Users leaving your community is tough. Tough and inevitable. It’s hard not to take it personally when well-known faces in the crowd disappear, never to be seen again. In serious cases, a mass exodus can mean the death of your community, or at least cause damage that seems irreparable. I’ve fallen victim to this as much as anyone, perhaps more, so hopefully my experiences will help shed some light on why it happens and how to mitigate the problems it can cause.
In a way, we're starting with a false premise. Forums are like the Hotel California, you can log out any time you like but you can never leave. What I mean by leaving is simply deciding not to visit any more. This isn't a bad thing. Sometimes your users will move on in their lives, get a new job, a new baby, a new Volkswagen, and simply not have time to hang around in their old internet haunts anymore. An unfortunate variant on this is the "This Place Used To Be Cool" effect, where a user blames this gradual and natural growing apart as the fault of the community, and loudly proclaims that everything is terrible now and should go back to how it was in "The Old Days". They may even be really specific about what the changes are. On very, very rare occasions, they may be right. In my decade (excuse me while I take a moment to contemplate my ancient bones) of looking after communities, I've seen dozens, maybe hundreds of users say this, and they're generally saying it about a forum that hasn't changed significantly in any other way. I wouldn't worry about or try and avoid this effect. It's a natural thing for any community. The only time it becomes a problem is when the natural loss of users over time isn't being replaced with fresh input.
The real worry is crisis point losses; a single event that causes a user/users to log out and stay out. These are tricky because they require you to exercise judgment about whether or not said incident was preventable, and crucially whether it should have been prevented. These crisis points can be many things, some forseeable and some not. Some that spring to mind in my personal experience are rule changes, the locking of forum institutions, abuse from users, abuse from moderators (ouch), changes in forum software (stick with Vanilla, obviously. We're the best. But if you have a different software, change it to Vanilla. You'll be fine, honestly), administrative judgments... any number of things really. These aren't always small affairs. I've seen massive forumer exoduses, where dozens of forumers trooped off to start their own boards in response to something I'd done. More than I can count on one hand in fact. I might even have to take my socks off.
My attitude to this might be surprising: it really isn't always a bad thing. This might be blasphemous to the contemporary culture of User Retention At All Costs, but sometimes users should leave. If you were running a bar, you wouldn't doubt that there would be awful drunks and obnoxious customers among your regulars who you'd secretly like to see patronise some other unfortunate bar. You would probably even understand that those very same customers are likely to be putting off newer, more fragrant customers. You'd offset the loss of custom against the likelihood of new custom and the general improving of the atmosphere. We all understand that landlords across the land routinely hurl out unpleasant people, or make the place less welcoming to the same end, whether they buy a lot of booze or not. This applies just as much to online communities, and the failure to understand this is one of the causes of awful, toxic communities throughout the internet. They tried to keep everyone, and only kept the shitty people. Taken out of their historical context, a forum exodus of dozens of users might be alarming. In context, I would be likely to respond to those users threatening to make their own forum by seeing if I could get them a staff discount.
But what about the times when it isn't a good thing? Worse, what if it's your fault? The aforementioned mod abuse is a keen example. When a mod drives a good user away from the boards, that is a mod you need to have a calm but strong word with. If it becomes a pattern, boot the mod. Modding requires a particular kind of mind and personality, and there's no shame in admitting that you made a poor judgment in bringing one on board. When you start noticing good users becoming disgruntled with changes, it's a good idea to talk to them and try and see their perspective. You may unfortunately find that on further inspection your idea or implementation were faulty. It's never happened to me obviously, because I'm brilliant, but I've read about it happening to other people. Good users are smart users, their counsel is worth listening to. Your worth as a manager is largely the result of the quality of the advice that you receive and listen to, not your own infallible judgment.
If this user loss is the result of your own colossal balls up (and those of your staff are on your head too I'm afraid), don't double down. Swallow your pride and own up to it, and your users are generally pretty forgiving. I mean, I've heard. Obviously I don't make mistakes.
Guest post by Patrick Groome. Patrick is the Administrator of the Penny Arcade forums. Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and long running gaming webcomics and organizer of the PAX gaming conference.