When members want to leave your online community

by Martin Reed on 9 February 2009 in Articles

leaving online community

Sometimes we can be so focussed on community building that when a member of our online community asks to leave, we end up stumped. How should you react when someone wants to leave your community? Should you immediately honour their request? Should you allow them to bid the community a public farewell? There are many issues that arise when members tell you they want to leave – this article will explore them.

An opportunity not to be wasted

If a member of your online community contacts you and asks for their account to be closed, you should see an opportunity. Yes, it’s a blow that someone wants to leave the community, but because they took the time to contact you, you have the opportunity to find out why they want to leave. Was it something you did? Is there something wrong with the site? Are they being bullied? Find out why that member wants to leave, and see if you can resolve the situation. On many occasions, you’ll be able to address the problem. Not only will you have fixed an issue that may be a problem for other members, you’ve kept hold of a member. It doesn’t matter how many members your online community has, every member counts and hanging on to just one of them is a victory.

Reasons why members leave online communities

Functionality: Parts of your site may be downright frustrating to use. People can only tolerate frustration for so long. After losing a 1,000 word post for the third time in a row because the post buttons are confusing or misleading, I think most of us would throw in the towel. Just because something looks good and sounds good, it doesn’t mean it is good.

Don’t use technology just for technology’s sake. Only incorporate features that your community wants to use, and even then make them as simple to use and as easy to understand as possible. Too many communities are far too complex and unintuitive.

Abuse: Nobody wants to be a member of a community if they are repeatedly victimised and bulled. Your community may have a fantastic atmosphere, and overall be very friendly. From time to time though, you’ll always get a few bad apples and you need to deal with them. Remember – abuse may be taking place in private. Even so, if it is taking place in your community, you need to address it. Furthermore, make sure you aren’t being the abusive member. Make sure you aren’t bombarding your members with messages every day, encouraging them to get involved. Don’t spam. Don’t put pressure on your members. You can’t force community.

Relevancy: Sometimes, your online community may simply no longer be relevant to some of your members. Your community may be based around conception methods. You might lose some members once they fall pregnant. Your challenge is to make your community relevant to members after their original objectives have been met. Encourage that member to remain and offer advice – give them some status and authority.

My procedure for when community members wish to leave

Here is how I react when I receive an email from a member who wishes to leave.

Firstly, I thank them for contacting me (most members will simply vanish – you should be grateful they are telling you they want to leave). I ask them why they want to leave, and outline the procedure should they wish to proceed with closing down their account, and wait to hear back from them.

Sometimes, members will ‘see red’ over a seemingly innocent comment made in your community and in their fury demand their account be deleted. Always wait 24 hours before honouring these requests, and always seek confirmation after this ‘cooling down’ period.

If the member responds and I am unable to address the problem that is responsible for making them want to leave (this is rare), then I will follow the account closure procedure as I previously outlined to them. The exact procedure depends on exactly what the member wants me to do. If possible, I will simply suspend the account so it cannot be logged into and remove the member’s profile information and email address. The member’s content will remain, and it will be associated with their member name.

If the member isn’t happy with this, I will offer to change the member name associated with the content so their posts aren’t identifiable as theirs. At a very last resort, I will delete their content if they insist upon this. I hate to do this though, as you are not only losing valuable content, you are also potentially making all existing discussions that member was involved in unintelligible and incoherent. This damages the community.

Farewell, my friends

An additional issue crops up when members decide they want to make their exit public. They may decide to start a ‘farewell’ post, telling members they are leaving and why. Dealing with these posts can be a challenge. If members are leaving because they aren’t happy, there is a risk that the thread could turn negative. If the member was a dividing influence in your community, any farewell thread will undoubtedly attract negative comments, as well as words of support from those that saw the member as a friend. Now you are faced with a thread that is potentially divisive to your community and will be even more damaging than the loss of one member.

You need to treat these situations on a case-by-case basis. You shouldn’t tell a member that wants to leave that they aren’t allowed to say goodbye to the community. That’s a little unfair – particularly if they were a valuable contributor in the past. Allow them to say goodbye, but keep a close eye on the thread. Don’t allow any negativity or abuse to creep in – enforce your community guidelines as you would with any other discussions. After a week or so, consider closing or removing the discussion – your members have had their say, the member has left and there is no point dwelling on the past.

Get over it and look to the future

Losing a member is a tough blow, but you need to move on and take what you have learnt from the loss. A community shouldn’t be reliant on one or two members. It should be strong enough to survive even your most valuable member leaving. Try your hardest to keep every single one of your members, but accept that sometimes you will lose a few and there is nothing you can do to stop them leaving.

How do you respond when members ask for their account to be closed?

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Amish February 10, 2009 at 7:42 am

My initial reaction was to ask why bother? If someone wants to go, let her go.

This was based on my personal experience with a couple of communities where I became uncomfortable as they were not contributing anything to my need for an online community. On reflection however, I find that had they done what you say you do, perhaps with a bit of give and take, I may have just stayed on.

Sally February 10, 2009 at 5:46 pm

I think just ask them first why they are leaving. But then let them go. I think in many instances the mods and admin of that site already know what the problem is. They have either already tried to fix it or simply do not care much about that particular member, and so let them go.

But I feel, in my opinion every member who is determined to leave is a red flag of warning. Even though on the surface it may seem there are endless online communities that person can pick and choose from, people tend to want to stay with what’s familiar. So if you have a member at the six-month mark wanting to leave, I don’t think they have made that decision lightly.

You can try and persuade them to stay–to give it one more go. But if the problems they are upset about are not resolved, you run the risk of them agreeing to stay and then the tension only builds up more–they blow up and end up getting banned or getting infractions.

Don’t ever expect a member to stay if there is bullying going on behind the surface and you’ve done little to really stop it. This kind of thing is increasing more and more on many online communities. It’s not an easy thing to fix. But let them go. There are more than you would imagine who leave in frustration and keep watch for months secretly, hoping to able to come back in when/if the problems are fixed. You may not have lost them permanantly.

Richard Millington February 11, 2009 at 6:35 am

I think we can distinguish between different types of leavers here.

There are those that are driven out from the inside. This includes people that leave because of spam, bullying, fighting or things that have a huge detriment to them enjoying the community. These people are most likely to delete their accounts.

There are those that are pulled out. This is when external life factors (e.g. new baby) or other ways to spend the time (television/rival communities) are the focus. These people probably wont delete their accounts. But they might let people know they wont be around much anymore.

Finally, there are people that fade away. This is by far the most common. People that just generally lost interested in the community over time – it’s not exciting enough for them. They usually leave their accounts open too.

Finally, there are those that just fade away

Nicole Price February 11, 2009 at 9:55 am

I can see how a ‘leaver’ can be seen as an opportunity to find out what went down. But i think few people would give notice of their intention to leave, most simply disappear, or slink away whatever.

Edward February 12, 2009 at 10:51 am

Great tips. Online or Offline, you have to treasure the few who do speak up (something like 90% of unhappy customers don’t tell the business). Even if that relationship can’t be saved, there’s a lot to be learned from their parting words.

Tom February 13, 2009 at 7:55 pm


But seriously, nothing I can really add here, Martin’s covered everything. I always PM anyone who wishes to leave and I ask them if I’ve done something wrong with the community or if there’s a problem they’re having with other users, and I talk to them about it.

I’ve retained many users through coming down to their level and talking to them.

For example, a few months ago a female user wanted her account deleted. She’d been dating one of the male regulars, he’s dumped her, and she no longer felt comfortable on the site. Paranoid there was gossip etc etc. (Chat room soap drama eh?? Get it in every site!).

I must have chatted to her for at least 3 hours back & forth in PM. She decided to stay, but only on the forum as he doesn’t use the forums.

After two weeks when things had calmed down, she went back into the chat room and re-integrated right away with no problems.

Had I just left it and ignored her.. I’d be one loyal regular down.

trl February 14, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Great post on a great blog. Thank you.

I found this site last night, as I was debating leaving a forum where I’ve been an active member for more than 6 years. I’ve never moderated or admin’ed, but from a member’s (and now forum leaver’s) perspective you hit the nail right on the head. Everything you say, is everything I’ve been trying to convey to the leadership of that forum all that time. Your list of things moderators shouldn’t do makes me think you’ve been lurking on that site and taking what-not-to-do notes. They’re not listening, they’re not going to listen, they don’t care that I’m leaving (and most likely bringing friends with me, based on PM’s and Facebook messages I’ve been receiving), and it’s time for me to cut my losses. But I appreciate finding things like this out there, to let me know that I’m not crazy in wanting to be treated like a human being–an adult human, even!–in an online community.

Mr Woc February 15, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Hi there

Yeah most of it is covered here, If someone wants to leave our chat we always ask why, and see if we can resolve any issues, a lot of the time i find it is possible to get people to stay if you can find out what their initial problem is.


Frank J February 17, 2009 at 4:08 pm

This is an absolute bookmark for any community manager. Thank you for sharing!

Tom February 17, 2009 at 4:16 pm

TRL – remember that you are always important when signing up to a community forum.

After all, without members, the owner has no community.

jennifer March 2, 2009 at 9:10 pm

My initial reaction is that of Amish’s…..good riddance. However, I think that the “cooling off” period of 24 hours is worth implementing. A lot can happen in that time; if not, then the relationship ends.

MarkM March 6, 2009 at 6:22 am

I like Richard M’s comment about the three types of leaver. The worrying thing about having people who just fade away is that they may not be able to offer you a reason why they left when you ask them. You could a problem with indifference in the community and not be aware of it until it is too late.

Ken Fink March 21, 2009 at 1:04 pm

There are lot many reasons why it might happen. One obvious is escalation in the quality of the service and content provided by the competitor. When there are better community out there which provide better things, attention towards our community comes down automatically

Paul Contris May 7, 2009 at 11:19 am

Yes, this is a prime opportunity to improve the community. You can really quiz the person who desires to leave. Reflect upon the answers and then turn this into action if needed. This can be a real boost to the community by constant improvement.

You can even display what changes will be made to the community directly onto a negative post. The person that desires to leave will be monitoring the farewell post and may decide to stay based on your response.

Shawn July 2, 2009 at 10:27 am

If you get contacted you’re lucky. My users tend to vent their frustrations in the threads, kind of the nature of an off topic forum though.

Edwina August 26, 2009 at 8:42 am

Just wanted to say thanks for this post. I just had to respond to a message by a user who requested to have their account deleted, and your advice helped me draft a good reply (I hope).

Simon Hayward January 24, 2010 at 7:25 pm

My thought would be to have an auto emailer when someone unsubscribes or closes their account with a Survey asking why they are leaving, how can we improve etc. and thereby get feedback on how you can improve your community.