What if you sold headbands?: how to keep your community focused and avoid trying to be everything to everyone

August 12 2010 | offbeatbride
Headband close up.
Photo by Allebach Photography

There's nothing more exciting than having an online community that's growing to the point where your members are invested and excited about your brand. So excited, in fact, that they start sharing their ideas for what you could do next.

I received an email recently from a reader of Offbeat Bride. She told me she was interested in partnering with me to expand my brand. "Where do you see Offbeat Bride in two years?" she asked. "In five? I'd like to work with you on that level!" It sounded interesting, so I kept reading.

"What if you sold headbands?" her email continued. "I make these headbands, and I'd like to partner with you to sell a custom line exclusively for your readers."

To be fair, they were lovely headbands. My readers and community members would probably really like them. But … I'm in the wedding website business. I produce web content and online tools, so my partnerships are focused on web service providers. While the headbands were gorgeous, I'm just not in the retail business. I had to stop and ask myself, "Do headbands help me achieve my mission of helping non-traditional brides plan their weddings?" They don't, and so I politely thanked the reader for her time, and declined the partnership.

Don't get me wrong: In the case of my Offbeat Bride community, suggestions from readers and community members can be extremely useful. I've gotten some genuinely excellent business ideas from members of my community. And of course I want to encourage my members to be so invested and involved in the brand — it's a wonderful gift to have a hive mind of members giving you clear feedback about what they want from you and the community.

But with larger communities (I'm at 15,000 registered members and 200,000 monthly readers) the sad truth is this: your community can't be everything to everyone. I hope that anyone even considering an online community knows this simple truth, but it's one of those things that's easy to say and hard to live, especially when you're in a community growth cycle.

And of course you want to make your members happy! But what about when they specifically request that you dilute your focus? My members have made it clear that they enjoy my online forum because I work hard to maintain it as a positive, constructive environment … an atmosphere that can difficult to find in online communities. Because of this, some members wish the community's tone could be applied to non-wedding topics — recent suggestions have included a sub-group dedicated to discussing medical and health conditions, and a sub-group about home decor.

Of course, these subjects would make for fascinating discussions, and I have no doubt that a few of my members could really benefit from them. But ultimately I'm in the wedding business, and if I broaden the focus of my community to medical issues and interior decorating, the purpose of my community starts to get lost. Suddenly the on-topic discussions are buried in a sea of chatter about fibromialgia and shag carpeting — both interesting subjects, but not related to my mission of supporting women in planning their non-traditional weddings.

Rather than ever-expand my focus to include headbands and medical conditions, I've chosen to keep my resources focused on improving my content management tools. Inevitably, there are missed opportunities and members who aren't getting everything they want.

But repeat after me: you can't be everything to everyone.