Many of us here are huge fans of a particular gaming studio who recently perpetrated, in my view, one of the worst forum migrations in recent memory. They went from one vendor to another, not Vanilla (unfortunately), and we just watched with horror. They broke all the fundamental rules of migration best practices, so I felt I had to share what happened and how they could have avoided it.
Consider the following as a tale of caution, regardless of which platform you choose for a migration. Following these tips will protect yourself and your community from a disaster. Once you break the trust of your community by mistreating them, it’s hard to gain that trust again.
Let’s jump in and review the good, the bad and the ugly of this recent migration.
The gaming studio made it clear to the community, several weeks prior to the switch, that it was coming. They spoke of the new community platform they had chosen. It built excitement as they assured everyone it addressed some of the community issues people had with the platform. There weren’t many specifics, beyond the platform chosen, and the date for the migration. Could they have done more? Sure, but at least it wasn’t a complete surprise they were switching. For this, I want to give them some credit.
Surprise platform changes are never fun for the people of your community - and thankfully they thought better than to make a switch without telling anyone.
The date for the shut down came and went. They made some vague references to things being harder than they considered. To me, this was a cryptic reference that proper research of the new vendor had not been done. As time moved on, it became obvious some issues had developed, and they were a direct result of not asking the proper questions of the new platform vendor.
Weeks and weeks passed without news about the new community. Then one day, the forums just went dark. Completely offline. No explanation. Several days later their social media accounts acknowledged the issue, but no ETA was given.
My heart sank. I knew this meant there was a major train wreck coming - I just didn’t know how bad it was going to be.
One day last week, almost 2 months since they announced the switch, I got an in-game message to join their new forum. To my horror, the following things occurred:
I was required to create a new account - all of my reputation and content was deleted
The community was a total ghost town. No guidelines, no content, no player guides - everything was gone
There was no apology/explanation from the community team
I can honestly say, this outcome disappointed me. Sure many companies make mistakes with migrations, but up to the point of this migration, I had found this studio did a pretty good job of community building and I was gobsmacked by how much of a train wreck this migration was.
Not only did the community re-launch without any content, but there were tons of bugs with the platform -- problems that could have been caught in a soft-launch or testing. These are things that have should all been done before telling everyone via email, in-game message and social media blasts to come on in! What a mess!
I'm not sure their online community will ever recover. I know they’ve lost me as a participant until they acknowledge and explain what happened and why. Even then, I don’t trust them to treat my contributions as something important, so I’d rather not waste my time. Judging by the activity in their forum a week later, I'm not alone.
How to avoid such a problem?
So even before the communication of the change, to me there seems to have been a major mistake in vendor selection. It looks like they tried to reduce their vendors at the expense of functionality. While I fully understand the idea of working with less vendors can be attractive, it should not be done without truly finding out if the vendor can make the transition smoothly.
For those of us looking from the outside, we had never seen a successful transition from their previous vendor to this new vendor. My colleagues and I watched carefully thinking maybe we had missed out that this was something they could do. Obviously, it we were right to be skeptical.
Now let’s consider how to avoid such a disaster in the future.
Know Thy Vendor
Don't be afraid to ask for references. This means asking for examples or talking to customers who made a similar transition. Don’t take their word for it. Ask them how they also handle your data should you also want to leave. In this case, imagine if you decide, at the end of your contract, to go to another vendor - you might have to start from scratch again.
Treat Your Community Respectfully
It’s easy to pay lip service to the idea of respect. It comes in actions. Be honest and open. If you think the content will not come to the new platform, then give people the opportunity to grab their information. If you decide to start anew, be respectful to your community and explain why.
A couple of years ago, CBR.com, decided to delete all their community content and restart. Now, while I do not agree with the reasons for doing this, I do respect how they managed the messaging. They gave people plenty of time to get their info out. They made it clear that the rules about toxicity would be enforced, and they communicated very thoroughly with the existing community. It made coming back to the new home something easier to do because I knew my contributions were welcome.
Over-communication with your community is so essential during a migration. You bring them along on the journey. Certainly, some people will always resist change no matter what, but you want the community on your side - and it’s much easier when people feel involved.
Give people credit too. If something goes wrong, the people of your community can handle the fact you goofed, for the most part, if you are honest and upfront from the beginning. Ignoring your audience, being mute to criticism or questions of ‘what happened’, is one sure way to show that you don’t respect your audience. Don’t be surprised if they never come back.
Don’t Be Caught Undressed When the Party Starts
Once you relaunch, if you are in a situation of a total restart, don’t have a blank community. At the very least there should have been a welcome message about the new community, some information about the new digs, how to create an account and some community guidelines.
If all the content is gone or lost, an apology and explanation is welcomed as well.
Finally, before you invite everyone to join your new community, do a soft launch. This means inviting trusted people, your mods or just your MVPs to test any functionality before the launch day.
For example, this gaming studio had launched a forum where everyone had the same username, so posters had to resort to adding their names to the end of their posts. This is something that could have simply been fixed before they launched.
Mistakes happen and it’s important to own them with your community. People help you build your community and you need to trust them as mature individuals to share when things don’t go as planned. Be open and communicative. Don't be shy to share your migration journey, as transparency will make things so much easier. And should a fiasco ever happen, you’re likely to have their support and help, as opposed to adding to your stress by being attacked by the community you've built with patience and care.