Josh Barraza asked: “How [do you] transition [a] community after an acquisition?”

Online communities, like any website, can be very valuable. They take a great deal of time to run and manage and, in that light, can be looked at like any other venture or full time job.

Everything must eventually come to an end and there will come a time to close the community, to pass it off to someone else or to sell it.

But, they can also be quite delicate. In most cases, a portion of their value is tied to current activity and, if you go in with the wrong mentality, you could erode a substantial amount of value by making unfavorable changes or lacking the proper sensitivity when you first enter the community.

There are a number of things that you can do as a buyer, or someone who is taking over a community, to improve your chances of a successful transition, some of which occur before you even step into the picture.

Look for Culture Matches

How close is the culture of the community in it’s current state to the culture that you’d like to have in a community you would like to manage? Is the difference drastic? If so, you probably want to pass on the community.

As an example, let’s say that I want to run, and be associated, with a community that is generally work and family friendly where people treat each other with respect. Now, I am looking at buying a community, but then I notice that a majority of the discussions have people cursing and calling each other names. I probably should not buy that community.

The reason? The community is used to a certain level of discourse. There is nothing wrong with profanity or name calling, necessarily, but I don’t want to be a part of it. For me to change this community, I would have to force a new culture on them. This is, most likely, a giant waste of time and money. They won’t like it, I’ll have to clear a lot of them out and others will leave.

I would be better served by finding a community more compatible with what I am looking to run or even starting a new one and setting the foundation at the very start. Bottom line, if you are looking to buy a community, make sure that the current culture of it is something you are generally comfortable with. You can always make small changes to the culture, but a complete upheaval usually isn’t practical.

Utilize the Influence of the Current Owner

The current owner or administrator of the community will probably have a reasonable amount of credibility with current members and staff, earned over a period of time. It is important to carefully consider this authority.

If the community is tied to a personality directly, and that is the reason that people are there, that could hurt the value of the community as people may leave simply to follow that person to where they go next.

That shouldn’t necessarily scare you away, it just means you should plan for it and see how you can keep them involved. A community is much less likely than a blog, for example, to be tied to a particular personality because communities have a more level playing field for discussion, as opposed to a singular voice or group of voices who are the only people able to post on a blog.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with the current administrator to more effectively transition the community to your new leadership. Ask for their opinion on how it should be done – and listen. See if you can keep them involved in some way including, if you have the budget, paying them to remain on as a consultant, at least. If I sell one of my communities, the people buying it would do well to keep me around for a while.

Be Honest with the Current Staff, Right Away

Beyond the current owner or administrator, the staff (volunteer or otherwise) of the community can have a major impact on how quickly you are able to be successful as the community’s new leader.

If possible, I would speak to them before any announcement is made in public and have the current administrator introduce you and talk about what is happening and why. Surprises like this are not usually welcomed, but this approach will help to soften the shock.

You should be honest and candid. Tell them why you are buying the community and what plans you have. Talk about the details of how this will happen. These plans shouldn’t necessarily include a list of changes, but should discuss how you will step into a leadership role and what your philosophy on leadership is. Ask for their help and their thoughts on how that process can go as smoothly as possible – and listen.

If you have a good staff, you want them on your side – early. This will strengthen your position in so many ways, both emotionally (support for you) and tactically (support for your direction, a direction that you allow them to influence).

Once you have a clearer picture of the community and where it is going, and a little more rapport with the staff, you can discuss future plans and, if needed, review each member of staff to make sure they fit and want to stay on board.

Introduce Yourself Publicly and Openly

Announcing the new leadership to the general membership is an important part of making the change. Just as with the staff, it is best to have the current leadership introduce you and give you that stamp of approval.

Chances are, you are nobody to these people. They don’t trust you because they don’t know you. You need to be keenly aware of that. A general, and fair, assumption is that because you have now spent X amount of dollars on this community, you will need to recoup that. This leads to the fear that you’ll damage the community in the pursuit of monetary gain.

russell farm
Creative Commons License photo credit: ex animø

Your job here is to be open and honest. Talk about your background, why you are here and what, if any, interest you have in the topic of the community. Talk about your general plans for the community (not changes you plan to make, mind you) and let people get to know you and ask you questions.

If you will be keeping the current leadership around in one role or another, now is a great time to state that. In all, focus on what you love about the community right now, not what you don’t like, and encourage people to offer you feedback (perhaps privately) regarding the future.

Acclimate Yourself

Before you start making changes, take some time to observe the community. Read threads and read through the staff forums. Watch the staff do what they do. Participate in some discussions. Take some time – at least a week or two for an active community – to get to know how people go about their business.

As much as you might know (or, in worst case, think you know) about online community, there is always something to be gained from just watching for a little while. It gives you the foundation from which you can decide whether or not to make changes. Also, it just doesn’t look good when you join a community and start making changes right away.

Develop a Process for Change

It makes sense that you’d like to make some changes. You should come up with a process that will allow you to ensure that the change is properly considered, that you receive feedback (when appropriate) from your staff and members and that you properly launch and announce the change.

You don’t want any really meaningful changes to be a surprise. Anything like a new design or software conversation is a long process that includes testing, making people aware of the change, asking for feedback, making adjustments, explaining and launching (and more). Smaller, but still important changes should still be announced.

Wherever possible, ask for feedback before you make a change. Explain the idea, or general idea, and then ask for thoughts on it. With some ideas, I just like to get feedback from my staff. With others, I like to get feedback from everyone. It really just depends on what it is.

The point is: just don’t change out of the blue. Take your time, think about if it is really needed and then ask for feedback and make it better. This helps people to know that they are a part of the process and their opinion is respected. For more, check out my article on making changes to your community without backlash.

Change Slow

I suppose this is a  matter of taste. Some will tell you to change fast and get it over with. Personally, I believe you should change slow. Don’t change too much at once and don’t make people think they accessed the wrong site because it changed over night.

Make one meaningful change at a time and take the time to make it as good as it can be, to prepare people for it and to ask for feedback. In my view, this makes the change more digestible and helps to alleviate the stigma of “this new guy is just here to change everything and ruin what we had!”

It takes time to earn some respect and credibility within a community, as a new leader. But, there is no shortcut. Earn is the right word because that is exactly what you have to do. That takes time, commitment and care.