I've been a part or member of many different forums, portals and communities online over the years and a few I still keep up with on occasion when time allows but most I have forgotten and moved on. Some I left because my interests had changed, some due to better communities and some I left because of poor management.
Having dealt with so many of these online communities and having the privilege to be a moderator or admin for some has given me great insight to what works and what doesn't work when trying to build a nice user base. The idea "build it and they will come" is a little far fetched for online communities because once a person builds a community online, it does need to be maintained and improved upon or it is likely to fail in the end. Web users in this era have too many options to settle for less.
I have one example that always sits in the back of my head probably due to it being more recent. I had joined a nice little forum called Biorust back a couple of years ago. Its was a neat little forum that was setup for graphic designers and web developers.
The user base was small but I noticed more than a handful of regulars and it had lots of resources so I decided to register and join the party. I liked their gallery system in which it promoted new images posted by members and allowed comments. This was a nice way to show off your recent work and get feedback.
I had eventually made several acquaintances there which helped draw me back each day for conversation. We shared ideas, competed in Photoshop contests, commented on each other's works ranging from art to photography and we even shared some resources. I enjoyed it.
Because of my background in art and effort in helping others on the forum, I was also made a moderator to help around the site. I didn't get anything in return for this. Nothing at all. I was doing it just to help support a community that I had felt was worthy of my time.
I was surprised that the forum's owner and developer wasn't in the picture much. Apparently, they were much more active in previous years but had it let it slide due to lack of interest. The site was basically run by a couple of admins and moderators.
Today, I don't visit the site anymore. I lost interest as did many other regular patrons. I had just visited the site today to see if it had picked up any steam and sure enough, it remains dead with many posts dating back to 2011. Even the last blog post from the owner was September of 2011.
So what happened? The owner of the site suddenly became interested in it again and jumped back into the mix. It all seemed great at first. Anytime the owner of a site gets more involved, the more value it adds to the community. It helps to make members feel more connected vs. just another login on a system.
This would have helped the Biorust community except, the owner's return was in effort to make the site generate more money. They put the site into beta mode it seemed while they played with design changes that allowed them to add more advertising. Then the owner developed a membership program in which members would get to use the site without having to deal with the advertising.
It seems like a good deal at first. I was a bit aggravated trying to access the site as the owner played with the design and advertising methods. Sometimes the adverts would make using the site just plain annoying thanks to their positioning and improper delivery. I tried to overlook this because I wasn't about to pay $7 a month for a site in which I offered free help to moderate.
I was also disappointed to know that paying members and non-paying members would have the same access to content and resources. I couldn't understand why those who were on the site for conversation via message boards would be categorized the same as those who only came to download freebies and to learn from the tutorials.
The final straw came when I offered to submit a tutorial I had done for Adobe Illustrator to the site. The owner was most gracious and to show his gratitude, he offered me a one month free membership for the tutorial. Seriously! That seemed more like an insult really. I was a moderator already helping the owner maintain the site for free. Personally, I felt the owner should have given all his moderators and admins the premium memberships just so they didn't need to deal with the adverts while helping on the site. It wouldn't have cost the owner a cent and showed that he valued our assistance.
So, after my month of free premium membership died, so did my interest in the site. I knew as a regular and moderator to the site that liked helping others, my time was worth more I just didn't feel like being a part of the new money making community any longer.
The owner tried to explain their reason for the new revenue push but I felt either they truly thought we were ignorant or he wasn't handling his internet services very well as they cried about bandwidth requirements on their server. I wasn't buying it though because I have had experience building forums based on PHP and MySQL and I know it can be done for less than $10 a month for such a small community.
If bandwidth truly was an issue, the owner was again in the dark about where the bandwidth was going. We had less than 20 members signed in at any given moment. That is not a huge bandwidth requirement. The site did allow hot linking of photos from its gallery though giving people the option of hosting their images on the site and posting all over the internet. Guess what? That will eat bandwidth in a hurry. The gallery also offered option of sending e-cards using the gallery images too... even more bandwidth to be used.
If that wasn't bad enough, the site featured a huge resource section with downloadable content such as Photoshop brushes, patterns and gradients for example. This was open to all whether a paid member or not. Again, this would add to the bandwidth issue. In fact, I had noticed many only coming to the forum for those resources.
For me, the downloads weren't of much value. I had grabbed a few of them but most were old, outdated and something I had already seen or no need for. I was only there for the conversation and such. I think this was the feeling of most of the regulars too. We were just there for the human interaction.
How could all of this been handled differently in which it might have saved the dying community? First, never undervalue your help. Mr. Obama's recent mistake in a speech would actually be very applicable here. Any website built on the idea of building a community needs to realize that the site owner and developer are not the only people that made that happen. Its often the people who help keep the site going and its members that make the community. If site owners forget that in pursuit of money, people will notice. If money becomes more important than the community, expect to see people leave especially if content doesn't make revenue push worthy.
I myself have had experience trying to build a community. I am a motorcyclist and I once became frustrated with a riding group due to lack of control and consistency in their dealings so I decided to build my own group for like-minded riders. I too discovered that it takes a lot to really keep people interested. You have to invest a lot of time into your site and the community to make it something stable that people want to be a part of. Don't just expect people to be interested because it exists.