Making message boards succeed

We’ve had no new posts on our Business Studies message board for about a week now, and this has set me wondering about message boards in general. If you participate in a board yourself, you’ll know that they can be a great community focus and an invaluable source of knowledge. If you’ve ever set one up, however, you’ll also know that 95% of message boards don’t take off.

The problem, in essence, is this. An empty board is not expected to have any readers, so there’s very little incentive for anyone to write. And with no new topics, neither is there anything to respond to.

Boards that take off most easily are those that have a ready-made audience of people already desperate to talk on a particular topic. They will write anyway, whether they think anyone is reading or not, and they will respond to each others’ posts as well.

If you, as boardmaster, don’t have this, you have to resort to slower and less certain methods such as seeding the board with fake posts to start it off, twisting friends’ arms to contribute and promoting the board as widely as possible, for example blogging about it as I’m doing here. If you’re planning to set up a board, be warned that this requires considerable, sustained effort.

Setting up a board for teenagers presents a further challenge. What they want to write about most of the time concerns their world of who’s dating whom, which band is coolest and so forth. On the Business Studies board, we’ve found ourselves faced with a dilemma. Do we pour cold water on the board by deleting irrelevant entries, or do we allow it to lose its intended focus by permitting them. We’ve gone the former route, but it’s at the cost of dampening an already quiet discussion.

We’ll persevere with the Business Studies board, because the potential for a national message board based around each course or subject is clearly so huge. Before embarking on future message board projects, though, we’ll certainly think a lot harder about the real investment required to make them succeed.

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