Fall of 2007, after dozens of requests from blog readers, I decided to set up an Offbeat Bride community on Ning.com.
“It’s an experiment!” I said.
“We’ll see how it goes!” I said.
“If it doesn’t feel like a good fit, I’ll shut it down!” I said.
That was eight years, two platforms, two community managers, dozens of volunteer moderators, and over 45,000 members ago. Friday, the Offbeat Bride Tribe quietly shut down.
For anyone who’s been paying attention, this should come as no surprise. I wrote six months ago about how forums web-wide have been decline for many years, and I’ve always been very open about how the Tribe in some ways eats into the success of the Offbeat Bride blog, without giving a ton back. I have documents dating back to 2013 titled “Should I kill it?” with pro/con lists.
When I announced on the Tribe a couple of weeks ago that the community was shutting down, everyone was disappointed… but very few people were shocked or scandalized. A couple of people brought up concerns about donations they’d made toward the site, and a couple of refunds were immediately issued. (That was totally my oversight… I should have removed the donation option a few months ago when I made the decision to shut down the site.)
Even when we sent out an email to all 20,000 registered members… there was very little anger. This wasn’t like when we shut down Offbeat Families, when readers went off on rants that we were money-grubbing, kid-hating assholes. This was more of a quiet resignation. As one person said, “I knew this was a risk, given the fact that forums as a whole are not really much of a Thing on the internet these days…” The community will be an archive for a year, and then will be deleted. [Updated November 2016: deletion complete.]
I will say that I specifically waited until mid-November to shut down the Tribe because it’s the quietest time of the year for traffic. The Halloween weddings are over and the Thanksgiving engagements haven’t happened yet.
Still, there’s no right time, and I know for a fact there were Tribe members getting married the day after the site shut down.
Despite the fact that there wasn’t a ton of anger or surprise, closing the Tribe feels like a significant shift. At its high point in March 2011, the Tribe had 78k sessions a month. By October 2015, it was down to 11k. Meanwhile, Offbeat Bride’s Facebook page is up to 146k followers, and even during the quiet season, the blog has 630k readers a month. Here’s the loss, though: those 630k readers? Most of them don’t stick around and chat. I wish they did. I want them to. I don’t want readers to stop chatting with us! My goal for 2016 is getting those 630k a bit stickier. I’ve got schemes, but am always open to suggestions!
What does shutting down the Tribe mean?
It’s pretty simple, really: It means I’m consolidating my properties so that my financial and development resources aren’t spread so thin.
Back in 2011, the Offbeat Empire’s trajectory was all about MORE: more sites, more staff, more readers, more posts, more more more! For a while, my business model was to see if I could replicate Offbeat Bride’s revenue success across as many different topics as possible: Offbeat Bride (plus the Tribe, plus the Vendor guide!), Offbeat Mama, Offbeat Home, then maybe Offbeat Career, Offbeat Pets, Offbeat Funerals, etc. Every site would have a dedicated editor and I would be MANAGER OF MANY, PUBLISHER OF ALL! (The fact that I did all this with a one year old baby sorta blows my mind now. When did I sleep? WTF.)
Quickly, it became clear that the success of Offbeat Bride was not something even its publisher could reliably replicate. Offbeat Mama evolved into Offbeat Families, and eventually collapsed. Offbeat Home became Offbeat Home & Life, absorbing Offbeat Families and Offbeat Everything Else. (Pets! Career! Funerals! We do it all on Offbeat Home & Life.)
Staff-wise, I went from believing that more was better (How’s the biz?, people would ask. Great! I manage a staff of 8 now!, I would answer) to realizing that managing people is fucking hard. I do my best to be an effective, compassionate, supportive manager who also pushes employees to do their best and grow… but mistakes get made. Sometimes feelings get hurt. Sometimes people get fired. Sometimes people move on to bigger and better things and it feels like losing a limb. Managing people is HARD. Even managing volunteers is hard! Telling people what to do (and getting them to do it in a way that makes everyone feel ok) is fucking hard.
Here I am a few years later, with really just two websites (only like 10 people even know offbeatempire.com exists) and a compact staff of four. Everything is running leaner, and honestly? It feels great. Less websites, less staff, less editorial process, less community management… it all sounds like a loss, doesn’t it? But the gain is revenue, sustainability, time, sanity, and real connection.
When I only have four staffers, I can send each of them truly awesome gifts when I’m in Italy. I can give people real Holiday bonuses. I have a level of trust with my small staff that when the shit hits the fan (and oh, it has hit the fan for me this fall), these four people are ready to stand tall. It means we can do weird experimental posts that might fall on their face. It means we can focus on building community on the blog and social media platforms, instead of siphoning the most active people away to a forum.
One thing that hasn’t changed though is my interest in transparency — I’m here to answer any questions you might have about the Offbeat Bride Tribe, about community management, about the death of forums, or anything else! Leave a comment.