Warning: Online communities are resistant to change

by Martin Reed on 24 November 2008 in Articles

Change in online communities

Don’t be fooled into thinking that successful online commuities are those that continuously innovate, introduce new features on a regular basis and constantly redesign to keep up with current trends. The most successful online communities are those that are different from the outset, and stick with what works. If you want to forge a strong online community, you need to be resistant to change – your members certainly are.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it

Your online community should include the features you want from the outset. It should have the design you want from the outset and it should be seeded with the kind of content and members you want to have from the outset. The people that make up your community are more important than anything else. You would be surprised at just how easy your members are to please if you focus on your community rather than your site’s design and features. Your community is your priority – not installing a new AJAX interface or changing your forum software.

If your community includes passionate members that are interacting and engaging with your content, why risk upsetting them by changing things? Your members know that the community is the most important aspect of your site – it’s time you did, too. If your community is buzzing, don’t change anything.

At times, change may be impossible to avoid. Perhaps the software you used is no longer supported. In these cases, change is necessary. Just make sure you involve your members in the process.

Members of online communities need to feel empowered

Your members should feel a sense of shared ownership over your community. They invest a lot of time and effort into making your community successful and you need to recognise this by involving them in your decision making. If you feel that a site redesign is an absolute necessity, ask your members if they agree. Give them a link to a live example of any new software you are thinking of introducing and ask them for their opinion.

When you ask for feedback, don’t forget to listen. You may not agree with what some (or all) of your members are telling you, but you need to consider their opinions. Never forget that without your members, you don’t have an online community. Your members know best, all 99% of the time.

Get it right first time around

Although your site will never be perfect, from the start it should be pretty close. The content in your online community should reflect the quality you want your site to be known for. The posts should reflect the personality you want to develop for your site. The software you use should be scalable and flexible. Get the foundations right, from the start. Plan for the long term.

Humans are creatures of habit and routine. We get up at a similar time every day, have our cup of tea or coffee, walk the same route to/from work, meet friends in the same places and go to the same pubs and restaurants. How many times do you hear your friends say how nice that new building down the road is? How many times do you hear your friends tell you how much nicer the new $20 bills are compared to the old ones? Most people don’t like change. It can be frustrating and it can make you feel uncomfortable.

I have covered the wrong way to redesign an online community before, yet I see developers of online communities still making the same mistakes. Change is the worst thing you can introduce to an online community. Slow, gradual evolution can be positive – as long as you consult your members. Introduce radical change at your own peril. I am not just talking about design or functionality: if you decide to change your site’s rules, you may create friction and tension in your online community. If you suddenly bring in an army of moderators when there were none before, you will create a stir. If you suddenly spend thousands on an advertising campaign that brings in hundreds of new members in a few days you will upset the balance of your community.

Remember – baby steps. Easy does it. Change little. Focus solely on your members, not the website. If you must pursue change, make sure you involve your members.

What do you think? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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{ 21 comments }

Dan Thornton November 24, 2008 at 10:51 pm

Great post, which echoes much of what I wrote about recently – what I call ‘the supermarket effect’. Basically, it’s what happens when you’ve consulted and empowered your community, you’ve given the chance to try a Beta, and you’ve listened to all the feedback.

And when you launch a change, you still get complaints!

At the end of the day, people will always experience the same supermarket effect as when we go to buy the shopping and everything has been moved. Even if the end result is better for us, our first response is still to start complaining about change and not being able to find the bread or milk.

Slow and gradual is definitely a good way to manage the shock of change and minimise the Supermarket Effect!

AlisonM November 25, 2008 at 7:48 am

Great post Martin, I agree wholeheartedly with the main premise that members are resistant to change.

I have one point though about getting it right the first time – many companies spend too much time worrying about having the community complete with bells & whistles and this prevents them from simply launching it (and can make the site too confusing). I think successful communities launch with a minimal feature set (but flexible scalable features as mentioned). But you are right when you say gradual changes are the way to go… so I think this can apply here too.

I also have a question! I agree that consultation with the members is vital but how do you explain that you are making changes to attract new members and increase forum activity? I am hesistant because members are loyal and feel ownership and don’t like to think of us as a business, so they often can’t think beyond what they personally prefer – which of course is everything staying the same! In this situation I’m not sure 99% are right!

Thanks & sorry for the long post ;)

Amish November 25, 2008 at 1:28 pm

With my experience as an user I can vouch for one factor and that is an aversion to change of any kind once I am used to a particular sequence to follow in using the community’s features. It is therefore necessary to keep the changes to the minimum and if at all needed do it democratically by explaining why it is needed and how the change will improve usage.

Thorb November 25, 2008 at 5:27 pm

I agree about the claim that change isn’t what I want. But there are some situations where you will have to make the change, but in these cases I usually take a lot of time to introduce it slowly and let the members test it out on a beta-section. This will usually also help with getting the chinks out, and the members may have the possibility to feel that they have been a part of the whole process.

Nicole Price November 27, 2008 at 4:35 pm

Human being are indeed creatures of habit and also creatures who find comfort in habit and in familiarity. That is probably the main reason why most people are resistant to change and perhaps even view it with suspicion.

Ed Hardy November 27, 2008 at 8:38 pm

This reminds me of the book “who moved my cheese?” People are naturally resistant to change. So many people wanted to ban the “new” facebook look b4 it went live. I think if you open up the discussion of changes to the users it shows you care and value their opinion and allow the site to move forward at the same time.

Smiley November 28, 2008 at 12:24 am

In the words of any good Yorkshireman;

“Change is NOT good”

I had a go at the builders for getting rid of the old wired fuse box because I hate the new switch one. Sure, it’s easier to use. But I miss taking the fuse out and rewiring it myself and plugging it back in.

So if you change the navigation links or the pages on your site, people will say similar. “I prefered clicking on the left to get into the chat, instead of the top”,

I’ve given the forums a little Christmas look for now but that was mainly user-called. I wanted to keep it the same because it’s just too much hassle to change it and change it all back. The users won. lol

Mr Woc November 28, 2008 at 6:06 pm

Hi there

I dont entirely agree with all thats said maybe ive not read it correctly, I think change is a good thing if implimented correctly, I agree with the statement if it aint broke dont fix it.

But there is always room for improvement, its important to listen to your users and also try not to upset them, but if I thought like that all the time my sites would never change.

From my experiance people will always moan what ever you do, if you change it people will moan, if you dont change things they will still moan, you have to do what you think will be best for your community and its users !

Im contiuallly changing and altering my sites, and thinking of new ideas and implimenting them, some work and some dont, if it doesnt i change it.

Woc

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 29, 2008 at 12:43 am

Dan – Thanks for your comment. I love the analogy; it really is annoying when supermarkets change everything around. I am not convinced they do it to make things better or easier for us, though – rather, I think they want us to see products we wouldn’t normally see in the hope that we will make new purchases. From a similar stanpoint, this is another reason why some people change websites – to put under-utilised features under the noses of visitors.

Alison – Thanks for your kind comment. I agree that some companies are so desperate to get onto the community bandwagon and beat the competition when it comes to features and design that the community spends too much time in development and becomes overly complex.

As for your question, I am not sure what you mean. If you want to explain the reason behind intended changes, be honest with your members. If you think the change will attract new members and increase forum activity, tell them that and ask them if they think the changes will have the positive effect you are after. Remember, you don’t want to make changes that attract new members if you end up alienating your existing ones – they are the foundation of your community.

Amish – Thanks for your comment; it is definitely important to keep your members ‘in the loop’ when it comes to any intended changes.

Thorb – I agree; if you are planning huge changes then running a beta version is a good idea – as long as you get members to participate and give you constructive feedback.

Nicole – I agree!

Ed – The Facebook change is a great example, and I am now kicking myself for not mentioning it in this article! The Facebook redesign was huge, and came as something of a surprise to most members – hence their initial rejection and hesitation to accept it. Of course, most members will complain but continue to use the site – but surely it is better to avoid the complaints in the first place?

As for the book – I have never heard of it; I will be looking it up now…

Smiley – Festive changes are often an entirely different ball game as users know they are only temporary and they are just a bit of fun. However, even radical seasonal changes could upset some members!!

Mr Woc – I didn’t say change in itself is bad; you just need to be aware that most community members are resistant to it; even if you think the changes will benefit them! If you make user-requested changes, then of course change can be a good thing. In any case, you should always be tweaking and improving your website – small tweaks are far better than frequent, over-arching changes.

Nicole Price December 1, 2008 at 5:21 pm

I really like this about your blog Martin, how you take time to be part of a discussion and acknowledge comments with a response. :)

Amish December 2, 2008 at 3:12 pm

Thanks Martin. Your response has come as a surprise!

Randy Brown December 3, 2008 at 10:19 pm

When i first read this a few days ago, i thought “bah!”.. i’ve made several changes to my community and my ~15,000 members handled them just fine.. Then last night just before i went to bed, i made a (minor) change, forcing all forum replies to be listed “flat”, instead of nesting – the intent was to make reading forum topics easier..

I woke up this morning to near anarchy! The community hated the change and were resentful that they were ‘forced’ to view forum topics this new way.. and they were VERY vocal about it.

I had to quickly swallow my pride and and undo the change, and “allow” them to view this way if they choose, instead of ‘forcing’ them..

Airex December 5, 2008 at 2:30 pm

I like that you pointed out the contributors and member of the online community should be part of the overall decision making process. Its so true because it doesnt help when you have been part of something for so long and they tend not to listen to your thoughts and consider you trivial.

Its a little insulting.

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 5, 2008 at 11:16 pm

Nicole – I think it would be rude to ignore peoples’ comments! Glad you appreciate my responses ;)

Amish – A surprise? I reply to all your comments!

Randy – I guess you got lucky on your changes up to that point. Make a mistake (like you seem to have done) and it doesn’t take much for the community to turn on you!

Have you now changed your policy when it comes to site changes? Or will you run the gauntlet again in the future?

Thanks for sharing!

Airex – Of course they should be involved; after all, without your members you wouldn’t have an online community! If members don’t feel valued and listened to, they won’t develop a bonding relationship with the community – this makes you more prone to competitors taking them away from you.

Niller December 7, 2008 at 6:53 pm

I agree that online community members are quite resistant to change especially if the system modification or community policy will restrict them from accessing certain features in the online community and so it is essential to have the members be involved or at least notified about the changes as early as possible.

Luther December 12, 2008 at 11:06 pm

Facebook is definitely the subject of scrutiny everytime they release changes to their interface or platform. They have made two or three significant interface enhancements which really do improve usability and presentation of data and a lot of people balked when the releases were first forced on them but they soon became acquainted to the changes and liked them. User interface testing and QA is pretty important for this. As long as you take the time to properly test an enhancement, true problems will be minimized.

Shawn July 2, 2009 at 10:45 am

The truth you speak; I recently just did some navigation changes to make a few processes easier and more accessible. Oh man it wasn’t 2 days later that I had to revert some because people were complaining literally about 2 items being spaced about 15px apart when they were previously about 5px. Users can be THAT picky! Sometimes I’d like to take the users that appreciate the changes and the ones that don’t and put them into a big pit to battle it out, because something that small can literally split the board opinion wise.

Chris November 6, 2009 at 4:39 pm

We’re upgrading our forums to vBulletin4 soon from v3, quite a dramatic change at first glance.
However, the basics of communication remain the same, so hopefully it shouldn’t be too daunting…
“27. Change your community rarely”. We’ve been on the “old” system since 2003, I think we probably qualify for a new lick of paint? :)

Agents of Change February 10, 2010 at 4:17 pm

That’s a picture of our band’s sticker! Check out our music at http://www.agents-of-change.com. Political hip-hop/punk/funk from Chicago, IL.

Martin Reed - Community Manager February 11, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Agents of Change – I don’t normally allow promotional comments, but as a nod to your sticker design I’ll let this one stand!

Tom February 11, 2010 at 8:04 pm

This is quite the old article, but my comment fits in perfectly here.

My users seem to be the exception to this rule on this occasion. Through-out November & December I advertised ‘The New Decade’. “2010, with a new era, comes great change..”

Bashing the idea into people’s heads that change is good in the wake of 2010.

..And they sure loved the change. They’ve embraced the change with open arms, loved it. Change was needed. We needed to evolve, all the regulars have pitched in and thanks to them the modernized, improved FC now has 1,000 users who have registered, 700 who have approved their registrations, a good majority who have filled out their profiles and login regularly to check their PM’s, add friends, play on the games.

Right now I’m working on improving the forums & chat rooms then will advertise them more to get people in.

Took a week’s break so I don’t burn out. Over the weekend going to carry on improving the site.

On this occasion, change has been very good – for users and site alike!

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