What if you sold headbands?: how to keep your community focused

December 13 2010 | offbeatbride

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.

"…What if you sold headbands?!"

That was the gist of an email I recently received from a reader of Offbeat Bride. "I make these headbands," her email went on to say. "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 a web content producer. I am not a retailer. I had to stop and ask myself, "Do headbands help me achieve my mission of helping non-traditional brides plan their weddings?"

Suggestions from readers and community members can be a wonderful gift. It's remarkable to have a hive mind of members giving you clear feedback about what they want from you and your community. That said, with larger communities (I'm at 15,000 registered members and 200,000 monthly readers) the sad truth is this:

You can't be everything to everyone. It can feel like an admission of defeat, but instead view it as a rallying call to do what you do with impeccable laser focus. Be your one thing to a few people.

Print it out. Repeat it to yourself often: You 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 by, especially when you're in a community growth cycle.

My members have made it clear that they enjoy my online wedding community because I work hard to maintain it as a positive, constructive environment … an atmosphere that can be 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 students and academia.

These subjects would doubtless make for fascinating discussions, and I have no doubt that a few of my members could really benefit from them — just like a few would love headbands. But ultimately I'm in the publishing business focused on wedding, parenting, and home decor markets — and my skills are aligned to that work.

If I broaden the focus of my community to include medical issues and academic advice and headbands, the purpose of my community starts to get lost. Suddenly the on-topic discussions are buried in a sea of chatter about fibromyalgia and dissertations — both interesting subjects, but not related to my mission of supporting women in planning their non-traditional weddings.

When I get receive these requests and suggestions from members, I always take the time to acknowledge them. I thank them profusely for taking the time to share their idea with me, and then explain that, in order to keep the community functioning at its best, I've chosen to keep it (and me!) focused. I always make a point to acknowledge that this doubtless means I'm missing out on wonderful opportunities, and encourage them to pursue the idea on their own.

In one instance, an article on my site Offbeat Mama prompted a reader to ask me if I would start a community dedicated to nontraditional military families. I explained I didn't have the resources or background to do so, but offered to link a Facebook group, if they decided to start one. (Which they did!)

Because, repeat after me: you can't be everything to everyone. It can feel like an admission of defeat, but instead hold it up as a rallying cry. Stay focused on being one really great thing to a few dedicated people.

…Even if the headbands are pretty.