Is an online community ever too big to fail?
Unfortunately, just like everything else, no. In fact, LEGO Message Boards (LMB), a vibrant online community for LEGO enthusiasts, is being permanently shut down and deleted this March. The LMB story should be a cautionary tale for all community builders - it doesn’t matter how many fans your organization has or how many people participate in your community. If you don’t manage it properly, you risk failure.
LEGO enthusiasts are not happy
As great as LEGOs are, I’m not an enthusiast the way everyone on its community is. I stumbled across LMB while doing community management research for my clients and was drawn in by the LEGO name and by the cult following amongst LEGO enthusiasts. As a huge company and one with such dedicated fans, I found their community to have some really great features and jotted down notes on things I’d like to replicate on the communities I manage.
One feature I liked, specifically, is how its community guidelines are so easily visible along the sidebar and very easy to read and understand. There’s no way that you couldn’t understand the values LEGO is trying to encourage in their community.
So imagine my surprise when I came across a recent post announcing that LEGO was permanently shutting down and deleting its community in a few months. I was baffled. Sure that it was likely because LEGO had something bigger and better planned, I started searching online for answers and came across another forum where LEGO enthusiasts were lamenting the news.
Instead of retiring the community to create something better or more modern, LEGO is just permanently shutting it down without a replacement. This turn of events is especially odd considering LEGO usually understands the value of user/ambassador communities.
What happened to LEGO?
So, what in the world happened to the LEGO community? It’s hard to say, especially since LEGO isn’t giving any clear answers. Reading through the comments, it’s especially perplexing given people’s reactions - almost everyone is stunned and heartbroken. No one saw this coming. Rather than just saying that LEGO is shutting down the community, LEGO should have given concrete reasons - without reasons, it risks further alienating LEGO enthusiasts.
My guess is that, although it looks like LEGO had some very dedicated users, it must not have had the volume they thought necessary to keep the whole endeavour going. From what I can see, it looks like a need for strict control and a tendency for over-moderation. This is probably what brought down yet another thriving community by keeping participation numbers so low.
As community managers, we need to be flexible and relinquish a certain amount of control in order for the community to thrive. Too tight of a grip on the community will only squeeze the life out of it - and size or popularity of your brand/organization will not save you, as evidenced by LEGO’s downfall.
I understand how LEGO ended up in this mess - most (or many) of its community’s members were under age. From a legal perspective, this had a clear impact and influenced the moderators to have a pretty heavy hand. The Internet can be like the Wild West, and you need to ensure your members’ safety, especially if they’re kids.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t mess up safety regulations. And it seems as if LEGO community members felt disenfranchised rather than empowered to own the community and grow it into a more resilient space.
My other guess is that there was a disconnect between the community and executive participation. Even if executives and community builders start off on the same page - believing in the community and knowing that the community benefits the organization - they can stray away from each other over time. The community needs to be infused in all aspects of the organization, and vice versa, in order for it to succeed. Executive participation and understanding in the community can make it - or break it, as I suspect happened here.
What could’ve saved LEGO’s community?
I wish that LEGO would reconsider their decision. It’s hard for me to imagine a good reason to close down a community comprised of such loyal customers rather than try to remedy the situation. Not only is LEGO alienating some of its most dedicated fans, but it’s also leaving money on the table - without a community, LEGO is closing the product feedback loop and disowning ambassadors.
Here’s my advice to LEGO: market to the right demographic. LMB is mostly made up of younger people rather than adult LEGO enthusiasts who are very passionate about LEGOS (and have more spending money). If LEGO had taken some time to research who wanted a community and what those users wanted from a community, I think LEGO’s community efforts could have been saved from being a sad statistic.
So, my message to LEGO is this: go ahead and let the existing community go if you must, but retool, reassess, and relaunch. In other words, come back with something better. Otherwise, you’ll lose your community of enthusiasts and ambassadors to unofficial sources where you have no control over the content or any insight into your customers’ needs and feedback. Since you did offer a community for so long, customers and fans now expect a place to gather with other enthusiasts. I’m all about going against the current, but this seems to be a big misstep for a company with such a strong fan base.