You wouldn’t think that news of an entertainment message board shutting down would make a dent on the business pages of major media outlets. But indeed many global business outlets sat up and paid attention when the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), a pioneer in the digital space, announced that they were shuttering their popular message boards earlier this year.
The announcement was followed by outrage from the community — tens of thousands of users over the past three decades — wondering why IMDb would shut something that was so vital to the site’s existence. The backlash was most likely a surprise to those who made the decision and perhaps the greatest sign of why this news grabbed the attention of the business pages. Are these online communities, in fact, inseparable from the heart of these companies, and vital to the health of businesses and media outlets? People are divided these days. Many companies recognize the power and opportunity these communities hold and are investing money and technology to make sure they thrive while others are walking away.
IMDb made its mark as a database of anything and everything you wanted to know about movies, movie stars, producers and the like, and grew into the most prominent online hub for entertainment enthusiasts. Their “active” and “engaged” audience — two buzzwords that companies long for when they launch digital properties — helped IMDb thrive through more than two decades, and made the destination an attractive site for advertisers.
Trolls, those annoying commenters who thrive on remaining anonymous while perpetually providing the snark on message boards, can certainly ruin the party if left to their own devices. And indeed rampant trolling on IMDb was cited as the reason for killing the message boards. The Lego company also shut down its popular message boards earlier this year. And similar moves are afoot in the media business. Last fall, NPR announced that after almost eight years of enabling and encouraging comments directly below stories on their website, they were disabling the feature and pushing comments to their social channels. NPR executives said the decision was made after realizing that the same kind of community could be built on social media platforms and, in fact, that is where the market wanted it.
Meanwhile, The New York Times is going a different route. It has staffed up to manage its commenting system to ensure integrity. It’s costly but surely they expect to get a return far beyond the comments. Annoying trolls aside, the ability for customers to express themselves now directly feeds into how connected and loyal customers feel to brands. Are customers that can comment directly on NYT’s stories more likely to renew their digital subscriptions? And what about The New York Times? By enabling comments directly on its site, is it more likely to better understand their customer demographics, and better hone marketing tactics?
It remains to be seen how IMDb fares without its message boards. But eliminating online communities in today’s world just may mean cutting off your nose to spite your face. Communities are no longer just messaging boards or chats for customers. They are data sources for marketers, idea generators for product developers, and they are communications channels for executives. Digital communities are at the heart of today’s companies and those who understand their importance should heed the warning of IMDb’s story.