I was drawn in by Ben McConnell's post about the closing of Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK). The virtual community fueled by Sulake closed one week ago. Lots of coverage from CNN to WSJ. Fans have gone the Jehrico route and set up protest sites. But it's not fair to compare the closing of a community that had been live and active for a couple of years with a passive TV show. Community mmbers feel abaonded, let down or down-right disrespected. Disney claims that the community was part of a limited time celebration of their 50th anniversary and the current message on the url is fairly ubrupt.
John Frost over at the Disney Blog (unofficial) had a terrific post last month about the closing. He considers many angles of the business drivers inside Disney from the decentralized buisness unit structure to the rigorous margin goals shared across the enterprise. Ben takes teh claim that the community was intended for a short term campaign. We wrestle with campaign-mentality in marcom all the time. Only difference is that our campaigns are often a few monmths long whereas this community was up for more than two years. Ben goes on in his post to set up the business rationale for a community to begin with:
"Campaign thinking is a byproduct of the last 25 years of business school education. The formula has been to create a short-term project using established metrics, execute, then start over with a new idea. Move the needle quickly.
The formula for evangelism thinking is: Create a project where the community of users become part of the process and most importantly, are considered a tangible asset. The needle may not move as fast because the investment is for the long term, but it's less likely to have wild, up-and-down swings."
Both authors have hit on something important: communities can serve the business goals of a company and their value and the actual value of the community members should be weighed with a business eye.
Sometimes you have to close
If you valuate the community, you may find it is not a sustainable enterprise. As business people (and community enthusiasts) we cannot say that a business must keep a community going or make any other business decision not in line with their fiscal responsibilities. I completely respect the investment of the VMK community members.
But it's how you do it that shows what you are made of
As usual, I think the real missed opportuntiy is how they did it. Communities are co-created experiences no matter who licensed the software or created the bitmaps. Inviting members of the community in to discuss what could happen next - where could the community be directed to to reform, how could they stay connected or how they could participate in the next Disney creation - all of these discussions might have helped the community transition. It would certianly telegraph that Disney respects its community members. Still people would be angry. But some would understand. Just look at John Frost's business-like assessment.
So sites like Savevmk crop up and gather petitions. they also collect comments - almost 5000 comments that show the emtional connection as well as the disappointment:
What cruel heartless person would want to close vmk. If anyone ever trys to close vmk i will hurt to a point were they can't even breath! If you close vmk then you shut off the love I have for Disney. I will never watch Disney channel again if vmk closes. vmk staff wise up and keep vmk for all the children to enjoy. VMK, VMK, WHAT'S THE NAME IT'S VMK, HOORAY!! "
Would it be a huge risk for someone from Disney to participate in that comment string?
Will EA Do It Better?
Now SIMS Online from EA is closing. From the sounds of it, they do not have the vibrant community that VMK had. Still, it looks like they may also be tumbling forward in a less than ideal way. They changed the name of the community to EAOnline and then immediately announced it's closure. Someone asked if they did that just so they wouldn't have to say that one of their most prized assets didn't hit a home run. Undoubtedly, they are closing for business reasons - for one reason or another it doesn't make business sense for them to keep going with it. I only hope they are reaching out to their community - what little there may be - and having them contribute to next steps for that community.
If more companies went the extra mile to demonstrate their respect for and their value of their community members (read: customers, evangelists, potential customers), they could make business decisions like closing a community and maintain many of their strong positive relationships with community members.