Leaving Yahoo! Groups: Switching Online Community Platforms

(This entry was originally posted on my personal site at leelefever.com on March 3, 2003)

I believe there are a number of list owners on Yahoo! Groups who are looking to move their groups to another platform. This article provides some thoughts and considerations on how this transition can occur successfully.

Disclaimer: I do not work for Web Crossing or sell their products.

Choosing a Platform

One of your first goals should be to look at what your members like about Yahoo! Groups. Then, you can emulate the things they like and get rid of the bad stuff. Emulating what they like and keeping things very simple in the beginning will help them see value quickly. Then, over time, you can roll out all the cool stuff that a real platform provides.

You might be surprised that there aren't many vendors out there saying "Hey! We can substitute for Yahoo! Groups and do a lot more!" You'd think there would be a great market for people who had grown to loath the advertising and one-size-fits-all orientation of Yahoo! Groups.

You might look at vendors like Prospero, PeopleLink, Communispace, etc. They have really impressive platforms- but you are the only one who knows what you can afford and what fits your needs. I have had an excellent experience with Web Crossing in moving from Yahoo! Groups.

Below are some examples of features you might consider in moving away from Yahoo! Groups.

  • Email Integration- Digest and Individual email capability (perhaps the most important factor)
  • Full integration with your web site's look and feel
  • Full content ownership
  • Attachment Support
  • Polling
  • Choice of discussion organization
  • Member profiles with pictures
  • Who is Online? functionality
  • Customizability- The ability to change all the copy on the site, all the buttons, everything.
  • Affordability

Keeping the members happy(top)

You might already know that switching online community platforms can be treacherous- it can easily kill culture and disillusion members. It changes the place of the community, the very foundation. For a smooth transition, you need to figure out how to make the process almost seamless for the members.

Spend time watching and listening to the members- you need to define what is important to them and ensure that those things make the transition and even improve on what they already use.

One of those factors may be email. Many Yahoo! Groups operate on email predominately- like a listserv. To keep this functionality going may be your biggest obstacle. Remember to check into how many members are on Individual Emails, Digest, or Web Only. In the transition, you may be forced to pick a single delivery method as the default- so it should match what most users prefer.

What to keep, what to remove? (top)

Before you start to set expectations with the members, you'll need to figure out how the web site would be organized, what options the members will have, etc. For most vendors out there, this may become an exercise in elimination. Many platforms come with an overwhelming assortment of options and you'll need to concern yourself with not overwhelming the members on day one.

Your focus should be on the new site behaving much like the tools your members use on Yahoo! You can start with a very simple and usable system and build in cool features once the members have gotten used to the site.

You want to avoid overwhelming the members with options and tools. Simple simple simple, easy easy easy.

Educating Members (top)

Once we have a strong idea of how the new system would work, consider designing communication that will alert and educate your members prior to the transition. Be clear about what will happen, what will change and what, if anything, is required of them. Then, try to transition them without them having to *do* anything. If you can, design it where the average member would be receiving emails from Yahoo! on one day and from the new community the next. Seamless transition.

In conclusion (top)

Overall, I think clear and usable communication is the key. Members need to understand what is happening, why and how. They need to trust you. Then, the site has to easy to understand for the new member. The core functionality has to be simple to use- hard to question. Also, the site must be nimble- listen hard to members and make changes for their benefit. Look at things through a member's eyes.

Lastly, assume that things will change- you may lose important members and your culture may change. By changing platforms, you are building for the future. Expect some pain the beginning and be prepared to explain the reasoning behind the change and why, over time, it will be good for everyone.