How to reduce failed threads and encourage community discussion

by Martin Reed on 2 July 2009 in Articles

extend community discussions

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!

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coachstew55 July 3, 2009 at 7:32 am

You make some good points here. I agree that the best way to avoid a lot of dead threads is to figure out why people are not responding. And you’re right – sometimes it’s just a question of giving it a little nudge in the direction of simplification or clarification. What is the poster trying to say, and how can I help to kick start that thread?
You also mention that we can reply to our own threads; I’ve had my doubts about this, but if done in a way that shows we are really just trying to facilitate the communication (not getting desperate or demanding), then I think it can work.
Thanks for your take on this sticky question.

Jevuska July 5, 2009 at 8:57 pm

For point “Know your members”. As you know in online community many member don’t create a thread at “Inroduction” section. They just go to their interesting topic and post bla..bla..bla. How we could know member like this?

Martin Reed - Community Manager July 6, 2009 at 8:16 am

Jevuska – Are you encouraging new members to introduce themselves? You can do this by ensuring those that introduce themselves receive responses, including a link to the introductions section in your welcome email, and making the introductions section easy to find (and use). Lead by example and create a culture in your community where members are encouraged to introduce themselves and when they don’t, other members urge them to do so.

Ryan – I took another look at this article and still feel that I offer advice on how to reduce failed threads and encourage community discussion – indeed, I think the advice I offer makes up the bulk of this post. Are there any other specific articles I have written where you feel I don’t actually offer any advice? I’d be more than happy to take another look at them and see if I can improve.

Ryan July 6, 2009 at 5:47 am

The problem with your blog Martin is that you inform us of issues and make us aware but you never tell us how to deal with them, what exactly to do to get members active.

My members were power members now they have just vanished sort of.

I read through your blog about getting members, etc etc, you point out problems but never solve them if you like so I hope you take my advice on board for your next blog posts.

Umar Ruhi July 6, 2009 at 8:29 pm

Great post Martin!

You’ve touched upon two very important facets of fostering participation in online communities: Member Responsiveness and Offering Conferment. These ideally go hand-in-hand, and act as catalysts in inviting and inspiring other passive and peripheral members to contribute.

Angela Connor July 6, 2009 at 10:57 pm

Hi Martin: Letting other members know about posts that may interest them is a great thing to do. It illustrates knowledge of their interests and that goes a long way with community members. Good post!

coachstew55 July 7, 2009 at 5:16 am

Hi Martin – As a professional life coach, I’m also wondering about how we can shift our perspectives on that idea of a “failed” thread. Is it possibly a thread teaming with opportunities? What are some of the strands we can pull on to spin that thread into gold? I like what Angela suggested about directing others to posts that might interest them. Facilitating that connection for someone in the community is such a powerful thing. Even if just one person responds to that post, we have helped to make a connection, and best of all, we have acknowledged that person for his or her contribution. That’s what I’d call a “successful thread”.

Nicole Price July 7, 2009 at 11:07 am

I believe that it is organic. If the quality of the thread is sound and interesting, it should grow. If it does not, what is wrong? I agree that too many failed threads will indicate that there is something wrong, and that is likely to be the quality or the subject matter of the topics. A good strong look at the quality and the expected type of topics should ensure that threads do not fail.

Nicole Price July 7, 2009 at 11:10 am

Martin, your response to Ryan does not address the issues that I have raised. That perhaps will solve the problem.

Paul Nathan July 11, 2009 at 9:38 am

You make some good points here. I agree that the best way to avoid a lot of dead threads is to figure out why people are not responding, one thing i want to point here is frame work of website holds an important play in it

For example, people don’t have much more time now a days that they can click on comment link and place their views’s there, so we have to design theme in such a way that latest post has its comment place in Home page itself and rest of post are been shown as a list in sidebar, this will surely encourage people to pass their views, and their time will be saved, try this..I m sure this will work out..

Thankyou for such a nice articles, Waiting for your upcoming post’s

cheifdrunk August 7, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Dead threads are a big problem and this post is amazingly informative. Props to Martin Reed. I have a gaming forum and it is a common occurrence to have topics get shot dead after one “dry reply”. It doesn’t encourage discussion at all.

Edward August 14, 2009 at 10:53 am

In a lot of ways I think Martin has answered Ryan’s question with his reply, i.e. if you own a forum, you should be listening more than you’re talking. Allowing members to open up about their own experiences without having a mod jump in after every reply is part of a healthy community. Martin responding by asking how he could do better, which will improve his community if he gets an answer.

I don’t know about Ryan’s specific situation, of course, but it seems like if his forum was once thriving, then something must have changed. What changed? Ask questions. Email those “power members” just to chat and see what they’re up to now.

Paul November 18, 2009 at 6:09 pm

I guess you can try and do a few things to reduce failed threads but if one dies, just move on and try to get over it.

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