Divesting yourself of an online community you started from scratch, and built up to over 100,000 members, is an interesting experience. A lot goes through your mind leading up to the realization that it’s time to move on, and all along the way through the transition to new ownership (if you even go that direction).
I would know, having recently transferred ownership of the Google Plus for Small Business community (on Google+) to someone new; she wasn’t even part of the existing team of moderators. But the process shed a lot of good insight on how to go about this transition in a way that benefits everybody, including the members.
I’d like to share my experience with the hope that you can be better prepared for building (and ultimately exiting) the communities you build online.
Reminder: This is Rented Space
First, a reminder that building any community using social media, apps, or third party websites (yes, even Inbound.org) means subjecting yourself and your members to the rules, and viability, of those platforms. What’s this mean?
- Always include email capture as part of the community architecture.
- Develop a plan and process for backing up or republishing original and curated content.
- Understand what will happen to the content if the community gets shut down or deleted.
- Consider a multi-channel approach so you can cross-promote, curate, and inform your audience on each channel about happenings on the others. It’s also a safeguard against tech issues.
Why Start a Community on Social Media?
There are many reasons to use social media as a venue for your online community. Two that come to mind are that they’re typically free and have built-in discovery for users on those channels. I started the Google Plus for Small Business community around March/April 2013 (Google+ introduced Communities in December 2012) for a variety of reasons, all with a business focus:
- Influence – I was building my personal brand as an influencer for business-focused Google+ strategies, and this was the type of community that could potentially attract leads for that, as well as my web marketing business, Shovi Websites (side note: the main reason a business would get involved on Google+ was to feed Google more information about its business and areas of expertise, which in theory could impact their visibility in search.)
- Semantic Relevance – A community centered around Google+, which was owned by my business page, which was verified by Google (because I connected the page to my website), would theoretically create a lot of semantic and topical relevance for the keywords related to Google+ marketing and business.
- Content – Questions from members would be good seeds for blog posts and microcontent about Google+ and business, which could then get shared across the platform, building more visibility for the community, and my brand.
Where I Went Wrong (and an important sidebar)
Look at my reasons, and look at the part about Rented Space. See a disconnect? Right, I had no exit strategy. In fact, my community was really never meant to live beyond Google+, and this will become a challenge later in this story.
What’s more, I created a community about the platform on which it was hosted. This is a brilliant idea if you are looking to become a product expert, and want to speak at conferences about that product, or get listed on all those “Top X Influencers You Should Follow On…” blog posts. To an extent, when building up your personal brand, you need a little bit of this kind of celebrity, and a big product-focused community is a great feather in your cap for that. But, it pigeonholes you as you’ll see later in the story.
From a monetization standpoint, my options were sponsorships outside the community or to simply leverage the fact this thing had grown to over 100,000 members…surely, if I could do that, I knew my stuff when it came to Google+ and business? If I’d had an info-product, training course, or some other scalable service, then the combination of this large community and the personal branding/celebrity it brought would have helped make me a lot of money.
Which it did. In 2014 I published an eBook series on Amazon called Google+ Pro Tips. Pulling from the celebrity/product expert sidebar above, the community was a fantastic way to get the books more exposure and sales, and grow an email list.
Realizing it was time to move on
The Google Plus for Small Business community is one of the premiere business focused G+ communities. Another is Plus Your Business! which shifted to a different model about a year ago; owner Martin Shervington was way ahead of me on that one, and to his credit, because his community thrived as it grew, while mine…well…
Anyway, between the two communities you could get all the business-focused Google+ advice you needed. For the first 50,000 or so members, mine was blessed with great discussion, solid resources, and hardly any spam thanks to Google’s spam algorithm. But the numbers caught up to us, as did the maturation and shifting of Google+ as a platform.
As the news and tips about Google+ started to dwindle, we had less to post and curate. Businesses weren’t asking questions, but the popularity of the community earned it a spot on the suggested list for lots of new accounts. You see where this is going: enter the spam, to the tune of 100+ posts a day being flagged by the Google algorithms. Moderation became a chore, and the community wasn’t progressing.
Plus, honestly, I was just too busy to continue working on this project with no upside. Lead quality was nil for the type of clients my company seeks to attract. As I said earlier, I pigeonholed myself into the Google+ subject matter, so my core focus of email marketing and web strategy weren’t even services I’d be able to promote to the members.
The latest round of updates to Google+ forced me to de-list my eBooks (too much had changed), and let’s be honest, most marketing circles scoff at Google+, so my personal brand reputation could take a hit if I was leading with that (a big thank-you to Britt Michaelian’s Mass Amplify podcast for giving me the stage to talk about this transition, and show people there was more to me than the Google+ expertise I’d become known for over the previous three years).
So yeah, I realized it was time to do something…but what to do?
- Hand over the reins to the existing moderators? They had more potential business to gain from ownership control, but neither was as active as I needed them to be to combat spam and raise the value back to where it was. But I approached both of the active mods out of respect and to confirm my hunch.
- Delete it outright? Original posts may be lost, and from a branding/legacy standpoint it made no sense.
- Find a new owner? Hmmm, but that might mean staying on board to do a transition. Still it was the best option.
The choice: find a new owner
Taking over this community would be no easy task; there was post volume and member growth that needed constant attention. I was still faced with the issue of Google+’s lack of tips and feature releases to share into the community. But there was an angle: we have a lot of local businesses asking questions about their Google+ page, which is tied to their Google Maps listing (also known as Google My Business). I knew some product experts in that field, so at the very least, bringing on new mods would be a step toward improving the caliber of support and discussion within the community. Plus, a slight shift toward local business would open up more options for content sharing.
And then came Linda Buquet: a seasoned local SEO professional who ran one of the best Google+ communities I’ve been a part of. When I approached her about becoming a moderator (while I figured out how I wanted to divest of this thing) she picked up on where I was headed with the request, and asked if I was looking to move on. When she heard my answer, we changed the discussion to how she could take ownership of the community.
Linda’s goal, to her credit, was approaching the community in a way that would, with time and resources, squash nearly all the spam, as well as the incentive to join for the purpose of spamming. It would take about two weeks for a team of six to get and stay ahead of the spam and new member queues. In the meantime, the mod team would be highly engaged in all new posts and start to encourage more members to subscribe to notifications of new posts within the community. This type of transition, with a community of this size, could take up to six months or more to reach a stabilized level, where the moderators won’t have to feel like they’re still re-training members about what the community expects. But the payoff will be highly-engaged, highly-targeted content that translates to leads and networking opportunities.
Um, can someone say “perfect fit!!”
And my involvement during this transition period? I’m still an owner, although my role is more of an advisory one to the mod team. Most aren’t familiar with Google+ so members asking questions about G+ will still get the benefit of an answer from the community owner. It looks good and builds confidence within the community, while eliminating my need to stress out about spam and member requests. When the time is right, I’ll simply downgrade myself to a regular member and enjoy the content and networking that Google+ communities are so great for.
The concept of legacy
So here we are, nearing the end of the line, ready to transition and move on to new networks and communities where I’ll have to build myself back up. Honestly, it is kind of deflating to have to turn your back on such a notable achievement; but how does one capture it without sounding self-aggrandizing?
Finding the perfect new owner to carry (and improve) on my original vision was a big step toward reconciling this last piece, and again, I can’t thank Linda Buquet and her team enough. We worked together on how to position the announcement so it was all about how the community would benefit, then we’d just let our actions speak louder than the words ever could.
I decided that I needed two key pieces of content to be my mementos and legacy of a job well done, and chapter closed.
First, my share of Linda’s announcement post into the community, which included personal feelings and a short explanation of my new direction. This would also give me another chance to close the loop with any community members who had not realized the shift I’d made in my business.
Second? This post, actually. An informative but personal recount of my intent, strategy, execution, and exit, with lessons learned and another opportunity to keep a tie to the community I’ve left behind. Thanks to Inbound.org for hosting it 🙂
From here, I feel like I’ve closed all the loops, and have a reference to point people to when talking about this experience. It’s okay to say goodbye.
Takeaways for communities in general
Whether you are going to start your own community, or just get heavily involved in one, I hope my experience can help you identify:
- How your involvement translates to your personal and/or business growth.
- What factors or signals might indicate it’s time to move on.
- How you will handle transition and legacy so your experience won’t be something you look back on and say, “wow, that was a waste of time.”
Epilogue – something to listen to
After originally publishing this post, I had the opportunity to share the story on a daily podcast called A Slice a Day. The host, Mark Tennant, broke it down into two episodes because we covered so much. If you’re the listening type, enjoy!
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