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.
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.