The problem

Many community managers set up their topic and forums structures in a hasty way that does not necessarily consider the mindset of their audience, scale, moderators, time spent creating content, and more. Often, community managers will try to start with a lot of discussion topics in order to create a larger chance for content creation, but this is not always what is most helpful for the foundation of the community.

Indeed, the topics of discussion that you offer serve as the fundamental foundation for all discourse on your platform. By spending a bit of time on planning your heirarchy, we can improve engagement, ease user onboarding, steadily increase content creation numbers, reduce churn, and much more.

Why spending a bit of time on your structure is important

The space you provide for discussions is a critical part of your community’s strength as a platform. Creating too many separate topics causes confusion, and too few can limit potentially useful content and insight from your members. Too many discussion topics can also make a community look intimidating, as well as look perhaps inactive if there are not many discussions on those topics yet. Moreover, it creates too many choices for the user to think through. Your users probably have a simple goal in mind, and having to wade through dozens, hundreds perhaps, of topics is a waste of their time and energy and will deter them from posting more frequently.

If you spend a bit of time (even if it’s just on a Word or Google doc) planning out your ideal discussion topics, your users may complain at first (as change is, well…change) but in the long run you will see higher engagement numbers and newer members to your community will be grateful for the simplicity in choice. (And so will your moderators!) We can hit a perfect balance for stability, growth, order, friendliness, usefulness, and value over all.

Types of organizational models

First, let’s spend a bit of time learning the main methods we can utilize for setting up the structure and hierarchy of your categories and forum list, from a data perspective as well.

  1. Directly Nested. The first and most well-known type of forum hierarchy is the traditional parent/child relationship. In this hierarchy, you have a category that acts as a parent structure for grouping similar topics together. The children of this parent are your main topics that act as the primary sources of discussion under that category. Then there are the grandchildren or sub-topics that act as detail-focused expansions on their respective parent topic. The benefits here are a familiar method of sorting content into a folder-like structure that should be familiar. Software like phpBB, vBulletin, XenForo, and most community software all support this hierarchy.
  2. Tag-based. This hierarchy is similar to above, but focuses on a child with multiple parents, rather than the reverse, utilizing tags that can be applied to multiple parents for organization. This is useful for discussions that can span multiple topics. A great example of tag-based hierarchies can be found by looking at Reddit; each subreddit exists as its own community, and the community managers create tags for users to select when creating a post. Stack Overflow also makes strong use of a tag-based hierarchy.

It is also important to note that these aren’t the sole options for organizing a forum hierarchy; some platforms utilize a mixture of the two. Neural nets, search technology, and more are also highly utilized for discovery but vary dramatically in utility and so I will not cover that explicitly.

Common Issues with existing topic and forum structures

To begin let us look at an example. Let’s look at a fictional game development company’s community we will call “XYZ Games Inc”. This is a community where a previous community manager quickly set up a forum and never gave proper thought to what will be most helpful for growth and engagement of the community.

An example of a poorly optimized forum hierarchy

XYZ Games Inc: Our Games

  • Ask all questions about all games here
  • Off-topic
  • General Discussion
  • The warzone!
  • General [email protected] & @nnouncement$
  • XYZ Games: General
  • Shooting Game
  • Shooting Game Support
  • — — — Suggestions and bug reports
  • Sports Game
  • — — — Sports Game Support
  • — — — Bug reports
  • Racing Game Discussion
  • Staff Area

XYZ Games: Multiplayer gaming

  • Complaints
  • Games
  • — — — Shooting Game
  • — — — Sports Game
  • — — — Racing Games

What are the issues

After looking at the above, you may be thinking… That’s a little extreme, isn’t it? There are many forums currently in existence that look just like the above unfortunately, if not even more crowded with forums and sub-forums. Let’s break down the primary pain points with the above example:

  1. Confusing Organization. From the list, Shooting Game, Sports Game, and Racing Game are not ordered in a simple way, they have inconsistent sub-forums though likely all contain the same types of discussions, and are not organized in a separate area.
  2. Too many forums! As you can see, there are a lot of forums and sub-forums, which means users will have to dig much further to find what they are looking for. It could be worse though. They could utilize multiple nested sub-forums, hiding potentially important sections beneath so many clicks that the user will get frustrated before they even find the right one.
  3. Inconsistent naming. The Racing Game Discussion is the only one that has “Discussion” under it. You should avoid extra terms when organizing and stick to the simplest word or phrase that best describes the topic.
  4. Poor prioritization. You’ll notice that Off-topic is up at the very top of the list along with the support forum (one of many, as you can see); Anything not directly related to the niche of the community should be lower in the forum list to ensure people see the most important forums first (such as news and specific niche topics). A small aside here too is having support, bugs, or any controversial topics at the top could be concerning to new members, and best to show later down in the list or even just not to guests.
  5. Use of unnecessary special characters. Replacing certain characters for the sake of being clever or cute can have a negative impact on search engine visibility, and more importantly your users who may be utilizing screen readers, translation software, and more. Moreover, it does not look professional.
  6. Not accounting for growth. The topics you have today may and likely will change in years to come. Redoing your node structure each time is a very jarring thing for users and they will not appreciate it. Pick a structure you can add to or modify over time.

How we can rebuild and improve upon the structure

Let’s take the structure above from XYZ Games Inc and improve it. Here is what we would end up with:

XYZ Games Inc

  • News & Announcements
  • Introductions

Our Games

Tags Used: PC, Console, Multiplayer, Tips & Tricks, Support

  • General Discussion
  • The Racing Game
  • The Shooter Game
  • The Stealth Game

Private

  • Complaints
  • Supporters
  • Staff

Off Topic

  • Off-Topic
  • Gaming Industy

What we fixed

  1. Reduced the number of topics. As you can see, we narrowed things down significantly. By consolidating each game to Our Games category, and moving a General Discussion topic as a catch all, we can communicate clearly where discussions go, with a catch-all for convenience, and something that will scale.
  2. Use tags, prefixes, and other granular structures. Utilizing tags allows communication between the two platforms for each game easily (Console and PC), as well as allowing Multiplayer to be removed, and other improvements. Keeping all specific game discussions within their own space keeps everything clean, organized, and easy to moderate.
  3. Renamed topics to be more easily understood at a glance. By avoiding special characters and initials that may not be 100% familiar to the audience, as well as utilizing common names for everything helps users figure out where their content should go as well as helps boost search visibility.
  4. Prioritized the topic structure to help direct users. By putting the highest-priority categories and topics first, we help guide users in not only picking a place for their posts, but also encourage them to interact with content that we consider is more important.
  5. Structured the topics and categories to ensure there is room for growth. For instance, we now have a structure that works well for new releases of games without creating a massive number of top-level topics, and reduces the potential need for merging and deleting topics in order to reduce the main topic list count.

There are many ways to improve the previous list, this is just one example that should help give clarity overall. It should make your moderators happy, your users happy, and increase engagement across the board.

The ideal structure most communities should follow

So we went through a large example, but what is the TL;DR? Below you will find an abstracted model that you can use as a template. It shows just a few key categories that just about every community should have. It is using a structure that is familiar and intuitive, scales well should you wish to add more topics later, and should cover just about every situation you will want to support. Order, specific topics, and exceptions can change, but the core idea here is the main takeaway.

Member Category

  1. Introductions (a topic every community should have, first in order as well!)
  2. General chat

On-topic Category

  1. 3–10 or so on-topic
  2. Ex: Fashion, Purses, Makeup, Media, Designers, etc.

Off-topic Category

  1. 2–5 (less than your on-topic) or so off-topic
  2. Ex: sports, movies, politics, etc

Community Organization Category

  1. Ex: Announcements
  2. Ex: Feedback, suggestions, support, application reviews, etc

Private Category

  1. Ex: Staff, Premium (could be its own category, too)

Additional aspects to consider when planning your hierarchy

How many topics and forums should I have?

This is a very common question, and the short answer is that it depends on your engagement goals and what you want your members to be discussing and doing.

The fewer the better, as a general rule. The more choices you create for your community, the less likely they are to find the proper space for the content they are looking for or content they want to share. Your community, ideally, focuses on a specific niche. You should break your niche down into the primary aspects of the niche that you feel your community will be most likely to engage with.

Think of it like separating a hardware store into departments: You’ll have plumbing, tools, electrical, appliances, and the other various departments broken out separately to make finding what you need simpler by allowing you to go to a specific department and then browse the aisles for what you need. Breaking into too many departments makes finding what you need harder.

Another important thing to consider: Utilizing sub-forums or sub-topics. Sub-forums are great for expanding upon existing categories, but much like your main forums, sub-forums can be overutilized. These should also be minimized as much as possible and mostly used when there are clear functional reasons, such as user permissions, tags, or thread state.

Plan for additional thread types

A forum doesn’t have to just be standard posts; most popular community platforms have additional thread types available, such as polls, question & answer, articles and more. Do you want to break these thread types out to only exist in certain topics, or should they be usable in all of your topics and sub-topics? For example, creating a dedicated topic or sub-topic for getting help can make strong use of a question & answer thread type, and should only use that thread type.

Ask your moderators and community leaders for advice

Ultimately, your moderators, community leaders, and most active members of your community should get a say in the organization, as ultimately they are the ones posting and managing the organization on your behalf. Consulting with them is a very smart decision, and they will appreciate that you care about their opinion.

Not to mention that when you do go live with whatever changes, they will be in your corner promoting the reasons for the change and helping others on their way with the new structure.

Make scaling easier for everyone

Don’t forget that the ultimate goal of a community is to grow, socialize, and help others. With that in mind, you should also have a plan in place for said growth. While you could start out with a large number of forums and tags in your initial forum structure, you’ll be better off preparing to add them when the time comes, rather than launching with too many and limiting your community interactions.

You should also take into consideration the technical capabilities of your forum software. Does it allow advanced filtering based on tags, if it has them available at all? Is that something that has been added by a 3rd party developer? When restructuring is needed for your community, how easy is it to move your threads to a new forum, and will it negatively impact your SEO?

Create a plan to organize

  1. Create a regular document and start redesigning your ideal structure
  2. Define which existing categories, topics, etc. need to be merged or adapted to work within that structure
  3. Create a discussion with your team to ensure this is a good structure for you
  4. Announce to your members the plan before you do it to avoid frustration and confusion
  5. Potentially create an article or video on what changed and where to find previously removed or modified topics

Conclusion

At the end of the day, simplicity is what everyone wants. Planning an ideal structure will keep moderators and users happy, reducing toxicity. It will keep engagement higher, as users will spend less time organizing and more time posting. And new members will get onboarded faster and get the help they need.

There are many benefits as you can see. And the ideal structure for you is ultimately for you to decide, this should just serve as a guide to help you on your way.

Mike Creuzer
Written by Mike Creuzer

Founder & CEO for Audentio. Hobbyist and tech-enthusiast turned business owner pursuing his passion and drive for unlocking the potential of communities around us.