One of my scariest work projects evar: migrating 21,000 members from Ning to BuddyPress

December 13 2011 | arielmstallings

bye-ningI've written before about how in early 2010, I started investigating how I could move the Tribe off of, the platform that we've struggled with for 4 years. I invested thousands of dollars into researching servers and alternate platforms and migration tools, and ultimately realized that there was no viable alternative that would work as a replacement. So we stayed on Ning for another year.

Then fall of 2011, I took another peek at BuddyPress, the WordPress-based open source community platform. Last year, the platform just wasn't mature enough to handle a community of the Tribe's size and activity. But clearly the developers working on BuddyPress have been busy, and the current release did just enough of what I needed it to.

And so I decided to make the leap: We're moving the Offbeat Bride Tribe from Ning to a natively-hosted BuddyPress install next month. And it's FUCKING TERRIFYING.

For starters, none of the export tools scale effectively for a group of the Tribe's size and maturity. Unless I want to invest tens of thousands of dollars in custom development, the only solution is to start from scratch. Members will have to sign up for new accounts, and NOTHING will be migrated from the old site. If they want stuff, they'll have to copy 'n' paste it.

Setting member expectations has been my top priority, and I'm making multiple posts a week about the migration, ensuring that there are no surprises, and that no members can say "Wait, WHAT'S GOING ON, YOU DIDN'T TELL ME!"

Oh my god: so much member-expectation setting, complete with telling my mods NEVER to promise things like "Search on the new Tribe will be better!" No, no: say "We'll have full control over how Search works on the new Tribe," which is a whooooole different thing. I phrase everything about the new Tribe this way: it will be different, we will have more control over it, but I won't EVER claim that it will be better. That's a quick way to set members up for disappointment.

In response to all my posts about the migration, I've been learning a lot about just how little some members understand the Tribe specifically — or even web navigation in general. There's been a lot of confusion about what's part the Offbeat Bride Tribe vs. what's the Offbeat Bride blog. I've had to do screenshots showing folks how our tabbed navigation works — if you see the TRIBE tab highlighted, then that means you're on the TRIBE. While this has moments of feeling frustrating, mostly it's just really valuable insight into the minds of my users.

From a personal standpoint, all this work is a massive emotional trigger for me. It's no secret that the Tribe has always been my most emotionally challenging corner of the Offbeat Empire, and managing member expectations about this big shift freaks me out in ways I can't even fully articulate. Members love the Tribe SO MUCH, despite how much Ning sucks — and the last thing I want to do is damage their relationship with Offbeat Bride in the process of trying to improve the tools they're using. It's terrifying!

Then there are the financials: Ning may not be great, but it's only $500/year. With the new Tribe, I'll be looking at spending that much PER MONTH on web hosting and server maintenance. I'm investing $10,000 in the development and design of the new site. This is a significant investment in a tool members use for free.

The flip side of this is that the new platform is so much more flexible and powerful when it comes to monetization. We'll be offering premium tools to paying subscribers, and can FINALLY build awesome, fully integrated wedding planning tools for members, like customized planning checklists. Hopefully, this investment will eventually break even.

And of course it wouldn't be a terrifying project if we weren't in a hurry! Once my developer and I realized how awesome BuddyPress was, all plans for a quiet December were tossed out the window. We're hammering out the back-end of the community on a six-week timeline, because I don't want to ask members to invest any additional time in Ning than they have to … in other words, knowing that we're moving soon is an awkward position for the entire community.

Ultimately, this is all going to be so SO worth it. The new platform has SO much potential — vastly improved moderation tools, complete control over membership levels, 100% design and development autonomy. It's going to be amazing.

But in the meantime, I'm not getting much sleep.

2012 update: Here's how it went.

  1. This actually makes me quite excited for the Tribe! I don't have a pressing USE for the Tribe in my life, but I could see myself cruising the regional stuff for local resources/connections once in a while. And that's gold!

  2. From a modding level, I'm STOKED about more refined modding tools.

    From a user level, I giggle every time someone talks about the "back-end."

  3. This is so exciting! I'm really looking forward to the changes. I love the lifetime member option!

    My wedding's January 25, so after that I may not be as active on the forum, but it's been such an amazing tool for me over the past two years that I'd really like to support it.

    • Thanks so much for that, Chrissie! It's really interesting for me offering paid memberships on the new Tribe — my biz model has traditionally been all about advertising from vendors wanting to reach brides. It's a whole different game to have the option for members to pay… I want to make sure I do it right! Free memberships are still completely full featured. The biggest difference is photo upload capabilities, which is more about breaking even on server costs than making profits… but it's still scary!

      • I think you're going about it the right way. I've worked for publishers with a mix of models for online content, and in my experience if you have a great product (which you do) some people will be willing to pay for higher access.

        Having different entry levels and a donate option is definitely a good idea.

  4. Sounds like a great change… even if people have to sign up all over again, if they really like it they will! And, those of us who have accounts but got married forever ago and never use it anymore get automatically cleared out. (Plus, if people realize system changes will make them have to start over, they might be more likely to use it as a community and not as a personal archive for their weddings!) If people are upset about the change, maybe they'll realize that they're not the ones paying $500 a year for something that sucks and get over it.

    • Oh, I absolutely have accent — are you referencing my tweet last week? What I guess I didn't convey in 140 characters is that I disagree with those who think there's not a local accent. There's absolutely a Seattle dialect, and I make it even more pronounced by having a heavy affect.

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