Small, focused, and yes, exclusionary community sites flourish

By on Aug 22nd

Recently, I ran some numbers and realized that traffic on the Offbeat Bride Tribe (the private community component of Offbeat Bride) was down… like, significantly down. Down by half from where it was at this time last year.

As a publisher, of course my first reflex was OMG TRAFFIC DOWN = BAD BAD BAD! But as a community manager, I'm keenly aware that the Tribe is functioning and behaving better than it ever has. It's profitable, for the first time ever. The site has about 1000 visits a day from its 4500 members, the vast majority of whom are intelligent, respectful, and awesome. High drama incidents are way down from where they were a year ago, in part because the migration to BuddyPress has made it easier for us to moderate members in ways that don't feel intrusive or bothersome.

But I was also reminded of this post by Derek Powazek, What If Social Networks Just Aren't Profitable?:

Every community-based site in the history of the web has essentially been a stab at creating a social network. Most of them fail as businesses, with the rare exception of small, lucky communities that become self-sufficient but not exactly prosperous. What if that's just the way it is?

The bigger you go, the harder the road. Meanwhile, small, focused, and yes, exclusionary community sites flourish. Matt Haughey made several key decisions in the formation of MetaFilter, but the most important one was to limit growth. Hell, for years you couldn't get an account if you wanted one. After that, they started costing money. When it costs money at the door, that means you don't have to sell out your members to advertisers. It also means the community stays small, which – surprise! – also leads to healthier communities.

Small, focused, and exclusionary: all three things describe the Tribe.

SMALL: Traffic on the Tribe is a tiny fraction of the main Offbeat Bride Blog: 1000 visits a day as compared to 30,000. Back in 2009, there were days when the Tribe had 3000 visits — and it was damn-near impossible to moderate effectively.

FOCUSED: Non-wedding related conversations don't fly. Over the years, we've had people try to hijack the intelligent, uber-accepting Tribe community and turn it into a support group for any number of worthy causes: stressed out academics, disability activists, weight loss champions, military spouses, and so much more. Ultimately, however, my moderators have always lovingly steered conversation back to wedding planning. That's what we're here for. That's what we know how to do well. That's our thing. We always support members starting their own communities based on their own interests, but the Offbeat Bride Tribe is about wedding planning. The end.

EXCLUSIONARY: Oh lord. The Offbeat Bride Tribe has frequently been accused of being exclusionary — which it totally is, but absolutely not in the ways it's been accused of. Yes, prospective members have to fill out a lengthy registration form. No, we don't allow vendors, wedding party members, or already married people to join. People love to get rant on and on about how we exclude people who "aren't offbeat enough," but it's completely, utterly, 100% bullshit. As we say on the registration form:

We do absolutely not care how "offbeat" you think you are or aren't; we only care that you're actively planning a weddingy event and take the time to thoroughly fill out our registration form. We do not ask or care about your "offbeat-ness." We have never declined an applicant for being "too traditional." EVER.

So while no, we seriously do not give a fuck about how nontraditional prospective members' weddings may be (seriously: look at all the fucks I give!), we absolutely DO decline applications from people who don't fill out their registration forms thoroughly. We decline applications from vendors and newlyweds, journalists and casting agents, bridesmaids and mothers-of-the-groom. We're clear that the Tribe's tools are designed for people who are actively planning weddings or commitment ceremonies, and that means a lot of people aren't eligible to join.

As a result of keeping the Tribe small, focused, and exclusionary (all things that we've been criticized for!) the Offbeat Bride Tribe community has thrived for almost five years. The longer I watch the Tribe, the more I'm aware that while bigger is better for blogs, bigger is NOT better for online communities. Here's to five more years!