Forums are dying

The Tribe's traffic since 2011
The Tribe's traffic since 2011

In September of 2007, I launched the Offbeat Bride Tribe, the private forum component of offbeatbride.com. It was an immediate screaming success — in fact, so much of one that I could barely keep up with the demand. Even with a paid community manager and a team of volunteer mods, the volume of members and activity were intense and overwhelming.

Those days are gone. The Offbeat Bride Tribe's traffic has been in decline since 2011. I've tried battling this in all sorts of ways, including pouring money into development to improve the community's tools (a difficult prospect given the atrophy of Buddypress, the platform the community is based on), sending a hand-cultivated "best of the community" weekly newsletter, hiring a new community manager to breathe in new life, rewarding members with giveaways, and more.

These efforts have at times slowed the decline (2013-2014 was almost just flat, because I put a lot of personal time into actively driving traffic to the community), but forums are dying across the web as we all increasingly default to social media like Facebook.

This isn't news, but it became glaringly clear last month when I found a Facebook group some Offbeat Bride Tribe members had set up. Even though they'd met on the Tribe and all liked the community's vibe, they decided that they'd rather use Facebook to communicate with each other. I couldn't blame them at all for abandoning the Tribe for Facebook… how could my rinkydink community's tools compare with Facebook's functionality?

This isn't a woe-is-me the web is changing lament — I agree completely that Facebook's tools are better than the Offbeat Bride Tribe. It isn't news that forums are a relic of Web 1.0 online communities… people have been writing about it for many years. Self-hosted communities are old school, and while a core of people love the Tribe hard, you simply can't argue with the numbers: Last month, less than 8k people used the Tribe. Compare this to the 954k who read the blog, and the 100k who follow us on Facebook. Put another way, the Tribe makes up less than 1% of my readership… and yet over the past few years, I've spent a third of my developer budget to keep it running. I pay a community manager to keep it from descending into a swamp of self-promoting vendors and brides obsessing over their diet plans. For years I have invested in the Tribe, and the return just keeps shrinking.

Don't get me wrong! The Tribe does have value:

  • The 1% of readers who love it, REALLY love it. The Tribe allows them to engage with each other and Offbeat Bride's values in ways that the blog does not.
  • There are banner ads served up on Tribe pages, so it delivers a few thousand more pageviews for our banner advertisers. (Although compare that to the few MILLION served up by the blog.)
  • Of the 1% of my readers who use the Tribe, about 5% opt to upgrade their Tribe memberships to a paid premium level. (Although it's less money in a year than advertising on the blog makes in a week.)
  • My editors source a very small amount of content from the Tribe, giving members free premium memberships in exchange for syndicating their posts on the main blog. (We used to source more from the Tribe, but that's on decline too.)

It's just that at a certain point, the value may not line up with the expense. My current community manager just gave me her notice, and the coming months will bring some difficult decisions for me.


Update 5/31/2015

Today I announced on the Tribe that I'm shifting the Tribe to be community-moderated (this means no on-staff community manager, or volunteer moderators) and offered "as-is" (which means there won't be any tech support or developer resources available). This is a really rough decision for me. Members of the Tribe can read more about the shift here.

  1. I totally understand the facts and the history of it all.
    But gosh! The maybe end of the tribe is not a good news.
    I am sure the value in term of finances does not balance the expense. Nevertheless, it is of huge value human relationships.
    I am sure that my wedding would never have been what it was without the tribe.
    And as a lifetime member, a membership I took when i was almost married, I really really think that.

    Damn you social media !

    2 agree
  2. Ariel, having read the blog for years and years and waiting for the moment to join the Offbeat Bride Tribe (I really did wait until the engagement was official), I totally get you pulling the plug if you need to. You've built an amazing community that can't be defined or held back by forums. Gotta put your money where it's most effective.

    1 agrees
  3. Oh no! I've been waiting for years to become a member of the Tribe, and my partner and I are formalizing our engagement in the next month or so (we've been partners for 8 years, and wanted more ritual/formality to differentiate the next stage before we began actively planning). There's nothing else like it on the web.

    I wonder if there is anything you can do, without opening it to everyone, to capture more people? We've found that in planning the proposal and ring, it would have been useful to have a community to talk to. The posts have been great, but nothing replaces community.

    Alternatively, perhaps there are ways of either cutting costs or increasing revenue? Good luck with your reflections and decision making. Know that the community you've built supports you in doing what you need to do (at least this reader does).

    6 agree
    • Me too! Not actively planning a wedding yet, but most likely will be sometime in the next 2 years and I was looking forward to finally joining the tribe!

      But I completely understand that those are difficult choices and that you'll do the best you can, Ariel!

      2 agree
  4. I do miss forums, but I also know that I haven't actively participated on any forums in… well, years. Between social media (Facebook, Disqus commenting, Meetup, etc.) and in-application experiences (guild management tools in World of Warcraft, Steam community stuff on Steam, etc.), forums just seem a relic of the past. I enjoyed my time on the OBT, but I can completely understand that once something becomes a money-sink rather than a money-maker, decisions need to be made. You're not in this out of the good of your heart (alone); revenue is required.

    I'll raise a glass to the good 'ol days of forums, but I also know they're quietly dying away. They'll even go gently into that good night – but I suspect that some will linger on, just as there are still Usenet groups out there.

    Thanks for being honest with us, Ariel. I really appreciate your transparency when it comes to your business model.

    8 agree
  5. I haven't participated in a forum outside of a FB group other than the Tribe since 2006. But when I was planning my wedding last year, the Tribe was an amazing, incredible resource. Its maybe-demise is a sad thought for me. I found so much use and value in it, that I can't imagine planning my wedding without it. It might be worthwhile to open up the "forums" to the public, but still offer the "journal" and "checklist" to Tribesmaids?

    2 agree
  6. I'm mostly a lurker across the board. My introvert doesn't-care for-interaction still spills out in the internet. I used the tribe while planning but when I got my ideas figured out I kind of faded off into oblivion there… I plan to pay the lifer (or donate it to someone currently planning so the perks get lput to use)

  7. I definietly understand the business side of things, but my heart would break if I lost the Tribe. I have not only learned so much from all the other wonderful people on it, but I've also made real-life friendships I never would have had otherwise. If there's anything I can do as a consumer (aside from becoming a lifetime member or recommending it to every person I know – because I do both of those things currently), please let me know. I have been thinking I want to give something big back to the Tribe because I'll never be able to repay it for what it's done for me…and I still have 6 months to go!

    1 agrees
  8. As soon as I saw the title of this I was all "haven't you just sunk a crap ton of money and time into the tribe?". Wasn't that 2014-15 new year?

    Would there be a way to transfer the tribe to facebook? If not for new people but existing people? Not sure how everything would transfer features wise but maybe its an option

    • As soon as I saw the title of this I was all "haven't you just sunk a crap ton of money and time into the tribe?". Wasn't that 2014-15 new year?

      Yyyyyep. Here's an internal conversation I had with my lead developer a few weeks ago about the New Years Tribe burn-down:

      As for your second point, over the next couple months I'm going to be exploring the feasibility of a lot of different options, including that one.

      3 agree
      • Poor tribe 🙁

        I thanked the Tribe in my wedding programs, is how much it meant to me in 2010-2011. But yeah… that was a long time ago, now, wasn't it? In internet years, at least.

        When I left Livejournal, I exported the whole thing into a PDF through some tool. Just to throw another idea into the options pool, before mass destruction it would be cool for us nostalgic folk to be able to download our posts, if possible (I don't know if this is possible) (I will probably go in an copy/paste them out, I've already lost my post photo links, which made me sad)

        It may no longer be the place of choice for today's brides, but as a bride-of-past, THANK YOU SO MUCH for the community, it meant so very, very much!

        4 agree
        • it would be cool for us nostalgic folk to be able to download our posts

          Definitely. Unlike when the Tribe moved off Ning (which didn't offer exporting), the current Tribe is built on WordPress, which has super solid built-in export tools.

          2 agree
  9. I have loved being a part of the tribe & would be sad to see it go. That being said, I completely understand the reasoning & I suspect it might even be good for the main OBB page.

    I notice way more comments & a sort of sense of community on OBH posts that I don't notice on OBB posts, & I suspect it might be because a lot of that type of interaction goes on behind that scenes on the tribe.

    It would be sad to lose the sense of security that comes with the tribe though. There have been things about wedding planning & it's affects on my life that I was comfortable sharing on the tribe that I wouldn't be comfortable sharing in a public comment.

    2 agree
    • I've been looking forward to joining since I stumbled on Offbeat Bride 3 years ago! I am still dating the same guy I was then, actually, but I think it won't be time to join for another couple years (ahem…assuming things work out as I hope). I definitely was looking forward to joining when the time came, since I know there's a lot of activity that happens behind the login screen. I would absolutely love it if there was a way to get that when I'm ready for it. The idea that the comment section on Offbeat Bride would wake up is appealing now, but I know when it's me planning, I won't feel as comfortable being totally open about things if anyone on the internet could read it. Complications from family, guest list conundrums, thoughts about what it all means…in fact, this name is an alt I use on Offbeat Home to comment when what I'm saying is somewhat sensitive.

      There's also the fact that Offbeat Bride itself seems like it has very different content than the tribe. Vendor posts, shoes (much as I love the shoes), profiles of finished weddings. My favorite posts are the ones about identity, and what weddings mean, and how to deal with conflicting ideas, emotions, and people that are all part of this rite of passage (though maybe that's just the stage I'm at). If there was a way to keep from losing that–something that is somewhat messy and raw, as opposed to a polished blog post of an already-done wedding–and what sounds like a great sense of community, I think that would go a long way even if the Tribe won't exist in its current form for much longer.

      7 agree
  10. I was really excited to join the tribe when I first got engaged, but couldn't do it without a date, which happened like 4 years later. I really valued the tribe, but in my case, I had done a lot of the thinking and planning and looking before I had joined and probably didn't use it as much as I would have, if I had joined when I was first engaged. I totally get the reasons why, but I do wonder if opening up to more people could be beneficial?

    3 agree
    • I understand the exclusivity and privacy, but I totally agree with this too. I've been planning a wedding in the back of my head for 3 years now but wasn't engaged until earlier this year. The wording of the application made me feel like I would have been intruding if I'd applied before there was a ring on my finger.

      When I finally got into the Tribe, I was … a little disappointed. Maybe because it had been built up in my head for so long? I love the journals feature, it's fun to browse the immediate planning process of fellow tribesmaids, and I like having a place to record my own stuff. The actual forum part feels clunky to me, though. All of the various wedding topics are thrown in together and if I'm looking for advice on say, dresses or food, I have to sift through piles of topics in the worldwide or regional forums. I know everything is a lot more work than I think it is, but I think a bit more categorizing and organization would go a long way.

      3 agree
      • I think a bit more categorizing and organization would go a long way.

        Here's the agony of community management: we used to have super granular forums that mods were hyper-vigilant about keeping organized, and members made it clear that A) there were too many categories and they were confused about where to post and B) when moderators moved threads to a different category in attempt to keep things organized, members felt punished and micromanaged.

        The moral of the story isn't that anyone's wrong in any way, but rather that there's no winning when it comes to forum structure. In 8 years, I feel like I've tried a million different strategies! If I thought that structure was the difference between the Tribe working and not working, it'd be a relief… but ultimately even the most fastidiously-organized forums across the web are atrophying from lack of use, so I think the issue is larger than forum structure.

        2 agree
  11. I'm really hoping you can use some of your Ariel superpowers to transform the tribe into something that survives! I absolutely loved the tribe when I was planning my wedding, and it was the first place I put my photos up online (2013). I did drop out when I was no longer in the target demographic and graduated to offbeat home.
    I really hope the tribe can be rescued, so many many brides can benefit from it in the future! I tell all my newly engaged friends about it, and I met a fellow tribe member in real life for the first time ever.
    The tribe is too special a place to lose, so I do hope it survives in some form.

    1 agrees
  12. Yep, forums are totally dying. It's so sad.

    I do like the idea of opening up the blog articles style a little bit. Allowing for more raw planning and ideas posts, rather than mostly wedding porn, random tips, and polished finished weddings. I like the idea of allowing people to continue to submit posts, a variety of them. (personally, I like reading the journals in the private section a lot more than the public blog, which feels a tad magazine-y)

    There are some great commenting plug-ins for wordpress that can give it a forum-like feel. Hopefully something like that would encourage more commenting. Especially if there was an option to submit posts and comment anonymously.

    It's possible to simply kill *gasp* the forum entirely and have the ability to make some journal posts private, requiring a password/log-in to see. Basically just focusing on blog flexibility rather than a forum.

    For a few years, I ran a Pagan website where the main section of the site had a more polished magazine article feel. That's what you saw immediately, and gave off the first impression of the site. This was written by our editor team and a few users who had submitted really great articles and didn't mind some heavy editing.
    But there was also a section of reader submitted journal type posts and photo galleries, which were less edited and more raw. It was basically done as a single blog, rather than multiple user's own journals. This included the option of posting with a name, handle or anonymous user ID.
    This format has worked very well (I simply got tired of running the thing and scaled it back), I've seen similar approaches with other user created web magazines.

    User generated content is the way to go now, the future is here!

    Speaking of user generated content … Have you considered the ability to also have YouTube videos embedded in articles? Wedding videos and engagement videos, helpful tips and tricks, DIY videos, videos of your talks at conferences, etc? OBB really ought to have a proper YouTube channel, one that links back to the magazine site and vice versa. Additional traffic draw (and money making). I'd totally submit my wedding ceremony video, as well as DIY videos, just for the fun of it … oh and Pagan Handfasting 101 stuff…oh the possibilities! I bet I'm not the only person on OBB who either already Vlogs or who would jump at the chance to make a few OBB videos and submit them.

    A facebook group is probably the way to go now, as an addition, but not as a replacement. Remember MySpace? One day Facebook will die, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. There are many ways to link Facebook and WordPress together. So that articles posted on the site are auto posted in Facebook, so that the FB group's wall updates is a wedge (sidebar) on the website, so that people can log-in through Facebook etc.

    3 agree
  13. Aw man! Well, I'll be yet another person to say "I loved the Tribe when I was planning my wedding, but I guess you gotta do what you gotta do."

    Aside from being a really positive community and offering lots of warm fuzzies from people's planning stories, I thought the Tribe was an excellent source of vendor recommendations. I was suspicious of other review sites, thinking vendors might have paid to have negative reviews removed (*every* business has an average of 5 stars? REALLY?). Even though I can't think of a single negative review I saw on the Tribe (at least, not where the vendor was named), I trusted tribesmaids' recommendations because of the "no vendors allowed" policy. And since OBB sponsors seemed to be recommended more often than not, I assumed the Tribe was GREAT for business… But apparently I was really overestimating the number of people who read it. Anyway, I hope it's possible to preserve the Tribe in some capacity. I'd be really sad to see it go.

    1 agrees
  14. Hmm. I'm surprised! I still love forums and have belonged to several for years. I really liked facebook years ago, but the website just got more and more annoying, so I don't spend a heck of a lot of time on FB these days.

    2 agree
  15. That's such a bummer because I,too, owe so very much of my wedding planning success to the forums.

    However, I'm really excited for you! Being able to free up some of your budget to try new things is exciting (and scary but mostly exciting). I think there could be something to looking at 'tribe' members as having premium content access or developing more robust commenting sections to encourage discourse and conversation.
    I'd love to see all the years of incredible content made accessible to people because the ideas shared within the walls of the forums are downright invaluable.
    I'm excited to see where you guys take the offbeat empire!

  16. I know I'm late to the conversation, but I wanted to leave my two cents worth. 🙂

    This makes me really sad. I love the Tribe. I joined way back in 2011 and got married at the end of 2012. I got a lifetime membership and even moderated with you guys for a while in 2012-13. I can't even count how many things I found/done because of the Tribe, wedding related and not.

    Unfortunately, after I stopped modding, I didn't log in much. I had one or two of my blog posts moved to the main blog, but I can see how with declining membership there wouldn't be much to use on the main blog anymore.

    I liked the Tribe so much better than other forum websites and even Facebook because it was a private community that I could be 100% honest in. (not to mention the inclusive, non-judgemental environment)

    It seems like there's an increase in offbeat weddings in the last couple years, making them more socially acceptable. I can see how this could be both good and bad for the Tribe. More people are wanting offbeat weddings; but because they're more mainstream, people think they don't need a dedicated forum place to discuss them without judgement. It's a real catch22.

    I'm firmly convinced that once someone sees how awesome the Tribe it, they'll be in love (and hopefully tell all their friends). I really hope the Tribe doesn't go away, but sometime you have to make hard decisions.

    Whatever the future holds for the Tribe, I'll always be a die hard fan of all the Empire sites. <3

    1 agrees
  17. I loved the tribe once I got in, but all the questions to get in were too full on for me. I got why you did it, but at the same time, I like to get to know people and communities slowly, and putting all my info in the required fields felt a bit much in order to try out an online community that I may or may not be a good fit for.

    Having said that… I think you're right. I've watched several forums fall away; twitter and FB groups is kind of where it's at right now.

    • Jo, when did you sign up? The registration for was streamlined last year, based on feedback like yours.

      Interestingly, dozens of people still register every day (several hundred a week!)… They just don't stick around as much as they used to after they're in, because the Tribe ain't Facebook. It's not as smooth, not as high drama, not as much fun. I totally get it.

  18. I'm not a potential Tribesmaid, but forums ARE dying, and it's sad. I'm sad about it because my favorite forum has been dying a slow death for the past year or more. Many of my close friendships from that forum have organically moved to Facebook, so I guess I'm contributing to its death, but we don't have an organized Facebook group, and I wouldn't want to have one.

    I would never share as much on Facebook as I do on a forum – maybe I'm old fashioned, but I like to keep my online identities a little bit separate. You don't have to be exactly the same person on every forum (and I never lie about anything, I'm talking more about presentation and what/how you share), and if you're on Facebook (unless you create multiple accounts), that's not going to happen easily. Yes, I know you can limit who sees what from your friend list, but that's kind-of a huge pain. I guess people make entirely private groups? That would be nice, I guess . . .

    1 agrees
    • Yep, the Tribe's privacy is its greatest asset, but also its greatest flaw: since things are private, it offers a safe space unlike any social network. But since things are private it A) makes our readership look less active on the blog (since they're all talking on the Tribe) which advertisers then interpret as less engagement from readers which can then make us lose ad clients B) hides all the content from search engines, which means we don't get as many pageviews out of the Tribe.

      As a publisher, my bottom line boils down to advertisers and pageviews. This is the reality of serving free content on the web. I love the community activity on Tribe and for years it was a powerful driver of reader community… but with interest in forums generally waning, and neither of my bottom lines being served by the Tribe, it's hard to know how to proceed.

  19. I didn't know what to say when this post went live, and I don't know still, and I'm not even a member of the tribe, and I know few things are forever, but this reminds me of the time indiebride's kvetch went down and it really saddens me. 🙁

      • I saw, but I didn't read it all the way down, thanks for pointing it out to me.

        I really like Lori Leibovich's analysis how in forums and message boards "conversations ‘stay in the room’ and you’re invested in the individuals in the group. Social networks are about broadcasting. More about your persona than it is about you as a person."
        That's probably why Tribe members are so sad – because there's really no adequate alternative.

        Thanks again, and I am positive that you guys will find a solution.

  20. I'm one of those Tribesmates that spends just way, way too much time on the Tribe. I love the community; I love to give advice and be a shoulder for others to cry on; I love to see couples' triumphs and photos; I love that people will squee along with me when I share mine. It's pretty clear that the main blog's comments have suffered as a result of Tribe participation, and that there is more of a camaraderie on Home posts than on OBB posts, so I understand the quandary you face. However, it makes me so sad to think of losing that close-knit, private community; no way would we get the kind of detail and be able to offer the same comfort to stressed out couples on the main blog. Reading the journals is my favorite thing to do online. So, mostly I'm just joining the chorus: I love the Tribe and would sorely miss it, but I understand your reasoning and really respect your transparency with us.

    I wonder if the reason some Tribesmates are moving to FB is because we can't post about NWR stuff that we'd really like a sounding board on. (Which, obviously, makes total sense, and we knew that going in.) Since we don't know each other IRL, but are privy to each other's biggest frustrations and personal matters, the Tribe has a unique combination of anonymity and super close friendship, and some people might want to export that group to a place where they can talk about the rest of their lives, too.

    • I wonder if the reason some Tribesmates are moving to FB is because we can't post about NWR stuff that we'd really like a sounding board on.

      That's absolutely possible, and certainly Offbeat Home & Life readers have wanted a forum for many years. However, I will say that comparable NWR lifestyle forums like alt.life have been in decline for years:

      I recently returned to AltDotLife, a big message board for women. At the top of the page, one of them wrote: “Is there reason to be concerned about the health of the board?” The writer hit the problem on the head. “We had about
      20K-­24K posts per month in 2008-­09,” she wrote, “and that number has gotten gradually lower so that in the past several months, it’s been more like 13K­15K. And here we are 2/3 of the way through June and we’re at only 8365.”

      She had some notion of what was up, and asked others to chime in. A chorus responded, suggesting that Facebook had snapped up some former posters, while others had just moved on.

      “I used to come to ADL as a main source of chit chat with friends … but now I tend to go to FB for that,” one wrote. “My guess is that as time went on and the archives got larger and larger, many people are researching old topics rather than starting new threads,” another wrote. “Every possible topic has already been discussed.”

  21. Definitely late to the party, but this makes me sad. 🙁 The beau and me are getting close to the time of him popping the question, and I was looking forward to putting in for the Tribe when the day comes!

    Would you maybe be able to just create a closed/secret group on Facebook, or a closed subreddit on reddit, to create that safe community on other social media sites, have it more closed, but easier to maintain?

    • Would you maybe be able to just create a closed/secret group on Facebook, or a closed subreddit on reddit, to create that safe community on other social media sites

      This is an option I'm considering, but here's an honest question that I keep asking myself, and can't find a solid answer to: how would doing that benefit my business? How does it help my bottom line? The issue with the Tribe is that it's not profitable — how would moving the community to a different platform change that?

      • Without having too much experience on the business side of things, the only real answer to that I could think of is further exposure – people that tend to stick to those two mediums might not otherwise find OBB, OBH, etc if friends don't post about the site itself, and would be more likely to just read one article and go back. Versus being on FB or other social media itself as well, where they could learn about the community, engage with the site and the users, and hopefully want to continue reading and participating via commenting on the articles on the actual website.

        Opening to those two would be relatively cheap I would think, as they could likely be community moderated for the most part, while having the potential to bring in new blood if you try to find a middle ground between supplying the safety everyone needs while keeping it open enough to allow new people a chance to learn about how awesome OBB is. I can think of a couple methods to balance both, but as I don't have the business background, I'm not sure how viable any of them are for the empire.

        • Being on FB or other social media itself as well, where they could learn about the community, engage with the site and the users, and hopefully want to continue reading and participating via commenting on the articles on the actual website.

          Where it gets tricky is that Offbeat Bride already has a strong presence on Facebook — we have 117k followers over there, and it's an extremely active page. So is the idea starting a SEPARATE Offbeat Bride Tribe Facebook group? If so, why? What's the advantage? Don't I get into the same issue as I've got now, where all the activity gets siphoned away from the existing properties (offbeatbride.com, facebook.com/offbeatbride) into a separate, non-monetized property?

  22. Oh nooooes!! I'm another reader who has been following the blog since 2007 as a "pre-engaged" person, and was anxiously awaiting the day when it would be official so I could immediately buy the book and join the tribe. Now, he's about the pop the question any day now, already has the ring… and now after reading this, I fear I've totally missed out on the tribe's golden era. 🙁 I just hope I can use it before it really goes the way of the dodo! I do understand that you run a business though and that you gotta do what you gotta do. Guess that's what I get for starting to read a wedding blog, oh, EIGHT years before I'd actually be engaged… =P

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