Sooner or later, some sort of technical issue will affect your community over an extended period of time.
Your account will be suspended by your host, you will experience an impractically high level of load for the server you are on, a hard drive will crash or, perhaps, you’ll have some good old fashioned downtime.
It’ll happen. Don’t doubt me on this. Over the last 11 years of managing multiple online communities, I have seen numerous issues crop up that weren’t fixed in an hour or two. This experience has helped me to understand what a community manager can do to limit the impact of these issues and get things back on track.
Be Calm and Respond to the People Who Contact You
Stuff happens. That’s not an excuse, but a reality. Don’t allow it to throw you off of your game. If you are not able to lead the community during a technical crisis, who can?
If you have a website of a respectable size, there is a fair chance that people will contact you directly, in some form, to ask you what is going on. Respond to these people and tell them. Don’t hide until it’s over.
A lack of response breeds fear, uncertainty and doubt. Even if all you have is “I am aware of the issue and we are looking into it now. I will let you know when we know more,” that is still much, much better than silence. Silence is scary as heck.
Use Your Outposts to Keep People Up to Date
Chris Brogan coined the term outposts as a reference to social networks and platforms that you participate in outside of your home base or main website. Does your community have a Twitter profile or a Facebook page? Or even an email newsletter? Utilize these to communicate with your members.
Even if you aren’t routinely active on those platforms, it can still help. For an example, view my messages on the Facebook page for KarateForums.com: 1, 2 3 and 4. Communication helps and it helps when people know that real people are working through the issue and trying to restore things back to normal. People appreciate information and they appreciate being kept in the loop.
Apologize for Everything Negative That Happens
Your website going down probably isn’t your “fault.” But, it is happening on your community and it is annoying people. You can explain what the cause is, while also apologizing for it, even if it is not something that you are personally responsible for.
By apologizing, you are expressing that you understand and that you recognize that it isn’t an ideal situation. Online communities are more than just websites, they are a part of people’s lives.
Don’t paint a sunny picture or a bleak picture – just an honest one. Give them an idea of what is going on and what you are working on at the moment. Most importantly, do not give people unrealistic explanations. This is the reason that I rarely, if ever, give an estimated time frame when these things pop up.
If I give one, you can bet I am very, very confident in it. Stick to the facts and what you can reasonably vouch for. False optimism is bad.
Get Back Online as Soon as (Reasonably) Possible
Don’t get your community back online as soon as possible. For the recent issue I experienced on KarateForums.com and phpBBHacks.com, I was faced with a situation where I would be losing content. The question was: how much? My previous host could have restored the website about two days before it came back online officially, but we would have lost 10 days of content.
I had a copy of the database that was only 5 days old, so I wanted to get that online. I also decided that I wanted to move the communities to a new server. These two things, as well as me working to see if we had an even more recent copy of the database available, took time. But, in performing them, I was able to get the website back online in the best possible manner and in a manner that I would feel confident in. Long term, this will serve us better.
I recommend that you get everything together and make sure you have your bases covered, as opposed to just getting back online as soon as humanly possible, regardless of any other factors. If you do that, you may end up having to go back offline again.
When You Return, Explain What Happened
Restoring to normal should mean an announcement, welcoming people back to the site and explaining what happened. View my recent example at KarateForums.com.
I explained what happened, going into some level of detail. I walked people through the timeline and talked about what we had to deal with to get back online. I apologized, profusely, for the loss of content, which is something that always bothers me. Downtime doesn’t bother me as much as losing content, which, while unavoidable for anyone without a huge budget, will always get under my skin.
How did people react? Well, you can read the thread. Because I approached it as a person, explaining it to them just as I would explain to any person I respected, they treated me like a person and offered empathy and compassion. You can’t hope for a better outcome to a situation like this.
When it comes time for you to deal with these issues, just do your best, be honest and work hard and you will put yourself, and your community, in the best position possible.