Too many features can harm your community

by Martin Reed on 7 May 2009 in Articles

community building and technology

Some people still seem to think that the more features and options they offer in their community, the easier it will be to attract members and activity. This is not true.

We need to get rid of the popular mindset that offline communities and online communities are different. They aren’t. Regardless of the medium, a community is a place where people with similar interests come together. It is all too easy to get distracted by technology and lose focus on what really matters: people. Too many options can be confusing and distracting.

The technology distraction

There are so many community platforms out there, we are spoilt for choice. There are even more plugins, extensions and modules. There is a very real risk of being distracted by all this technology and adding everything and anything you can get your hands on.

Corporate press releases that announce the launch of a new online community often prove this mistaken mentality. They’ll announce the purpose of the community (fine) and all the features it will offer (irrelevant). What they should be doing is telling us why people will want to join the community and what type of members are already there. Bells and whistles are pointless if nobody wants them or uses them.

Keeping up with the Joneses

This problem is further compounded as people see others loading their communities with features, so feel the need to do the same just to keep up. The result is a mass of websites that claim to be communities, but are anything but.

Stand out from the crowd. Cut back on the features. Strip your community website down to the bare essentials. When you find yourself thinking about adding a feature, stop and ask yourself why it’s needed. Work hard to justify the addition. Don’t ask your members if they want the feature (most will just say yes). Instead, ask them if they will use the feature, how often they will use it, and why they will use it. You’ll get much better feedback that way.

Just because your community consists solely of a forum, it doesn’t mean it can’t be successful. You only need to provide a single medium for people to communicate in. You may never need to add anything else. Less work for you, and happier members. What could be better?

Technology doesn’t encourage activity

Don’t be tricked into thinking that members demand certain features and functionality. Members aren’t really interested in the technology behind a community – they are far more interested in the people and human activity taking place there.

A huge number of features can actually reduce and discourage activity – especially when a community is new. You risk making the community overly complicated and you can end up overwhelming new visitors and existing members alike. When your community is just starting out, you will often simply be emphasising how new and quiet it is – this isn’t the best way to encourage new members to join!

Remove features that members aren’t using (you can always try reintroducing them in the future). Don’t introduce new features unless there is already evidence of demand – for example, people posting a lot of links to images may suggest demand for member photo galleries.

Be a technology sceptic. Focus on people instead.

Share this community building advice


Similar Posts

Previous post:

Next post:


Randy Brown May 7, 2009 at 6:10 pm

I could not agree more.. as a matter of fact, my entire site/community was based on “simple” – easy to read (not tiny text stuffed between ads), easy to navigate, easy to USE.. and the more features you have, the more difficult things can become.
Of course over time we have added a few features that members requested/demanded, but KISS (keep it stimple, stupid) is still our motto. any time we do add a feature we ‘take the temperature’ of the community to see how it is received – and as many times as not, we’ve removed new features because members did not want/need/like them..

We have been almost an ANTI Web 2.0 site, and its worked out pretty well..

Ed May 8, 2009 at 8:33 am

Very true. A case in point here is Facebook – when people first join they spend so much time sending this that or the other to their friends and it soon just ends up annoying people, I know people who left FB because of it.

Keeping it simple is a truism in so much in life, and communities are no different.

Great post.

Nicole Price May 8, 2009 at 10:49 am

I can vouch from the point of view of a user of such sites that the simpler it is, the happier the user is and longer she is likely to use the site. Too many features tend to get added as the membership grows and new interest groups form. These over a period of time, discourage older users from visiting and using the site.

mustafa May 9, 2009 at 2:45 am

Of course over time we have added a few features that members requested/demanded, but KISS (keep it stimple, stupid) is still our motto. any time we do add a feature we ‘take the temperature’ of the community to see how it is received – and as many times as not, we’ve removed new features because members did not want/need/like them..

Greg May 10, 2009 at 7:08 pm

I do understand where you are coming from with this article, but how would you validate this with real examples?

After all the big communities like Facebook, MySpace, etc. are on a constant binge to update technology and features…

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 11, 2009 at 9:30 am

Greg – Firstly, I would ask whether Facebook and MySpace are real communities. Are new friendships and relationships being formed there, or do most people join those sites simply because existing friends are already members?

I don’t want to name specific sites as ‘bad practice’ examples, but I am sure you have come across online communities that have an overwhelming number of features that simply aren’t used. On the most basic level, I doubt that you have never come across a new forum with a huge number of forum categories, most of which have minimal content.

Cut back on anything that isn’t going to contribute to building relationships. Get rid of anything that isn’t being used. It’s just a distraction.

Greg May 11, 2009 at 10:41 am

Of course, Martin, I agree too much can cuase distraction. And the huge forums with endless categories can sometimes be a real killer without content. But I was just wondering how it could be related to the big boys. Sometimes applying rules or general theory can be difficult to apply to reality/practice.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 11, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Greg – Generally speaking, larger communities can get away with offering more features as they have a member base large enough to justify their inclusion.

Regardless of their size though, they should still be justifying every new addition. I would say that even Facebook and Myspace could do with cutting back on some of their features. But then, I don’t consider them to be real online communities.

Steve May 12, 2009 at 12:22 am

The funny thing is I was told on another “building an online community guide” to include loads of features for your subscribers. I do agree wholeheartedly with what you said “…a community is a place where people with similar interests come together. It is all too easy to get distracted by technology and lose focus on what really matters: people. Too many options can be confusing and distracting.” Us new marketers and new to online communities usually have to learn the hard way, through trial and error.

Jared O'Toole May 12, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Simple Simple Simple! Communities dont need lots of technology to keep them engaged. They need good content and a common mission. Technology often gets in the way. To many bells and whistles confuse members. Not everyone is tech savy or has the time to find out the best way to do things. Make it clear and let the community take over.

Nicole Price May 13, 2009 at 9:17 am

I quite agree. Facebook, Myspace etc are not communities. They have become transnational entities with ever expanding boundaries. The personal touch that community sites can deliver is missing in them.

Jeremy May 14, 2009 at 6:53 pm

I completely agree with your opinion that too many features can be a bad thing. Look at where Google got with offering the most simplistic user interface. Now they have changed strategies and are offering a lot more extra services. They have still kept the minimalistic design approach by hiding these features on other pages and in drop down menus.

bob May 21, 2009 at 11:23 am

I think there is trying things, and then there is OVERtrying features. Facebook etc have a good balance in general because they manage to maintain clarity and functionality. If ever a site becomes cluttered with ideas, links and features – a web user will run away. Not that web users can run away, but you catch my drift.

Robert Brown June 13, 2009 at 3:21 am

“Technology doesn’t encourage activity” I couldn’t agree more. If you don’t build a quality community, but have all the newest features, what good is that? No one will be there, and your community ( however much new technology you have ) will be dead. Some good pointers here.

Paul November 16, 2009 at 4:23 pm

When Facebook added a crazy amount of features, I stopped using it as much. Even today, I still dislike the large amount of apps which I get requests to join daily.

Roger December 5, 2009 at 12:21 pm

We have had quite success with our PHPBB 2 forum, build on a community which offers blog, galleries and such..

The blog and gallery are completely independent of the forum it self – they are standalone modules, on a different part of the community.

We offered from the beginning, both image and youtube galleri – the youtube galleri did not have any success, but the image gallery did…

Now, we are relaunching EVERYTHING! As “oursite” #2, with a new forum (PHPBB3), but the same features.. We have skipped the youtube-gallery this time.

But there is ONE NEW element I’m really looking forward to, and that is the Ultimate Points feature, which gives member the oportunity to “earn” “dollars” when starting new topics, posting and other things, such as uploading an attachment to their post.

These dollars can be spent in the weakly lottery we are planning. Each week we’ll draw a winner, and the winner is draw’n randomly – but only the members who have bought lotterytickets, will be able to join the contest. The winner gets (of course) a price.

They will also be able to do other things with these dollars – for instance buy themselfes place in our Buy/Sell forum (to prevent spamming of this) – only active and serious members can use our sale-forums.

What do you think about this? Is this too much? Anyone have anything to say about the “Ultimate Points”-mod for PHPBB3?

And also – all the other functions, like gallery, blog and such, are still not connected directly to the forum – this is still stand-alone modules in another part of our community.

Martin Reed - Community Manager December 9, 2009 at 6:30 pm

Roger – If certain features were popular before, by all means keep them and bring them back with the upgraded software. It’s good to see you are skipping the features that weren’t previously used – remember every feature is actually a distraction; they get in the way of people communicating with each another.

Be very careful about offering incentives and prizes for people to contribute – you’re effectively paying for contributions and it can damage your community. By all means, encourage some competition through a points system if you think it’s right for your community, but be very wary of giving away ‘real’ prizes.

Andrew Keir February 8, 2010 at 8:40 am

I hate “features” lol. So many sites with decent content are just surrounded by crap.

{ 6 trackbacks }