20+ years community history. Intro and some questions


(Erik Ernst) #1

Well this post serves both as an introduction, as well as a question. It’s very long, as it covers the period from when I setup our community in 1995 till today. A time with ups and downs. From 10 email addresses to more than 180,000 registered accounts, without any budget.

I in 1995 moved to the US from Denmark. That meant that I lost access to the online Navision partner community I used to be a part. It was hosted by IBM Denmark, at that time the Danish distributor of Navision. I now wasn’t a Danish Navision partner, so I could no longer access it. And even if they had allowed me to do so, then the “community” was only a BBS with a modem. The phone charges from US to Denmark would have extreme.

The mailing list
That time in the US, access to the internet was much cheaper and much more available than in Denmark. Here we had CompuServe, AOL, IBM and a lot of local and national internet service providers. My local ISP offered to host a “mailing list” for me at no cost, so I set it up together with the first website on the internet about Navision. It was in October 1995, a few months before the company behind Navision, Navision Software had set up their own.

Despite it only started with the about 10 emails on other Navision developers and consultants I knew from Denmark, then the mailing list quickly became more than a success. Within 2 years it had more than 1000 subscribers and some days more than 100 mails. Which also meant that we outgrew the mailing list format.

In 1997 there wasn’t that many forums around and I knew almost nothing about web development. My other pages were created with Microsoft’s web development program Frontpage. Here they had a “discussion template” that I decided to use. Very simple, maybe someone remembers it? It basically updated the web page. No database was used.

ASP-Forums and Access
We used it for a little over two years, until I had our first database based forum ready. ASP Forums with an Access database behind, became our first real online forum in 1998. In 2000 we switched to Snitz 2000 Forums, which basically was an upgrade from ASP-Forums. And it was going really good in the forums.

Except for another site with a forum (our domain name was navision.net - his was mynavision.net - so basically a copycat), then we were the only public user forums available for Navision. Navision Software’s own “community” was still only for their partners, and per country. They had a strict policy about them never interacting directly with customers, only with their partners. But we still had Navision employees who helped answer questions in our forums, they just did it “undercover”. They knew all about our site, and was even hosting it in their own server farm in Copenhagen for a while.

In 2000 something which was even more important happened. Navision Software merged with their competitor Damgaard Data, who had developed an ERP package called Axapta, which now became part of our little family.

Microsoft takes over Navision
Microsoft acquired Navision in 2002. Navision and Axapta were now called Microsoft Business Solutions Navision and Axapta. Later they became Microsoft Dynamics NAV and AX. Because of that our community changed our name a few times on the road. We had started out as Navision Online User Group (NOLUG - navision.net), then Microsoft Business Solutions User Group (MBSUG.org), before Dynamics User Group (DUG - dynamicsuser.net) became our current name.

Our online community continued to blossom until 2004-5. We sat up more forums and got lots of new users every day.
Again you can say, that we weren’t prepared for the success and the many users and posts. Performance problems and unexplained errors started to slow us down. Our users started to drop out.

Community Server
The replacement for Snitz 2000 and Access was Telligent Community Server with an SQL Server. Although our moderators did a great job, and my co-admin did a great job helping test it, then behind the scenes it was only me. Something I had to do in my spare time, in a period of my life, where that was not what I had the most of. So getting the old site migrated and the new setup, took until 2006.

Not very long after first website got online, we got our first sponsor. My employer at the time, a Navision reseller in New York City, became our first sponsor, and paid for the website. Later we got more sponsors, mostly recruiters who then was allowed to post jobs in our job forums. But we never really had a lot more income than covering the costs and a few dinners for the moderators. That also meant that we didn’t have the money to spent on expensive consulting and a like. DUG was and is primary a hobby. Plus I’m a lousy sales man and hate “begging” for support. In fact I hate that part of being a community manager. All the administrative stuff that all those of you who are part of a large operation don’t have to deal with.

The performance problems didn’t stop with our Telligent switch. I had chosen a web host with almost no support, a shared SQL Server and a price within our budget (= low). It wasn’t until I “found” my current web host, where we got a rather large (compared to what we had) virtual server and some great help from one of our community members, that it started to perform great.

But we had lost a lot of our members and users to “competing” sites. Not only our old “copycat” friend, but especially Microsoft’s own community website. They had started it in 2006, but had also started putting links to it, directly in their program and on most of their website. Today they have the same dominant role, that we had until 2007-8.

Bloggers leaving
Microsoft and our performance issues, is not the only thing that has changed our community. That change started around 2005. Here the first of our members started blogging. Community Servers blog app, was one of the reasons we choose it. So a lot of our most active members started to blog, and started to spent less time in the forums.
Until then our forums had been lots of both long discussions and simpler question and answer thread. You could say that the bloggers took a lot of these discussions, with them into their blogs.

Looking for alternatives
The period from 2011 until 2015 I really wanna forget. I spent most of my “community time” trying to find a replacement for Community Server. Something that incorporated forums, blogs, wikis, files and all the things our site consisted of. And something that was within our budget. Upgrading Community Server was not possible, due to the costs. Originally our CS license was part of a Telligent/Microsoft offer allowing Microsoft MVP’s to run the site.
When Telligent was sold in 2009 that program was cancelled. And us “freebies” were no longer welcome in their forums.

So it wasn’t until 2015, when Telligent became part of Verint, and their reintroduced free versions, that we also were welcomed back. And I was happy! Despite the many different open source and semi-open source systems I had evaluated, then I was really more happy with the old Community Server. Only the new version, now just called Telligent Community, would be better than the old one.
I’m sure many of you have other systems, which are better for you. But I had a very short list of requirements, that had to be “out of the box”:
- One system covers all (forums, blogs, files, wikis, groups)
- ASP.NET / Microsoft technology - the only thing I know, php is like Chinese to me.
- I can change everything I like to
The other “candidates” in the ASP.NET area, didn’t really have it all, or were also too expensive.

In March 2016 we finally moved from our old Community Server 2008.5, to the latest version of Telligent Community 9.0. The upgrade went smooth over a weekend. Now I could finally start to look forward again.
One of the big “issues” with our old site was that despite that we really are multiple very different groups, then everything was mixed up. Not that we didn’t have separate forum groups, these were just unrelated to the blog groups, or the file groups. The new Telligent supports the way community really works. As separate groups, within the same site. Most members of one group, are generally not interested in what goes on in the other groups.
Today we still have about 90,000 unique visitors to the site every month, mostly via Google directly into one of the many existing forum posts. We have between 10-20 new registration and a little over 100 posts per day in our 2 groups, and a few in the rest.

The future
Right now we are able to look forward. The main question right now, is weather to split our site completely, so that our groups truly can get their own identity, and to make it every easier to access their group (not have to reside in a “sub-folder”). That’s suggested by some of our moderators. We have also started having locally arranged meetups, which we hope to start to see the effect of in our forums. It helps a lot for the community spirit, if the members know each other personally, and not just online.
We are also looking into restructuring our forums within the groups. One of the things we have always heard as a positive feedback from our active members, is that we have forums, which are split in to users/application, development and more technical issues. But that of course has meant that its very common for a member, to ask a question in the “wrong forum”, and moving threads is an important task for the moderators.
What we recently have identified is that some of our “real users” also called end-users, not just the users of the website, often feels afraid to ask questions. Our forums are very “dominated” by the professionals working with Dynamics, so much that these “real users” feel intimidated by them.
So our plan is to “move” the current forums into a separate “professionals” group.

And now I can finally ask my questions:
What is your experience and recommendations, when it comes to having “separate” communities within the community? Or even separate forums?
I have seen and like the new type of forums, which are “flat” but have one or several categories “attached” to each post instead. Like it a lot, but not possible with Telligent out of the box. But does it help with the “wrong forum” issue?
What other methods do you use to “guide” (active or passive) your users into the right forums?

What have I learned?
- The right members makes the difference. Take good care of your “key” members. A few members leaving a forum can change the spirit in it. So know who they are.
- Keep it simple, don’t spread too much.
- Users hate changes, so go slowly. But still be happy if someone complains, at least that means your members care!

Finally thanks to Feverbee, this community has already helped me so much. Had I just known about it a long time ago!

(Sarah Hawk) #2

Wow Erik, what an amazing story. You’ve overcome quite a few hurdles! Welcome. :slight_smile:

I think this depends a lot on the specific community. It sounds to me like your rationale is solid – if some users don’t feel safe posting then you need a solution – but I think the trap is that sometimes we design structure based on how we think people will use the community, rather than on what they want.

It sounds like you are very much in touch with your users and what they want. Have you talked to some of the people that have expressed concern about whether the separation would be a good solution for them?

So this system is actually the same as a traditional forum with separate groups/categories/sub-forums – the difference is only in the way that they are displayed. Look at this view.

Keeping your number of categories and your naming convention very simple avoids confusion. We don’t get people posting in the wrong place here, however I run another community on the same platform where some of the category names are more ambiguous, and it is sometimes an issue there.

Just for clarification, are you considering numerous new groups, or just one for the experienced people so that their daunting questions aren’t in the general population?

(Erik Ernst) #3

We are trying to get much more in touch with the real users and how they actually are using the groups and forums. Things today are still organized basically the same as 15 years ago. We’ve just made it the way it was supposed to have worked.

Next step is the deciding where to split or where to merge groups/forums.

(Sarah Hawk) #4

I think that was a very common approach ‘back in the day’. We didn’t used to have the benefit of good data, and CMs tended to come from a technical background – generally the forum admin – so sociological analysis often didn’t come into play.

Now that’s changed and we should be (IMO) taking a scientific approach to decisions like this.
What is your goal? What does your data tell you? I’d set some rules – if a forum hasn’t had x responses in x days then it gets cut (or merged, if the data is still relevant).

This almost sounds like you’ve reached the mitosis stage of the community life cycle (which would make sense in a community of this age!). This article discusses some strategies and tactics for moving from maturity to mitosis.