Migrating to new forum software can be a daunting prospect, but sometimes necessary. After migrating hundreds of communities from dozens of platforms to Vanilla, here are a few things we've learned:
Properly preparing the community is vital
Making a major change to your community software is always challenging for your membership. People become comfortable with the status quo, even if that status quo involves slow, outdated software that is gradually falling apart. It's important to be aware of this, and to make sure that community reactions are kept in mind during the migrations process. A common thread of hassle-free migrations is asking yourself how the community will be effected at each step.
Another frequent feature of migrations is the All Change Is Bad crowd. Every community has its share of ACIBs, who will meet any deviation from what they know as blasphemy. It's common among community professionals to top-slice a percentage of the most angry and vocal critics. An ACIB can't be made happy, so savvy Community Managers concentrate on listening and responding to the users that can. These users will be the ones adding constructive feedback and providing value.
A great Community Manager is worth their weight in gold during a migration, and they can prove that by making sure that users have answers to any questions they might have. Are there resources and tutorials available? Are staff available to answer questions and respond to feedback? Are the most skilled and knowledgeable users being encouraged to help during the confusion? These are the kinds of questions that an experienced CM should be able to answer. Users are your community, they want to know that the management cares about them. A hassle-free migration should be seen as an investment in the community, not a chore they have to suffer through.
DIY software can cause big problems
Home-grown forum software is often the pet project of a particular developer who thinks they can save money by building their own forum. It's a nice idea, but it causes huge headaches in the future. If and when that developer ever leaves the company their pet project becomes an albatross that their successors are stuck with. A move to a commercial platform is inevitable, and the problems inherent in home-grown solutions quickly become clear. This software will often suffer from:
- Security vulnerabilities
- Poor scalability
- Narrow feature sets
- Messy data structures that increase import times
Migrations from this software can be costly and time consuming, but is inevitable to save problems further down the line. The best way to head this problem off at the pass is not to use in-house solutions in the first place. While the initial setup costs of custom software appear to be low ('We can code that for you in 4 weeks.') , the total cost ends up being much higher when it has to be updated or migrated.
Messing up your 301 redirects creates huge problems
One thing that's important to every business that migrates to a new platform is mitigating traffic loss. In order to keep things running smoothly, it's vital to ensure that you properly set up your 301 redirects. This not only ensures that there are no dead or non-functioning links on your forum, but also that search engines are able to properly crawl your content.
The most important content to 301 are categories, discussions and comments. The names for these vary across software, (e.g., subforums, threads and posts), but the message is the same; making sure these properly redirect is vital. Aside from these basics, every software is different. It's important to consult analytics to figure out which content is most important. With this information in hand, it's possible to select example content to test post-migration, so that any problems are easily identified and fixed.
The biggest migration benefits come from SEO improvements
Old forum software is frequently poorly optimised for SEO when compared to its modern counterparts. This can result in a significant increase in traffic. While more traffic is always a good thing, it brings its own share of challenges. Community Managers should be ready for an influx of new users, and be prepared for the inevitable challenges that this brings with it.
While search engine traffic will improve long-term, a slight dip in search engine traffic is normal directly following a migration. This is inevitable, there's no need to panic. Sites that are extremely CPM sensitive need to be aware of this however, and account for it in their forecasts. If a dip in search engine traffic is sustained, there's a problem somewhere down the line. The 301 redirects mentioned above are a likely culprit.
Preparation is Key
The number one thing that smooths a migration is preparedness. Everyone in the chain from your software vendor to your users should know what to expect from the transition.
- Your vendor should let you know exactly what needs to be done on your end in order to have things running at full capacity as soon as possible
- The Community Manager needs to know exactly what kind of changes the new platform will bring to their tools and analytics
- Your users need to know how to adjust to any interface or feature changes in the community they've grown accustomed to.
There's no doubt that a software migration can be daunting, but with the right knowledge and the right plans in place, there's no reason why it can't be hassle free.