Small, focused, and yes, exclusionary community sites flourish

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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!

Comments on Small, focused, and yes, exclusionary community sites flourish

  1. I would love if there was a Homie group! I’m not really jumping at the bit to get married just yet…but dang, you guys have some good DIY tutorials and ideas on Home, and I want more!! Please?!?! 🙂

    • Unlike an Offbeat Mama community (which will NEVER HAPPEN), I’m considering an Offbeat Homies community. Offbeat Home only makes about $100/mo, so it’s hard to justify investing the development funds to launch (which would easily cost 10 times that amount)… but I agree that it could be really fun!

      • I would LOVE an Offbeat Home journal feature! Then I can lurk at everyone’s projects and post my own projects for anyone who’s interested… I know that you can submit but it just feels so ‘official’ that I don’t always feel like my little hobbies are worth wasting the Empire staff’s time on. Does that make sense? I know that Home isn’t nearly as popular as the Tribe, but I would totally donate to a Homies drive to make it into a community some day.

      • Is it wrong that I giggle every time you remind us that an Offbeat Mama group is impossible? It’s not a bad laugh. Just a, “Heh, yeah, I can get that.”

        • It comes up SO often (seriously, I think someone asks about once a week?) that I feel like I have to be really emphatic about it every time I mention it. When people bring it up, it’s always in this “Oh hey! I had an idea: have you ever thought of doing an Offbeat Mama forum?” And Stephanie and I are all yes, it’s come up frequently — IN OUR NIGHTMARES.

          • I didn’t entirely understand why until I got pregnant and started looking for good online communities. I’m still in shock over the way some people behave online – it’s crazy and a little bit scary.

      • Homie community!!!!!! Yes please! I was just chatting with someone about the Empire last week, and my exact words: an Offbeat Mama community would be super hard, but an Offbeat Home community could work really well, be really fun, and support the blog well, too!

      • Me = totally in. 🙂 I just need to remember to take pictures when I do things. Worst photo documenter EVER! Wrote up a project I was working on and STILL forgot to take pictures to go with it of the process.

        • I’m in TOTALLY the same boat! I suck at photo-documentation! I *think* I know where the camera is right now, but I haven’t used it once since we moved in here… (Also, count me in if there’s a homies community! If I can swing it budget-wise (if I ever get a job, I suppose), I would also be totally game for supporting a little to make it happen. I believe in supporting things that support me, and now that I’m no longer planning a wedding, and I AM living in a home, I’ve basically switched blogs — but I miss the community on the Tribe.

  2. As a fairly traditional bride, I’m grateful for my tribe membership. I love the tribe because it really is a community and is, for about 99.9% of the time, open to all ideas. And supportive in a way that is more genuine than many communities out there. The idea sharing isn’t about one-upmanship. Basically unicorns and sparkly crap are how awesome the tribe is.

  3. I love Offbeat Bride because of the eclectic styles and tastes and some of the amazing ideas that other people have come up with. Sadly, while I do drop in (almost obsessively) to see those ideas and tastes, I know there are going to be little to none of those ideas in our ceremony now. I still enjoy seeing the individualism of the members and featured weddings… but it’s more an interest, no longer a need.

    While I understand that it’s for brides-to-be (more than the other parties involved or people dreaming of their future weddings when they haven’t been asked the special question etc) this site to me is now more about the camaraderie of people from all over the world sharing ideas, support, and past experiences. THAT and you guys put a smile on my face when I see things like a lemonade peeing, glitter snorting unicorn.

    I would love for the site to translate to a select invite-only forum for the people who can be trusted, and a view only for people like me who quietly pass through. It’s no longer the wedding part that brings me back, it’s the polite friendship and support compared to the trolling and arguments of other websites/forums.

  4. As the mother of an offbeat bride who, with her fiancee, planned and executed their own amazing medieval wedding years before Offbeat Bride was born, and having another daughter who follows your site and others in anticipation of her own wedding one day, I can’t help but get caught up in the creativity that your site supports and encourages. My eldest and her spouse couldn’t have done the amazing job they did without the advice and support of a small, focused and decidedly exclusionary community of people dedicated to all things medieval. I’m happy to be part of the larger community but, I agree, people like me have no place in the Offbeat Bride Tribe, though one day my youngest will probably be thrilled to be counted as a member.

  5. The transition of the Tribe in the past year has been amazing. It really does function even better in our current BuddyPress/WordPress incarnation. We mods are loving it and our members are too. When Ariel shared the stats my first reaction was that it was okay. That it was a GOOD thing. Sure, traffic is down, but a lot of previous traffic wasn’t really contributing to making the Tribe awesome. We had drama that fed drama and groups that got off topic and it wasn’t manageable for our little mod team. Now? Totally manageable and amazing! We may patrol the borders of wedding planning but it’s worth it.

  6. Very interesting post! From a business perspective, I’m curious as to why traffic is down so much? I know how many visitors I need to make a sale on my site, so I live by traffic and any reduction is usually pretty scary. If the forum is now profitable for the first time ever, I guess it really doesn’t matter in the big picture, but hearing about the details might be insightful.

    • My biggest theory is that people are using social media more, and forums less.

  7. Thanks for sharing! That makes a lot of sense. If that page is attracting the right kind of people to the community and it’s actually making money now, then it definitely sounds like a good change! 🙂

  8. The tribe really is its own beast, isn’t it? I was the last of my mini-tribe-within-the-tribe to get married, and remember the “I’m sticking around to see your wedding” cajoling fondly, but I’m also really happy that now I don’t have a need to be active, and didn’t make the transition to the new setup – I’m married! I’m no longer planning, so it felt weirdly voyeuristic to try to scoot in.

    That said, though, it’s also an amazing place, where, despite the drama llamas of your, my little mini-tribe coalesced and we’re still friends on our own little facebook community page today. I’m hoping next summer we’ll all actually gather together and hang out in person, but I love that the planning together brought us together, despite all our differences and distances. I know I’ll be friends with these lovelies for decades to come. So thanks, Ariel, for making it happen.

  9. Congratulations on the changes!

    A Homie Tribe could be nice. We’re not to the wedding yet, but I can feel my participation changing. Moved up & out, like it is school. I see new people coming in, full of excitement & confusion. And I feel how I’ve changed from that into a new kind of excitement, that I know I’ll have to stop the Tribe soon.

    The Mr. & I met on a message board. It was fairly local & the members were able to meet in the city for events, parties, weekend picnics. It was a really nice time for awhile, before everything changed & the board ended.

    Since then there have been a few more, message boards of different types, & they seem to go the same way. Growth & change are good or destructive in their own ways. People will hold a certain time as a sort of Golden Age when the board was the Best, but new members come in & replace those who leave. Certain dynamics are always there.

    Although the upbeat & super inclusive nature of these sites is really something special!

    I look forward now to more participation in the Offbeat Home. Looking at my messy house & new camera, I’ll inspire myself to cleanliness with thoughts of posts to make! weeee

  10. I am an OffBeat Tribe graduate. It was about 3-4 months after my wedding that the Tribe migrated. I was disappointed that all content would be lost if I didn’t do something about it, but I also knew that nothing I had written needed to be kept for posterity. All the Tribesmaids were told that they could be in the migrated Tribe, but I knew that my time was past. I whole-heartedly agree that the Tribe should be exclusionary, and a few months after the wedding, the newlyweds should bow out.
    Also – love ya! I visit your sites at least once a day!

    • I whole-heartedly agree that the Tribe should be exclusionary, and a few months after the wedding, the newlyweds should bow out.

      Yeah, for the most part the only brides who stick around more than a few months after their weddings are those who decide to enter the wedding industry in some capacity — we’ve had Tribesmaids become bouquet artisans, wedding planners, photographers, and more! (Most of them are good at staying within our “no vending” rules, so it’s generally not a problem. Generally.)

  11. If a Homie tribe were to start, what do you think you could do to keep it small, focused, and exclusionary? Ok, so “focused” is about the same as the Tribe now — you moderate and make sure everything is home-related (probably different forum topics for different features on Offbeat Home). As far as exclusionaryness (which is TOTALLY a word), I guess it would be entirely based on completeness of profile? I mean, everyone lives somewhere, right? So it’s not like the Offbeat Bride Tribe, where parents, bridal party members, vendors, and so on aren’t permitted. Do you think lack-of-smallness would become a problem because of that, or is traffic on OBH enough less than on OBB that it probably wouldn’t even be an issue?

    • Great questions! As far as exclusivity, just having to fill out a profile and wait to be approved feels exclusive for most people.

      And yes: Offbeat Home’s traffic is roughly 20% of Offbeat Bride’s, so it’s just a much smaller readership.

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