Way back in November 2007 I wrote about five early warning signs that your forum is failing. I mentioned that one of the warning signs was seeing failed threads – new discussion topics that get no replies. Failed threads are not good for an online community – they suggest a lack of interest in the discussion topic, or even the entire community. If you are noticing an increasing number of failed threads in your community, you need to take action.
Why aren’t members responding to new discussion threads?
In a community where people feel comfortable creating new threads, every now and then you’ll find your members write about something that nobody has any interest in, makes little sense, or is just a little too controversial or ‘deep’ for other members to want to respond to.
Don’t obsess over encouraging new discussion threads – you may actually end up overwhelming your members. They may not have enough time or energy to get involved in too many discussions. Rather than placing a priority on ensuring there are lots of new discussion topics being posted each day, shift your priority to developing and extending existing discussions. I’d rather have ten discussion topics that run over five pages each than a hundred discussion topics with only one or two replies.
Although larger communities can get away with a small number of failed threads, I would argue that communities shouldn’t have any whatsoever. A failed thread creates a negative perception of the community to new visitors. Existing members may also shy away from creating new content if they see that a large number of topics don’t receive a response. Why should they put themselves on the line when there is a very real risk of them not getting a single response or ego stroke in return for their efforts?
How to reduce the number of failed threads
Failed threads are more of a problem in new online communities. You have few members, they have less loyalty to the community and don’t have much of a personal investment – they don’t have a reputation or large post count to protect. Therefore, you need to ensure that members are rewarded for their contributions. Don’t give away money or high ticket items – just give out thank yous and recognition; they are more likely to get involved if they feel appreciated.
If a new thread hasn’t received any replies after a couple of days, reply yourself. Don’t think that your contributions are worth less than those of your members. Don’t be afraid that if you take the lead, people won’t want to get involved – up to a point.
Give your members a chance!
Don’t go charging into new threads before your members get a chance to reply for themselves. If you are always taking the lead, your members will sit back and just wait for you to get involved. You need to give your members the opportunity to develop the community themselves – so give them time to reply to new discussions. If there are no responses after a few days, then by all means get involved in the discussion yourself. Thank the member for their post (ego stroke and recognition), add value to the discussion, and ask questions.
Try to work out why there have been no responses – perhaps the post was a little too controversial? If so, try to steer the discussion away from controversy. If the post is very serious and complex, try breaking it down into a few key points that will be easier for members to reply to.
What if it’s your thread?
Many community managers start their own discussion topics – especially in the early days. There’s nothing wrong with this (as long as you aren’t creating all of the content) – but how do you respond if nobody replies to threads you started?
Firstly, as when members start threads that attract no replies, try to work out why nobody has responded. Learn what works and what doesn’t. Remember – there is no harm in experimenting and trying new things. You’ll make mistakes; it’ll take time to learn about your members.
You can reply to your own threads – as before, see if you can lead the conversation elsewhere; play with your language to make the post easier to respond to, or clearer and more succinct. Don’t take this too far though – you don’t want to end up talking to yourself!
Know your members
As you learn about your members, you’ll learn who is the most likely to respond to certain discussion topics. You’ll have power members who reply to almost every post, and you’ll have the more selective posters who only respond to posts they feel are highly relevant to themselves, or related to areas they feel they have expertise in.
If your posts (or those of your members) don’t receive a reply and you know of some members that have an interest in the topic, let them know. This is especially relevant if your community is particularly large – don’t expect all your members to be able to read all the content. Sometimes they’ll need some help finding content that is relevant to them. Drop individual members a link to the discussion thread – tell them why you think it is of interest to them (keep it personal) and that you’d love to read their opinions and contribution.
You can’t force the issue
Don’t get desperate. Sometimes, members just won’t be interested in certain discussion topics but you can still encourage conversations by getting involved yourself. Learn what works, influence discussions, ego stroke and get matchmaking!