How to shut down an online community gracefully

by Venessa Paech October 20, 2020

Australian financial brand The Barefoot Investor made uncharacteristically unwelcome news earlier this year when it retired its membership program and closed its online community. Founder Scott Pape is launching a new offering that requires the change, but community members said they felt disrespected and left in the lurch about the way it was handled.

There are plenty of reasons an online community can end. All good things do. It might succeed in its original goal. It may no longer have access to the resources to run safely and effectively. The organisation hosting it may be shutting up shop itself.

But retiring a community is different from taking a website offline. In a hosted community, people have emotional and psychological investment. They have a sense of belonging and real relationships. The social contract extends beyond the transactional; especially if those members have helped the community thrive through their contributions. Trust is hard won and easily lost. A botched community closure can do lasting damage to a brand or organisation.

The following steps will help you shut down an online community with smarts and sensitivity.

Explain what’s happening
Believe it or not, sometimes an online community – or a platform that hosts multiple communities – evaporates from existence with no explanation.

Be honest and real. Explain what’s changing and why (as much as you can), in the channels people have come to expect messages from you.

Don’t risk the news getting lost. Highlight it and repeat it. If your community is small enough, reach out to people individually or call them.

Try seeding the news with influential members first. This helps you predict what questions or concerns may be raised, position your conversations and be ready with the support or solutions needed.

Early warning
Give your community as much warning as possible. Two or three months is ideal for an active or large community. You can’t always control this, but it’s something to fight for.

Give notice that allows time for questions and answers, for content download or preservation and, if there are strong ties and a shared emotional connection, exchanging goodbyes or contact details.

If your community is closing due to inactivity you won’t need to allocate as much time – a fortnight to a month should suffice – but maintain respectful and transparent communications, regardless of how many are listening.

Make it easy
Signing off shouldn’t be difficult for people. Whether it’s downloading content and assets, organising events or saying goodbyes, the business of community closure should be as frictionless as possible.

If any of these are too hard, it can be read as a lack of care or disrespect, risking reputational damage to you on top of a terrible experience for members. Your participants invested time, trust and in many cases, original contributions, to shape your community. Even if things haven’t gone according to plan, you owe them.

Respect the history
If your community has been around a while, it has a tangible, social history. You need to give people time to process the loss of what they had, and reflect on their journey within the community.

Use rituals and shared experiences aligned to the purpose of your community to help them process this and show your mutual respect.

Have them post memories, recaps or summaries of milestones and big moments.

Host a virtual event where they can socialise and reminisce. You might keep a ‘ghost’ site online if you can afford to, that encapsulates the former life of the community.

You can lead this process or get community members to run it. This lets them have influence and agency within a larger process they can’t control.

In some cases, community members may want to relocate to keep the relationships and benefits of the community alive.

Running communities takes training and hard work. But if your participants, especially your core members or users, would like to build on, or augment, your community, it’s worth considering how you could support them. You might want to maintain those relationships.

Offer help where needed
If someone missed the deadline and needs help to download their content or find information, give them a break wherever you can. If you’re running a community serving sensitive or high-risk topics, share relevant alternate resources for participants. Transition them with accountability.

If you’re lucky enough to have built a thriving community (even with hard work and all the right elements in place, it doesn’t always catch fire), you can’t afford to take its retirement lightly.

Quiip offers strategic advice and support across all stages of online community, whether that’s planning, launching, managing or retiring an online forum or group. Need help? Contact us for chat to discuss your options.