Six months ago, I promised Offbeat Home & Life readers a forum, and a few readers have been asking what’s going on with that. So, here’s what up.
The biggest logistical blocker is that I don’t have the resources to pay our developer to do the heavy lifting required to launch it right now. I only have so much money to invest in development, and when it comes down to “fix stuff that’s broken” vs. “build stuff that might be fun,” I always have to priotize fixing the broken stuff. Lame, but true.
But there’s a larger issue at play here, which is that I have some significant community management strategy questions I haven’t been able to brain through. Most notably, I have concerns that launching a forum is going to kill community activity on the blog — meaning post submissions from readers, as well as comments on those posts.
I’ve watched this happen with Offbeat Bride vs. Offbeat Bride Tribe for years…
How the Offbeat Bride Tribe damages the Offbeat Bride blog
Here’s a typical user flow for an Offbeat Bride visitor’s experience with the community:
- Visitor finds the blog via a search engine or social media
- Visitor likes the blog and becomes a regular reader
- Reader discovers the forum
- Reader becomes a member
- Member loves the forum and reads the blog less
- Member stops commenting on the blog, opting to interact with other members on the forum instead
Ok, so what’s the problem with that? Visitors become readers become members. That’s awesome, right?
Well, yes… except for that potential advertisers often look at blog comments as a measure of the site’s popularity. With 600,000 readers a month (update March 2014: this is now 1 million), Offbeat Bride is the highest trafficked non-traditional wedding blog in the world — but many of our blog posts get less than 10 comments. This in part because our most engaged and involved community members default to interacting with the Tribe, and the Tribe is private.
This means that when the advertisers who keep Offbeat Bride online come looking to get a feel for our community… they’re seeing a relative ghost town. All the interactivity is happening over on the Tribe, behind a login. Tribesmaids get engaged and involved over there and tell me over and over again that they basically forget about the main blog — despite the fact that it was the main blog that introduced them to the community. Clearly, I’m doing something wrong with integrating the blog and the forum.
There are layers of technical challenges here — yes, it’d be nice if Tribesmaids could comment on the main blog using their Offbeat Bride Tribe account, but the two platforms are very separate due to security concerns — but ultimately this boils down to a community management/content management failure on my behalf. When blog readers become forum members, what happens to their engagement with the blog’s community? How can the Offbeat Bride Tribe community stay active with the blog? How can the blog and the Tribe play better together? How can we make sure that advertisers understand all the excitement and activity that’s happening behind closed doors on the Tribe? I don’t have answers.
In some ways, the Tribe has bitten the hand that feeds it — advertising from the Offbeat Bride blog is what keeps the Tribe online, but since I haven’t found effective ways to keep the Tribe community engaged with the blog’s content, potential sponsors get a warped impression of the blog as less active… and sometimes choose not to advertise.
Ok, so what does this mean for Offbeat Home & Life
Over the past six months, Offbeat Home & Life has become a vibrant site. Our shift to include more lifestyle content has been a raging success, and traffic is up over 100% from last year. Submissions aren’t as huge as Offbeat Bride’s, but there’s a steady trickle of insightful and heart-felt posts submitted by Offbeat Home & Life readers. Comments are active and thoughtful. It’s been pretty amazing to see the community grow and get really engaged this year!
If we add a forum, what’s going to happen to submissions? (Why would anyone submit a post when they can just start a forum thread?) What’s going to happen to the comments on Offbeat Home & Life’s blog when everyone’s busy chatting in the forum?
Granted, an Offbeat Home & Life forum would be a slightly different beast than the Tribe — most notably, because it would be public. Potential advertisers could easily see activity, and we wouldn’t have to deal with that sense of “Uh, if this place is so popular, why can’t I see people talking?” But that public nature creates challenges of its own — with the Offbeat Bride Tribe, we’ll often bubble some of the hottest posts up from behind the privacy wall onto the main blog, where they be read by everyone. It doesn’t fly to bubble up content that’s already public.
So the summary here? There are community management problems with the Tribe that I haven’t solved… and the last thing I want to do is duplicate those same challenges on Offbeat Home & Life. I do not want to kill the community activity that’s emerged on the blog.
So how can a blog and a forum play nice together?
Remember that one of my biggest community management theories is that if you have to educate a community member on how to use your community “correctly,” you’ve already failed. If my community members say things like “I always forget to read the blog…” or “I never think to comment…” my answer is never ever, “You should change what you’re doing because it helps me.”
Participating in a community the “correct” way should never be something that members have to try to do. The only correct way to use a community is in the way that feels natural and effortless for members… so this isn’t as easy as saying “HEY TRIBESMAIDS: READ THE BLOG!” or “HEY HOMIES: WE’LL LAUNCH A FORUM IF YOU PROMISE TO KEEP SUBMITTING BLOG POSTS.” It just doesn’t work that way. Online communities are about members enjoying what they’re doing, and getting a real value out of it.
My job as a publisher and community manager is just figuring out a way to make my online community sustainable — ie, the ways that members like engaging need to match the ways that our advertisers like sponsoring. The question becomes: “how can a blog and a community play nicely together, so that advertisers will keep supporting the business so that the whole community can stay online?”
Here are a few of the ideas I’m toying with:
- Link blog posts from the Tribe (maybe blog posts are actually syndicated as Tribe journal posts?)
- Keep researching a way to have blog comments ping the forum server, so that forum avatars can automatically show with blog comments (we use Gravatar now, which is easy but not automatic)
- Monetize forums more, by allowing advertisers to join or participate in ways that feel good for all involved
I’m totally open to suggestions on this one! Granted, my resources are limited for technical solutions (see “biggest logistical blocker” way at the beginning of this post), but perhaps there’s some easy solution that simply hasn’t occurred to me.
The sad news here is that given what I’ve learned with the Offbeat Bride Tribe, I’ve chosen not to launch an Offbeat Home & Life forum.