I've had some thoughts about this over the past year or so, and it's sort of a complicated issue. I had part of a post written in my head about this, but was having some discussions with Tim Post around the time he got busy with his new little one and we lost track of the discussion. I'll put that here with some fleshing out. Apologies for the length, that's what happens when I have time to think about things...
First off, there are Sources of new questions, and Barriers to new questions. We want to tap the first and dismantle the second. I like to split them up and discuss them separately, even though they do overlap to some extent.
- Current, engaged members asking questions
- Lurkers aware of the site having a question to ask
- Google searches discovering the site, finding related but not sufficient questions, and asking a new one.
- People aware of the site from other searches or from social media and asking a question.
- Other SE users having a parenting question and/or seeing us in Hot Topics and realizing they have a question.
We obviously can directly influence the first: we can ask questions. The second is a bit more complicated, since these are unengaged members so they're probably not reading meta; we can remove barriers (see later on), at least.
The third we actually should be doing very well on, and this may be one of the things also hurting us. We have a lot of visitors. Not just an excellent amount, but a really amazing amount, compared to our number of questions. We have a lot of good questions and answers that generate views - but apparently something prevents those views from turning into questions and/or users. Some of this may be some of the barriers I'll discuss in the second part, and some may simply be that we have already asked a lot of the easy questions - so people find their answers. More on this later as well.
Social media I have no idea how we do on; perhaps Tim or Jon could find out what our most common referrers are. We could definitely try to get our name out there, and should, as Brian notes in his answer. I don't know how effective that is, but who knows.
We also could try something like having a facebook page for the site, or a twitter feed just for the site; something actively curated by some of the members with the more interesting questions and/or ones with less effective answers.
As far as other SE users, I think we do well on that as it is. I know I came from Stack Overflow, and most of the users I see here have another site on SE that they have a similar or higher rep on.
I think we have some barriers that make it less likely a user posts a question. Some of these are facts of the site, and some are things we can probably change. These are sort of generic barriers, so some of them are less a problem for us - but that doesn't mean there aren't small things we can do better.
- We've already had asked most of the basic questions.
- New users feel intimidated by the current users.
- Certain kinds of questions get a negative first response, or not a positive one.
- Some questions don't seem to fit clearly into a particular tag or category.
For 1, this is in part a fact of life for an 'old' beta. We've been around for several years, and so a lot of questions have been asked. That means simply fewer incoming questions, because people find their answer. This is a good thing to some extent: it means our purpose is being fulfilled, yay! But it also means fewer engaged users, because you need a certain volume of new questions to need answers to keep people checking the site every day.
One thing I think we can do here is to be more encouraging of small variations of specific questions. Yes, we already have a million questions and answers to "Why won't my X month old sleep at night". Maybe in some of these cases we don't close as duplicate right away, but instead figure out a way to have the asker add some specifics; link them to the other questions as we do now, but give some advice as to how they might change their question to make it unique and get better specific advice.
Perhaps in some of these cases, we should have a "form" that we provide - a set of details we know questions like that need specific answers to in order to give a useful answer to their unique question. Something like:
Hi, welcome to the site. We get a lot of sleep-related questions, as you would expect. Here you'll find our sleep resource page, which has a list of some of the questions we already have on the topic, as well as a list of specific details that would be helpful to include in your question if you would like more specific help for your situation. Again, welcome to the site and thanks for your question!
Then on another page (which we'd have to make 'custom' for this purpose, part of the Help Center), we give a list of things they should make sure to answer - whatever is useful for this. That way we are more likely to get an engaged poster, and not just someone who sees that initial "look at the other questions we have" as a turn-down - even though it's the right thing to do, and it likely will help them, it isn't quite as engaging as giving them positive advice for keeping their question alive if they want (while still giving them the already-existing solutions!)
The second issue, users intimidated by our current users, I think is less of an issue here than on other sites. It's not zero, but the nature of parenting is unique in that most of our questions can have multiple helpful answers - so the "quick answering" issue is much less. The main thing we can do to overcome what we do have here is to upvote often, leave positive comments on answers, and otherwise engage newer users as much as possible.
Upvoting questions is also a big thing - and something I've mentioned before. We don't upvote questions as often as we should, though we're better at it now than we used to be by a large margin. My rule with upvoting questions tends to be upvote everything unless it's explicitly a bad question. I don't read the site enough to upvote every single question, but I try to upvote when I can.
The third barrier I see as being one hard to solve. Certain kinds of questions don't get a very positive response - and rightly so, to some extent - but that less than positive response ends up driving people away.
In particular, I'm talking about medical questions, though we do have others that fall in this category. When a user posts a question, say, "My baby has a fever of 104 and has been coughing up mucous, what should I do?", we generally simply close the question as "asking for medical advice" and let them know that they should ask their pediatrician about things like this.
This isn't wrong, per se - and it may be the only thing we can do. But it's also not welcoming, and it's unlikely to generate a new engaged user. They had a problem they thought we might be able to help with, and we turned them away.
I think it would be worth thinking about whether we could approach these a bit differently, at least in the more complex cases. Of course, we can't offer medical advice - I think exactly one of us is an actual doctor, and she certainly can't give advice over the internet anyway - but we can perhaps approach these questions in a more welcoming way that perhaps leads to further engagement.
Similarly to the "sleep" question above, perhaps we can have a more well-defined page discussing medical issues, written from the point of view of a parent but with details helping a parent understand some of the more common medical situations they will encounter. Of course we can't tell them what to do with their child right now, but that doesn't mean we can't describe what a flu is, and what the common treatments are, so that they understand what their doctor is telling them to do - or perhaps instead of including that information on our page, we link to webmd or similar pages on other sites that cover the information effectively.
We also include some information that helps them to form a good question about medical issues that is acceptable here - we don't really cover that very well in any place a new user will find, including the Help Center. Give some examples of things we can help with, for example.
We also might want to consider allowing a few more questions on the medical side of things with the understanding that we won't answer directly with medical advice - nothing like "You should take your child..." or "You might want to take a temperature and ...", - but instead allowed to ask about similar experiences. Rather than
What do I do if my child has a fever for a week even after the Doctor said nothing was wrong, which is still medical advice, we edit the question to the reasonable,
Has anyone had experiences with their child having a fever for a long period of time while the doctor says nothing is wrong?
To a large extent, parents who come here with medical problems aren't coming here because they want a doctor - they're coming here because they're stressed and confused, and want reassurance that their child is normal. Allowing questions that are "medical advice" to instead be modified to "parental coping" might help lead them to be more engaged and get what they really need - reassurance that they're doing fine, they're making reasonable decisions, and their child's experiences are normal.
The other kind of question that often gets a negative initial response are questions about discipline that don't fit in this community's mindset. Questions about physical discipline, for one, end up largely rejected; they usually get answers telling them they shouldn't use physical discipline or extensive arguments in comments.
There isn't necessarily a good answer to this either - clearly the community here (myself firmly included) are averse to physical discipline of any sort, and it may be simply we don't want questions like that here. But we also need to own that we're rejecting a large set of the US population, depending on what statistics you believe as much as half of our US userbase, in doing so; and in particular, we're rejecting certain demographic groups disproportionately. That may be something we just live with, but we should be aware of the consequences. It also may be something we can fix, to some extent, without alienating our current userbase; either by simply staying out of questions that involve topics we're not comfortable with entirely, or by designing a Help Center page or a meta question that explains why we don't answer questions like that, in a nonjudgmental fashion.
For 4, I think we have a good selection of tags to help users find the right tag. We might want to consider if we should have some official tag guidelines we can publish in the help center or on a meta page; things like "use an age-specific tag on any question that is not general to all children", or even a description of what the age specific tags mean.
Finally, some discussion of whether this is relevant.
Parenting is a different beast than the rest of StackExchange. It's not exactly a Q&A site with a simple, direct A for every Q. The questions are more opinion-based and broad much of the time, and there's no definitive answer for really anything.
It's also going to generate - and need - more of a community by its nature than the rest of StackExchange, at least most of the other sites. StackOverflow is a bunch of programmers answering each others' questions. Some of the users know each other (in chat, or from outside user group meetings or somesuch), but on the whole they aren't really a community in the sense that it's a group of people who can talk to each other about ... whatever.
Parenting has that to some extent, but it also misses that a large extent. I think the users here are "nice" to each other, and even "friendly"; and in chat periodically we congratulate each other on our new children or our children's accomplishments. But I don't think we really know each other, and I don't think we really encourage these discussions outside of discussions about the site itself. I think this is where parenting-type sites tend to succeed or fail: if they're a true community they succeed, if it's just a bunch of strangers then they fail. You get engaged users on StackOverflow by having a bunch of Python and RegEx questions to answer, which leads them to answer questions in other areas.
Here, you can get engaged users by sharing baby pictures and talking about how cute my toddler was yesterday when he told me he did not want me to help him clean up his toys (because he wanted to). We're (mostly) parents, and we like to talk about our kids and show off and be proud of them. It's an avenue of engagement that is uniquely relevant to our site.
As such, I think two things. One, we don't need the 10 questions per day that other sites do necessarily. They need that because you need people to always have something interesting to answer in order to come to the site.
Instead, we need some way to increase our sense of community. Photography.SE has a photograph contest, for example, where users submit their photographs, and one of them is visible on the main page at all times. What can we do in this area?
- A Facebook page or Instagram group or other kind of social media connection. Maybe we make a facebook page for our community, curated by either someone with experience doing so, or perhaps even SE staff can help out some. This would allow sharing of interesting questions (both answered and unanswered) in a different location, plus allow us to share our own pictures and stories in a more interesting way.
- Chat events. We already have chat, and while I'm not convinced it's a good forum for this sort of thing (due to our busy lives, we're not likely to be there all at once), it's possible we could host events where we just socialize for an hour or something.
- A site blog, where we write up interesting questions and also allow guest posts on different topics - how your approach to discipline works, how you got your kids eating vegetables, how you overcame the dreaded first day of school.
- Craft, cooking, etc. ideas shared in some fashion - a blog, a pinterest collection, or as encouraged questions (more below).
- Sharing kid pictures in some fashion. This isn't necessarily going to be everybody's thing - many of us have privacy concerns about sharing pictures of our minor children - but certainly some people have posted pictures on chat, so there might be some interest.
The crafts and cooking questions idea also sticks out to me as a possible source of new questions. Right now we largely encourage questions about how to raise your children from a behavior and psychology perspective - almost all of our questions are in that side of things. If you look at active parenting sites, though, what you see are a lot of other things moms (and dads) like to share: recipes and snack/meal ideas, crafts, games, etc. Can these be brought into the site in some way? Can we have reasonable questions that lead to recipe sharing and craft ideas getting onto the site, such that we become a destination for this kind of thing as well? Is this something we want?
All things considered, I think the site is to some extent healthy now - and I wouldn't be shocked to see it graduate in the next year. I also wouldn't be shocked to see it stay in beta perpetually, or until the powers that be decide it will never graduate and either tell us that or shut it down. Parenting isn't exactly a normal site, and I don't think we can ever make it into exactly what the rest of SE is. What we can do, though, is think about how we approach things, and see if there are new and interesting ways to grow our community and develop it in its own way.