards is doubtful, then there are some basics to consider regarding your board and board topics. Take a thorough look at your boards. Think both as a manager responsible for the overall viability of the community and as a user when you visit the boards. In addition, it's important to envisage yourself as both a new visitor to your community and a more seasoned participant, and assess the balance between showcasing the breadth and depth of the community to the former without overburdening the latter, e.g. too many similar topics which can be overwhelming upon first glance to a new user. As your question also intimates, it's important to show to new users that the community is active and is worth joining. Boards which advertise the number of posts and replies and/or show the date of the last posts to a topic need particular attention, since they may actually be advertising a lack of activity.

In your assessment of the boards, look out for the following:

1. Topical or newsworthy discussions which by their very nature are now obsolete.

2. Threads or discussions which have simply run their natural course.

3. Threads or discussions which haven't got "off the ground".

4. Obsolescence or relevance of particular boards or topics in the face of structural changes in the community or host sites.

If you find there are considerable numbers of the above then there may be broader issues to consider than simply a maintenance strategy of move/archive/delete. In some cases, it is the basic forum structure which needs to be re-evaluated, in others it is an over eagerness to create new forums/topics in reaction to requests from community participants or the capability for members to create their own topics at will which needs to be reviewed. In both of these examples, the result can be boards or threads which don't have wide appeal or for which intended purpose doesn't match with their actual use.

You might consider how easy it is to find discussions on a certain topic. Set yourself or someone who doesn't know your community the task of finding a discussion, note down where you think that topic should appear in the overall structure, and then set out to find it. If you or your tester find either multiple instances or confusing paths or locations of the discussions then it is likely that this needs to be reviewed. Do the same for other subject matter and you will build up a picture of where you might consolidate or restructure your boards.

If you are using multiple entrance points to the same board then ensure that this is clearly signposted and also is consistent. If a category contains boards which are also linked from other categories then provide easy recognition of this. A simple "see also" might suffice. If your organization of topics is well-thought out and navigation clear you might find that a reduction in the number of overall topics is possible and that those that remain are more consistent, more easily found by users and more easily promoted. The end result may be a "less is more" situation which will actually assist your traffic and activity.

Trained moderators should be well-equipped to assess the viability of individual boards and topics and their eyes and ears should be used when seeking the means to streamline or enhance the message boards. Moderators with experience and clear guidelines should also be in a position to act in instances where they can move topics into more appropriate boards and thus improve the chances of the topics being prolonged.

A strong recommendation would be consulting your community participants directly about any changes you might make. Even merging boards together to consolidate traffic to them should be done with consultation, and perhaps even invite suggestions in the form of a competition to rename or reorganise the boards. It's important that whatever you do, your community feels a part of the process and doesn't wake up one morning to find things changed without any prior warning. Publicize the changes in advance, let the participants know what will be changed and why, and provide "signposts" as far as is possible.

We wish you the best in your endeavours and thank you for posing your question!

To render your opinion of when boards/forums should be considered for removal or archiving, please visit our recent poll;

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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