Meet Joe Guy. Joe is 18 years old, and he loves the “Maine Coon” breed of cats (Who could blame him? They’re amazing animals). He goes on the web looking for people who share his interest, and eventually he meets a bunch of friends in various places who all own and love Maine Coons. Joe decides to start a discussion forum about Maine Coons, and all of his new friends join. It’s a happy time, and his community grows quickly. Everyone knows and appreciates Joe for all the hard work he does on the board. Throughout his college years Joe continues working on the board, but he’s forced to pass off a bunch of the moderator and admin duties to a few highly reliable folks he knows in the community. Now Joe is 25 years old, he’s graduated college and has a job that he really loves. It’s a time-consuming job, and he has almost no time for his community. He’s cycled through a bunch of admins and moderators, but it still pretty much runs on it’s own, and he’s keeping a decent chunk of change in his pocket every month thanks to the advertisements. Now Joe is 28, he’s married, he has a baby boy, he doesn’t even own a Maine Coon, he hasn’t had one in 4 years. Somehow his Maine Coon community has grown to be really big – it’s probably the biggest one on the internet. The software that’s been running this whole time has had many hiccups along the way, and he’s fixed the problems by throwing more and more money at the server hardware, and he knows that if he changed to a new platform he would definitely save a ton of money. But Joe has a really big problem:
Joe is completely out of touch with his community. He relies entirely on the admins and mods that he’s put in charge. They’ve become the voice of the community, and he doesn’t want to do anything to upset the balance. He knows that in order to save money, he’s going to need to change his platform in some way – Upgrade to a new version of software that runs faster and cheaper. But Joe knows that people are averse to change. If he makes even a small change to the system, people will get upset, and he definitely doesn’t want to upset his moderators. Without them he wouldn’t be able to manage the community. Joe is scared, and he’s about to make a HUGE decision under the pressure of that fear.
At Vanilla, we constantly deal with community owners who are in this situation or one like it. By the time a community owner gets to this place, they are so terrorized by the decision facing them that they would rather roll back the hands of time and have technology revert back to the 90′s than deal with upgrading to a modern platform. And in the forum space, there are a lot of options: Everything from old platforms with the same problems to new platforms with new problems. And the sad fact of the matter is that no matter what decision they make, their users are going to be upset.
If they stay on the same platform, they’re going to be dealing with slow response times and error pages or worse: extensive downtimes. If they move to a new platform, even if it’s a newer version of the platform they’re already running, the users will nitpick every single design and functionality change. They’ll threaten revolt, and drone on in post after post about how good things “used to be”.
And at this point their users have become accustomed to getting what they want. Throughout the years the community owners have acquiesced on every little design & functionality request that the users gave them (treating them like user interface designers rather than what they are: maine-coon cat-lovers, audiophiles, you-name-it), and now they’ve got a dog’s breakfast of a forum filled with features that make little or no sense to anyone looking at it from the outside. This is such a common problem that even the software vendors have built their software to have this crazy functionality right in the core product, and now the really valuable content that the users post is concealed by a sea of design and information flotsam. Jeff Atwood at Stack Overflow states that in most traditional communities just 18% of the screen is devoted to user content, and the other 82% is this user-demanded nonsense.
The community owner has lost his power. He’s paralyzed by the fear of losing his community, and the community is now dictating what it wants and demanding that it be heard. He’s trained the community to be this way by giving them every little thing they’ve asked for in an effort to maintain the status quo.
By the time the community owner comes to us, they’re about as deep into this predicament as they can get. Their questions revolve around finding ways to keep their community happy during the transition. They want to make their forum look like it used to, function like it used to, and they want the headache to go away.
What they don’t know is that the web has completely changed since they got into this predicament. It’s not just a matter of keeping an old community online and running smoothly. Now technology and users have gotten smarter. Websites like Stack Overflow have recognized these problems with older communities and they’re building their software to dominate specific verticals of interest. If Stack Exchange decides to start a mainecoon.stackexchange.com forum, Mr. Guy is going to have a much bigger problem than the ones he’s currently facing. Now the 90% of pageviews he was getting that were coming in from search engines are going to be directed to the Stack Exchange Maine Coon forum because their SEO is superior. But eventually his users are going to go there as well because they get promoted for producing and curating high quality content. They gain social capital and respect there, while their heartfelt comments are sitting beside spam and trolls back on Joe’s community.
So here’s a community owner, concerned with making a modern system look like an archaic one, completely unaware of the storm brewing overhead. In order for his community to survive, he is going to need to change his way of thinking. It’s not a question of not rocking the boat, it’s a question of survival. He’s going to need more than clever design to fix this problem, and let’s face it: If you take a modern platform and slap an old theme on it, the users aren’t going to see the benefits of the new platform; They’re going to see what’s missing in the new platform that was present in the old one – that 82% of useless crap – and they’re going to complain. They’re going to complain a lot.
The only way to survive is to lead with vision instead of fear. Understand that while any new platform is going to be scary for users, the benefits will outweigh the losses. When choosing a new platform, the questions CAN’T be about a feature-to-feature comparison of new platform with old, the questions MUST be about how the new platform will help the community thrive and grow; how the new platform will reward it’s users for contributing high quality content; how the new platform will automatically feature high quality content to bring in new pageviews; how the new platform will bring in new contributing members; how the new platform will remove the pains of administration; how the new platform will automate time intensive tasks, etc.
The biggest social network in the world completely redesigns their user interface every 6 to 12 months not because users requested it, but in spite of their user’s opposition to it.
If you are a community owner and you are about to make this decision: LEAD WITH VISION.