This got a little longer than I expected, but the core of this suggestion is to attack the "meta" problem by trying to simplify meta for new users by highlighting the important content in the "FAQ" category and directing them to existing content. The goal will be to hopefully head off new questions that tend to get downvoted for lack of research.
By simply preventing as many of these questions as possible, you will by default make Meta a friendlier place.
One of the biggest problems I often see is the "lack of research" downvoting. I do it myself, so I am certainly guilty of this too, but I think many well established users forget what it is like to have a question in a new community and have no idea how to even find the answer.
A step to possibly help this would be to make the FAQ more accessible. The faq posts can be hard to find and are not consistent through all meta sites. The step you took on MSO was a step in the right direction, but I still don't think it does far enough:
There was a FAQ sidebar on the old Meta SO, in recognition of both the Community FAQ and how frequently some questions were re-asked. I've re-enabled that here, in hope of catching a few more people before they ask common duplicates.
Most establish users know how to find the faq posts, and know how to use it, but it is not intuitive for new users. Likewise, because the faq posts contain such a wealth of information, they can be difficult to filter through. In most cases, the faq posts are far more valuable than the Help Center itself because it does into far more detail and even explains why in a lot of cases. And then add in the fact that the answers to many support questions can be found in the faq.
All of this is compounded by the fact that the faq posts simply don't exist on a child meta until someone creates it. I realize that is in part by design because you want to encourage the new community to come up with its own guidelines and establish its own identity, but there are a subset of the faq posts that describe how and why the system works as it does, and these will not vary from site-to-site.
So I think the approach to making meta sites more welcoming is to help the new user more and do it in such a way as to make it impossible to miss or ignore.
I think there are multiple components to this solution and all together will make the meta sites a bit easier on brand new users, which should hopefully attack the problem from the new user end instead of from the established user end.
Step 1 - Make the FAQ more complete on all child-meta sites, but still give each community its own voice
Rather than a single faq tag, we should split it into a community-faq and stackexchange-faq (the names may need some work)
- stackexchange-faq questions would be the core of how and why the site works from a software level. This would/should not vary from site-to-site, with maybe a few exceptions due to special circumstances. Examples questions from MSE:
- community-faq questions would be the communities own self-identity. Why do things work on this specific site the way the work? What kind of questions are acceptable here? These would be useful for understanding the community, Examples from MSO:
The "Stack Exchange FAQ" questions should be housed on MSE and either linked from the child meta site or be pushed to the child meta site when it is created. Edits should be allowed but edits to the MSE post should take precedence and be psuhed to the child meta posts in order to quickly and easily edit the FAQ to account for changes in the system. These need to get pushed to the child metas because established users need a duplicate target when these types of questions come up, rather than sending someone to MSE just to read a description of something.
The "Community FAQ" questions should be self developed by the community after the private beta ends and continue as the community begins to establish itself. Common questions that are relevant to that community (such as how to flag, how to review, what kind of edits are acceptable, what kind of questions are accepted)
Even if you don't want to split the faq tag, the most important part here is to seed all meta sites with a portion of the MSE faq questions to make the "user manual" easily available to all users, even those who only belong to 1 site.
Step 2 - Make the FAQ more obvious
The FAQ posts need to get top billing on every meta (both MSE and the child metas). I know they live in the "frequent" tab, but that just don't jump out at an unfamiliar user as being the "user manual" for a Stack Exchange site. It needs to be more obvious that it is the user manual. Users coming across from forums are used to seeing the "How to Ask" and similar questions pinned to the top of the question list. While we don't want to be a forum, we still need to make it easier to find for users expecting to find it there. Some thoughts on this are:
- Change the name of the "frequent" tab to something more obvious to the Text-Speak generation, such as FAQ or even just call it "Site Guide" or "User Manual"
- Giving them a button in the top next to the "Questions" button.
- The faq (or the 2 faq tags if Step 1 is completed) should be pinned to the top of the tags page
- Add a quick search of the FAQ questions. Could be something as simple as pre-populating the FAQ tag(s) in the search box if someone wants to search the user manual.
- Ensure that the FAQ "table of contents" is the top voted FAQ post or make sure it stays pinned to the top of the tag page (and even the tag search).
- Ensure all postings within the FAQ have a link back to the "table of contents" question.
Step 3 - Highlight the frequent feature requests page and direct users to it
New users always think they have the "greatest" ideas that no one has ever thought of before. They see a glaring need write a question and wait for a respond. Some even spend a lot of time carefully crafting a good feature request, complete with supporting info and samples, and then they run into a brick wall of downvotes. I think most MSE/MSO users know the biggest one: Should a user be forced to add a comment when they vote to close?
There is a lot of history behind this specific request (and some of the other most common "great ideas"). The established user community is tried of seeing the same feature requests over and over and over again, and the downvotes tend to rain down harder with every time it is asked. While some of the downvotes can be justified as the question itself may be poorly written, there should be a way to head them off by intercepting the question before it is even posted by giving the asker some idea of what the most common feature requests are and linking them to the previous discussion(s).
- Borrowing from On meta sites, require at least one non-required tag, suggest users add a non-required tag to help categorize their question when they use the feature-request tag. Because the non-required tag may not exist, it shouldn't be mandatory, but a strong encouragement should help the users who want to bother to read.
- Make a link to the "frequent feature requests" prominent when a user selects the feature-request tag on a question.
- Based on the selected tags, show the user the most common feature requests in that tag and strongly encourage the user to read them before they post their question.
Step 4 - Hit new users over the head with the FAQ to the point of annoyance
We all know that most new users don't read everything we give them, and often that is used as a reason not to implement an idea, but for meta sites maybe it is necessary to do something.
- When a user first accesses the meta site, make sure the FAQ is prominently displayed
- Make the "frequent" (or whatever it is renamed to) tab the default tab for users with limited meta activity.
- Prioritize FAQ questions in the "Your question may have an answer" list when asking the question, especially for user below a certain rep.