Sep 19 2008

[Misc] A guide to effective forum administration v.0.9

Category: Articles,Miscellaneous,VBulletinFractalizeR @ 5:14 pm

Introduction
Being a forum administrator/moderator on several forums I would like to share my opinions on how a good forum should be organized and administrated.

In this article I make the following assumtions:

  • You have very little to no possibility to commercially stimulate your users. Sending me to buy something in my childhood father sometimes jokingly told me: “Need money? Anyone can buy everything if he has money. Are you clever enought to get this without money?”
  • The things we talk here about relates to all forum systems both free and commercial. But the majority of my experience comes from administrating VBulletin based forums. So, when I touch forum internals or discuss specific issues, I state that it is possible on VBulletin and probably possible on other forum engines too (using engines themselves or addons to these engines).
  • Solutions we talk here about must be user friendly (we cannot punish users too much).

Planning forum structure (forum – subforum – subsubforum…)
Cut that!
The first thing a visitor sees when comes to your forum is forum main page where a list of main forum sections reside. One common rule about the whole list is that the length of this list should better not exceed 1,5-3 general laptop screens (e.g. scrollbar thumb should not take less than half to one third of scrollbar when you have your browser window maximized. As I am not sure I made it clear, let’s look at two examples from vbulletin official sites:
http://pic.ipicture.ru/uploads/08091…EstT9XTRwQ.png
http://pic.ipicture.ru/uploads/08091…jh7mWoGOLi.png

You see, on vbulletin.org forum list is kept short because there are several menus on the top of the page with main site sections. These menus makes your navigation easy though they are not something that standard forum user is used to.
But on vbulletin.com we see completely different situation. Forum list is long enough (however, it is not the longest one I saw in my life ). That makes user terrorize his mouse wheel in order to get to section he needs (I use Ctrl-F + first letters of section in FF for that). Another problem is that the user is confused by the amount of forums when he needs to post a question or search a solution. In modern internet with thousand sites offering the same services, time and easiness is everything. User will not spend on the site he don’t like more than several minutes. He quickly gets boring and leaves for googling a better place (of course, when we talk about vbulletin.com, we have no choice because it is the only official VBulletin forum and we can’t leave it just because we got bored ).

The solution to a long forum home page is branching forums so that only main section list would be on main page with several sub-sections. On vbulletin.com huge subsection list could be altered using native Vbulletin setting so that all subsections of the same forum would be listed on one line of text. For example, look at this screenshot:

http://pic.ipicture.ru/uploads/08091…ZnT3ezgKCI.png

They just listed all subforums per three columns (yes, that’s VBulletin also). Placing <TABLE> tag into forum descriptoon and manual sectionating may do this job. Please don’t take ubuntuforums.org as an ideal example. There are several things in their design I don’t like (for example, printing out the last message in each forum using heading style which confused me much when I visited that site first).

Conclusion: if you are not “The Only and The Best”, try to choose forum structure so that your main forum page would not be flooded with numerous sections. By the way, too short forum list can make user think, that your forum is very small and low-populated. So, it is always better to keep balance.

Shady tree…
Another example of bad forum structure planning is too much deep branching of subforums. I was unable to quickly locate an example of such design, but my general rule on that is to keep forum structure leveled into not more than three levels (Forum -> Subforum -> Sub-sub-forum is maximum).
The reasons are obvious. Going deep into the forum sections takes time (clicking links one by one) and user gets bored. Also, it is difficult to remember site structure when it is too branched.

Who comes first?
In general when you plan forum tree, it is better to place more common things upper the hierarchy. For example, if we have forum about various gadgets of different manufacturers, it is better to have “Phones -> Nokia, Pagers -> Nokia” sections than “Nokia -> Phones, Nokia -> Pagers”. Of course this is valid for non-Nokia-centric communities.
This is not an absolute rule and every admin should choose for himself. But it is more common for people to move from something common to details than vice-versa.

Forum design
Forum design…. There is not much to talk as it is a question of personal taste. I like beautiful things. But when I work or when I need to find something quicky, I prefer simple things. Tha’s why Google is my ideal. Look at any Google website page. Simplicity. And Power. That’s how your forum should look like (joking again).
Almost all forum engines have an ability to change themes and set themes per user. Choosing what themes to install, ensure there are both simple-plain and parrot-bright themes.

Achieving the best signal-to-noise ratio
If user came into your forum and started browsing it, the time he will spend here depends on how useful your forum is. That is, probably, the most important factor of forum attraction. There are several problems in this field. We will consider them one-by-one.

The power of descriptive thread titles
Even with the appearing of modern forum tools like tags, categories and tag clouds, general word search is still the most widely used tool for getting answers to user questions on forum. This mechanism is almost the same across all forum software in the world. User types several key phrases and forum engine gives him a list of thread titles from which he should choose/guess those he thinks match his problem.
Unfortunately, regular users rarely understand the need of choosing titles precisely describing their problems. Instead they post them as “Help me!”, “Please!”, “Very serious problem. Need solution urgent” etc. That leads to the situation when there are a lot of posts on forum, probably even with solutions in some, but they are of little use to regular seeker. He searches for his problem, starts to open posts one by one (because he doesn’t know what to expect inside) and quickly gets bored on the fifth-sixth item to open.
That gets us close to important and sad conclusion: you cannot make people always choose very descriptive thread titles. That’s why this is the work for your forum staff. You need to explain the importance of this boring thread-renaming work to them.
You can also force a thread title on forum to be at least X characters long. There is a mod for that for Vbulletin (“Minimum Subject Length”). This approach can be considered soft, but it solves the problem only partially. Some time ago I designed one support system and put there a form to send bug report to developer. I set the rule there of report title to be at least 30 chars. Of course next day I got several emails with the title “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaasssssssssssssssssseeeeeeeeeee”.

[Solved] My problem
When user searches for a solution, he needs a solution . He doesn’t need all that crappy requests from other users to solve the same problem. So, it might be useful to mark threads in which user’s problem was really solved. The easiest way to do that is to prepend something like [Solved] to a thread title. In Vbulletin the same task can be achieved by using integrated ability to make Thread prefixes (you can even colorize them in VB ).

This will make search page for user really a source of information. He can focus on browsing only threads with marked as Solved. In VB he can even restrict his search to threads, having Solved prefix.

Of course this is the work for your moderators.

Making good digests
Every forum accumulates knowledge. But usually this knowledge is spreaded among thousands of threads and is very difficult to recover. Partially, this problem can be solved by making sticky topics in each section, which list the most common answers to frequenly asked questions. But you should keep the number of sticky topics in each section below 5-7, otherwise you will flood sections and will loose the effect. If you have more solutions, you can try to group them either by putting similar topics together in one sticky thread (one problem per post) or by providing links to solutions in sticky topics leaving solutions spreaded on forum (not recommended).

Another approach is to make a Knowledge Base category in each major forum section. You can put there all threads that otherwise should be sticky. It can be considered your forum encyclopedia and in the description of this category red big letters should say “READ ME. PLEASE!” (just kidding ). This method is especially effective for large support forums.

But don’t try to make long-long threads named “General FAQ”. Reading such posts through sometimes is more difficult than searching forum.

Of course there will be always users, that prefer to ask first then to search, but let’s hope the number of such users is not very big. Your staff should care about such users either telling them, that this question was discussed already or by providing direct links to sricky answers.

Crap! Nonsence! Spam! Flood!
Of course everything of these should be removed from forum. Of you see a really meaningless post, you can remove it and warn user to stay in topic (of course if your forum is not floodomaniacs forum).

But users want to thank people provided them a solution and it’s their right of course. At the same time posts like “Thanks!” and “It works!” really flood forum with meaningless crap. It is good to have an integrated forum ability to thank users (like Post_thanks mod in Vbulletin). In this case user will just press button and his solution provider will see, that he is thanked when he will enter that thread next time.

One problem = one thread
Do not allow your users to violate thread title. This leads to huge offtopic in one thread and destabilizes normal discussion flow. If user asks another question in some thread, his post should be moved into a new thread or joined with some existing thread of the same problem.

Hiring good moderators
You will not be able to maintain your forum alone. You always need friends to keep it running. Don’t be afraid to hire moderators from your forum users, but do provide requirements. Common requirements list is small:

  • Free forum language speaking (your moderators should freely speak the language that is basic for your forum)
  • At least X existing posts on your forum (to see if this moderator is adequate person or not. On technical forums you will also see If he is educated enough on the forum subject to be a moderator).
  • Absolute politeness. Your staff (including you) SHOULD NEVER be rude. I know, users can be so annoying sometimes. But there always is a way to punish them without using foul language. In general, your policy on posting information to forum should be the same as in situation where each your word is cited in your main local newspaper and there is your exact street address given under the article. If even you are posting in “closed”, “staff-only” sections. All hidden is touched by the sun sometimes…

Don’t be afraid to give moderator priviledges to your users if you estimate them good. Good forum engines allow you to set priviledges so that no user can really damage data. In Vbulletin 3.7 even post history is saved and you can always revert to any moment in past if even that post was edited ten times after. Of course, you should not give your moderators rights to hard-delete anything. Almost every forum engine allows giving only soft-deletion permissions to moderation staff. In this case you will be able to check if there was a reason of deleting something or not and undelete that content back.
Just post an announcement about hiring moderators and you will see many candidates knocking your virtual door. Of course watch them carefully in the beginning.

Forum rules… or no forum rules?
Practice shows, that almost no users really read forum rules whatever you do. Rules are useful in case you want to say to user complaining that you deleted his post: “You didn’t knew that posting ads here is prohibited? But it is written in rules you accepted when registering!”. Of course this is a good opportinuty, but don’t invest too much time in this unless you rule some really serious forum for really serious professionals where all care about copyrights, copylefts and such.

Just make sure your own and your staff’s behavior on forum is really honest. Don’t allow your staff do dishonest actions like banning users just because they wanted to or mocking at users editing their posts. If you yourself have a really good taste of what honour is, that would’nt be a problem.

Making users contribute to forum
Every good community is grown by it’s users. How can you make users contribute something especially if you can’t offer any money for that? That seem to be a good question, but it’s easy. Think of yourself. If you would be a regular user of your forum, what would you consider a valuable reward if not money? To me there are several answers:

  • Make contests and pick winners / best contributors. Publish their list somewhere on main forum pages periodically so that everyone could see them and what they have done.
  • Create new titles for users that contribute much. Almost every forum engine allows that. Users like to look different from others.
  • Make a closed forum section, invisible to other users, for contributors only where they can discuss materials they contribute or suggest you to change something on forum. This way, probably you could also promote most active contributors to moderators.

You see, every human likes to feel himself exceptional. Give your users that feeling and they will contribute.

Epilogue
This documentdoes not pretend to be complete or to be an absolute truth. If you believe something should be definitely added here, write your thoughts in comments and I will consider adding them to the next release (though I cannot guarantee I will do that as well as I cannot guarantee next version of this document will ever be released )

You can always find out the most recent version of this article by clicking the following link:

http://www.fractalizer.ru/tag/forumadminguide

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