Making Community Changes Without Pain
By Sanya Weathers
That title is somewhat inaccurate. Communities hate change, and it is impossible to make a change without at least some pain, even if the new thing (a better forum software package, clearer rules, lower barriers to entry) is ultimately beneficial. If your community was currently being dragged from place to place in a wooden box lined with broken glass, and you told them you were going to replace the box with a hovercar lined with fur, you would have to pry half of them out of the box with a crowbar. And some of them will be complaining years from now that riding in the box built character, and fur makes them sneeze.
But you can do quite a bit to make the process smoother. As with all things, it comes down to knowing your community and managing their expectations.
– No surprises. Knowing that people will complain is no excuse to keep them in the dark. Tell them that the change is coming, roughly two or three weeks before it is scheduled to occur. (Any sooner, and something will go wrong causing you to miss the date. Any later isn’t enough time to make the mental adjustment.)
– Recognize what is working. The reason your community exists is because you’re doing something right. Have you stopped to analyze what is working, in your rush to correct things that are not? If you don’t know what’s working, you don’t know what your users are afraid to lose. If you can’t figure it out, ask them – and reassure them that the thing they value most won’t be compromised. (And if you’re going to compromise it… don’t, unless you’re sure the change will bring you new people you will value more than the old people.)
– Clearly communicate what will be better. This is such a no brainer, but so many companies skip this part. People like to know what’s going on, and they want to know what’s in it for them. By the way, it’s okay to tell people what’s in it for you – trying to sell a change by saying it’s solely for the benefit of the customer is doomed to fail. No one would believe you. Be straight with people.
– Protect their investments. Your customers have invested a lot of time in you. What is the visible evidence of that investment? Post count? Image files? A signup date? Accumulated rep points, currency, achievement badges? Whatever it is, you need to show respect for their time and be sure that any new system takes it all into account.
– Obey Murphy’s Law. That is, be prepared to obey it. Something will go wrong. And you will fix it. Your technical people have some idea as to what is most likely to break. Let the customers know what those things might be, and reassure them in advance that the breaks will be temporary.
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