Changing Your Community’s Purpose or Direction—Without Losing Your Members?

We’ve written before about how to identify and define your community’s purpose—but what if you decide to change course or head in a new direction? 

In this post we’re going to look at how communities can pivot themselves without losing their members (if it’s even possible?) and accepting the fact that, in your new community, some members will need to be left behind. 

There are generally two reasons an online community changes its purpose: 

  • The owner or manager wants to do it; 
  • There’s an organic shift over time and the community’s identity doesn’t match what it used to be

And as you’d expect, the best way to handle the transition depends on which camp you fall into.

If the owner decides to change things up

This can happen for a whole spade of reasons, but the first step is to resist the urge to purge. You’ve put a lot of time into building this community, so let’s start by having a good think about what specifically isn’t working for you and compare that to your ideal. Then try to understand why the two don’t add up:

  • Have you recruited the wrong types of members? 
  • Are your community guidelines unclear?
  • Is your user-generated content off-topic? 
  • Has your own vision simply changed? 

It could be one of a hundred reasons. Once you know where the community diverged from your original goal, you can work backwards to see what proactive steps you can take to change it. But then comes the tricky part—explaining the change to members. 

If you want a total transformation (like moving from a baking community to a Harley Davidson owners club) then of course you need to start from scratch and can’t keep your members. For more lateral transitions, we recommend communicating clearly with current members. Explain your thinking and your vision for the community, and how things are going to change. 

Try to be as honest and specific as possible, so everyone understands how the benefits they get now will differ from those they’re getting in the future. Then comes the hardest task: telling members who don’t want to be part of this new community that, unfortunately, they have to leave. 

Because changing direction always means losing someone. But by thinking the transition through and describing the future clearly, you maximize the number of members who will stay and add value to the refurbished community. 

If there’s an organic shift over time

This is a much simpler case to deal with. If you’ve noticed a change and you’re happy with it, the best thing you can do is acknowledge the change and embrace it. Make other users aware of what you’ve seen, and ask them if they’re excited about the direction things are heading. 

The smoothest plan is to publish a ton of content preparing members for “the move”. You’ll probably be changing the name, community guidelines, purpose statement, content guidelines—regularly reminding members when this transition’s going to happen and preparing for it will make the actual change easy to accept. 

Since this change is essentially driven by members, you should see that most are excited about what’s happening and are motivated to help you push forward, grow, and keep adding value! 

Have you made any radical changes to the direction your community is heading? Perhaps you’re thinking of making some not-so-smooth changes, let me know what are your thoughts on this topic in the comments below.

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Brought to you by PeepSo Team Eric Tracz
I'm a Digital Nomad currently living in Manila, The Philippines. Co-Founder and CEO of First time WordCamp Speaker at WordCamp Kuala Lumpur 2017, WordCamp Singapore 2019 and hoping to speak more soon. I started my journey with open source nearly a decade ago as a simple support guy. Joomla! was my first encounter with the world of Open Source. After that period of my life got phased out I fell in love with WordPress and never left. I have been both lucky and at the same time I worked my ass off to get to where I am right now. Free time, if I have any, is usually spent with my wife and / or travel around South-East Asia. Even when I'm supposed to be on a little vacation, not a day goes by when I don't check up on PeepSo. So far visited or lived in: Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Hungary, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China, Japan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Norway, Germany, Scotland, England and more... Whenever possible, I jump on my Ducati Monster and just ride.

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@peepso_user_41569(Morris Silvya)
Very good read.
Changing the purpose of a site is most challenging. When you say 'Free Speech', it's important to make it VERY clear what you mean by it. The owners and people behind Gab (and ruqqus) are currently facing the same dilemma and there's (in some way), a migration happening.
Both could be said as reddit clones and started off with "Free Speech and no censorship" as their punchline. But alas, 'Free speech' is not absolute and there are laws - all countries have laws. Voat for example was given the boot for by its host in Germany - yes, Germany. The explanation from their web host was, "For hosting content that is politically incorrect". They are still thriving but have had to change their domain name and all their content was lost - voat's owner even kept his girlfriend's research papers on the servers that hosted Voat, which was all lost.
Coming back to Gab or ruqqus, the owners are now being called 'sells out to Washington' - lol to that - and their users are migrating back to voat.
I too am facing this dilemma. My old site was the most popular in our state (India) but those members are a generation old and don't share the same enthusiasm as I do, bar a few. Pulling new members esp millennials and coming up with ideas to pull them has been tough.