Virginia Heffernan wrote this week on the New York Times website about Decline of the Online Message Board. Heffernan recalled several of the message boards that she frequented in the past, noting the precipitous decline in traffic on many in recent years.
While I have no doubt that many discussion boards have suffered under competition from social media hubs such as Facebook and Twitter, those sites aren’t killing off every board on the Internet. But board administrators will have to recognize their true purpose in publishing if they are to help their boards survive.
Why are some boards thriving while so many others whither over time? As with many other online efforts, the answer is found in its publishers’ commitment to community – not simply to amassing a collection of readers, but creating a true community where participants inform and care for one another.
Discussion boards, by themselves, are simply a tool – as are blogs, wikis, emails, text messages and, yes, even news articles. While any of these tools can provide value to a publication, as other tools come along to compete with it, these tools’ value to a publisher ultimately is measured by the value their content provides to readers and users.
Discussion boards proliferated online when they were easy to set up and provided the only way for large groups of people to communicate with one another. They’re still easy to set up, but now readers have so many other places to gather and communicate, such as Facebook, Twitter and now, Google+ (which I finally did get on, by the way. Here’s my link.)
Of course boards that can’t offer their readers something more than that competition are going to suffer. While that’s no big deal for cooperative boards, run by volunteers who never made any money from their sites and who are happy to shut down and let Facebook do all the work, this is a very big deal for publishers who grew to rely upon income from these boards.
If you’re earning a living from publishing, you ought to be paying attention to what’s happening to online discussion boards, and learning these lessons so that your publication doesn’t suffer the same fate.
Don’t focus on tools – focus on what you can do with them. Like newspaper publishers needed to learn to see their publications as something more than a collection of staff-written articles, discussion board admins needed to grow their sites from simple boards into true community hubs. That might mean expanding beyond the board to add blogging, news articles, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages to provide multiple avenues of communication for readers. And it might mean that board administrators themselves grow from simply managing the board tool to becoming leaders willing to advocate for issues and causes in the community’s best interest (as the best newspaper publishers have done for generations).
Remember as well that as a publisher or a featured writer on a website, if the only way that people reading the site are communicating is with you or through you, you don’t have a true community. You have a kind of cult of personality, one that will whither without your daily participation. You must find ways to get readers engaged with each another, and ideally in ways that get them engaged with each another in common cause offline as well as on. Message boards can continue to be part of this mix, but if the board’s identity needs to extend beyond the board tool itself.
Your community must provide value to its financial supporters, too. This isn’t simply about selling advertisers access to your readers’ eyeballs (though that can be part of the financial value you provide) – this is about creating community engagement that creates value for people, businesses and organizations in your community who are willing to pay to support it.
Yeah, this is harder work than simply opening a vBulletin account. Not everyone who attempts this hard work will survive in the online publishing businesses, either. But those who do prosper will be the ones who have found ways to lead and develop communities that can grow beyond their message boards.