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Inspired by this question, and the large number of sub forums that can be utilized on a forum: In an established community it is common to have sub-categories set up and dedicated to individual topics. It is also common to have a "General Chat" area, where the community can talk about topics that don't filter down to any of the sub-categories.

I suspect this type of issue would be a problem in any community that categorizes topics (sub-forums, tags, etc). Questions/discussions will be posted in the most popular area and then modified by someone with privileges later to correctly classify the topic.

How do I encourage users to use the sub-categories correctly, instead of posting topics in the general, highly traffic'd area and waiting for a moderator to migrate it?

  • I happened to moderate a topical forum that happened to top the other fora on that topic in number of active users by a good order of magnitude. One of the secrets was the topical division: "[Topic]", "off-topic". That's it. Exactly two subcategories. Good 200-500 posts a day, some 60 topics updated/created per day, some topics running 5-digit post numbers after lasting half a decade, and users would not have it any other way! – SF. Aug 4 '14 at 12:35
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Well, let's go through some of the options we have:

Disciplinary Action
I see this quite often. A thread is posted in the wrong forum (usually the General forum with the most traffic), and moderators are fuming in anger. "They're just posting there because they want the views!", "I bet they'll start whining about how the thread will die in because nobody ever goes there! Well maybe they should go there!"

If this is the reaction you're facing, chances are your forum has a structural problem. If most of the content is posted in the General section (and that content doesn't clearly belong into existing sub-fora already), your sub-fora are not as well-defined as they should be.

However, even without this, disciplinary action is simply an overreaction. The behaviour is not all too harmful, can easily be mitigated by moving the thread, and certainly doesn't warrant even more attention than simply moving it.

Incentivization and Rewards
You could quite easily hand out ribbons, or tally points on a scoreboard about how well (or not-well) a user follows the forum descriptions. Publicly deduct points for every thread you have to move, add points for every thread the user makes.

This has some technical and staffing limitations, of course: You need to screen every thread for the system to be accurate, and your sub-fora need to be clearly defined so there is absolutely no debate about whether or not a thread was correctly posted.

That said, this is - with good reason - rarely used to encourage rule-adherence (even aside from these limitations): If you directly reward users for following the rules, then following the rules becomes exceptional - rather than normal.

Education
Leave a note telling the user where the thread should have been posted originally. Let them know that they have posted in the wrong section, and that they will probably gain more dedicated responses in the proper sub-forum.

You can also give a little push to learning-by-doing, by closing the thread rather than moving it - let the user post it in the right section themself. (Of course this always has the potential for backlash. "Well why didn't you move it for me?!" - Be prepared for that. If necessary, respond by explaining to them that you want them to learn and do it right themself, rather than having it done for them.)

In summation

To me, the most fitting approach from a cost/benefit point of view is hoping for the user to learn when you move the thread - or to close and tell them to try again, but the right way this time. Chances are, the "troublemakers" that intentionally post in the wrong section won't be impressed by any measures of education, and punishment still does not look like it's worth the hassle just to click a few less buttons in a day. The people you can reach don't need threats shoved in their face, just a small hint on where to go instead.

  • A small side-note, since you mentioned categorization by tags in the question: Stack Exchange relies on its mass of users with edit privileges to simply trivialize the matter - almost anyone can fix the problem, so it takes very little time away from anyone. Stack Exchange does not, however, issue any repercussions or incentives to behave differently to the "offending user" (No question ban just because it needed a retag.). Simply throwing more (voluntary) manpower from the community at the problem might be a solution as well. – user98085 Aug 3 '14 at 5:44
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This is a pretty complex problem, and it's heavily influenced by the structure of the community space.

But first, you seem to be operating under an assumption that off-topic areas and general areas are the same, and they may not be. If someone is posting baking recipes to the overclocking forum, that's a pretty obvious error and you shouldn't need to work too hard to discourage it. That's a situation where a repeat offender is asking for disciplinary action of some kind.

But a general discussion forum by its nature shouldn't incur disciplinary action for a post that could be categorized under a different heading. So, if you want to incentivize people to use categorization, let's dissect the problem:

A user may have multiple motivations for posting content--two of the key ones would be reach and reward.

If someone is only motivated by getting their stuff in front of as many eyeballs as possible (reach), you probably have a bigger issue on your hands--they could be trolling, or at best is just not interested in being a part of the community. But even if these are not the case, we seem to be making another assumption that "general forum" = "biggest reach". And back to structure, I don't think it has to be this way. You don't have to auto-subscribe your new members to a general discussion category when they sign up. But at the end of the day, if a large group of people wants to hear about random topics in a general discussion forum, they have the ability to subscribe or unsubscribe to that forum as they wish.

Another way to combat the reach incentive is to take a page out of Reddit's and Stack Exchange's book, and give high visibility to featured posts no matter what category they are posted in. Reddit's front page is comprised of posts from a variety of subreddits, and Stack Exchange's hot questions list from the entire network is included in the sidebar of every page.

The reward incentive is going to require considerably different strategies. Presuming your community tracks statistics for users and publicly displays them (reputation, karma, posts, views, etc), users chasing such rewards are at least interested in being members of the community for the most part. It's up to you to structure these rewards in a way that incentivizes users to be a positive influence on the community. So, if posting niche-area content in a general area racks up a ton of valuable page views for the user, you might think about devaluing the page view metric. If you notice better discussion happens on a post when it takes place in a niche category than in a general category, figure out a way to reward that discussion for the poster. If you have a voting system, you could even go so far as to value or weight votes in niche categories heavier than votes in general categories.

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