On Friday, I opened a unholy can of worms with this statement:

I’m having a lot of trouble getting upset about the loss of community on eBay. That was always my least favorite part about it.

Shortly after making this statement on Twitter, I was both supported and attacked from both sides.

It is really hard to have a heated debate in 140 character bursts so I promised a blog post on the topic to expand the ideas I was getting at. I have to say that, as I think about it, we may be looking at a week long series because I have a lot of thoughts about this and I know everyone else does too.

Community can be a helpful tool, I was never debating that. But as I said on Friday, eBay was a great e-commerce platform that had a community, not the other way around. The community is a nice bonus to an already great site but is not a vital organ.

I think that part of the reason we were having a disconnect with this conversation is that everyone has a different definition of what community really means. To me, community, as used in terms of eBay, means

  • Message Boards: Officially labeled “community” on eBay, the discussion boards are the most obvious face of community on the site
  • Personality: I’ve made up that name for it but this is the little touches throughout the site that are designed to let you get to know your seller or buyer. This includes My World, About Me pages and eBay blogs
  • eBay fans: They wear crazy hats to eBay Live and love to tell you all about the friends they have made on eBay. These are the people that go out of their way to spread the word about eBay in blogs, volunteer to teach classes, help share their experience with others through ebooks, websites, classes and webinars. This is probably the most powerful part of the community on eBay but it is also the smallest percentage of users.

For this post, we are only going to address the message board part of community and ignore the others to simplify this issue since the impression I got on Friday is that most people only think of community as being the message boards and forget about the rest. In fact, that is what started this whole conversation, if I recall correctly, as someone was lamenting the changes to the discussion boards. (I promise, we will re-vist the other topics in the future.)

If you have never visited the eBay message boards, they were a strange animal. They were very often censored by eBay moderators (called “Pinks” because of the color their posts were) so they were an uncomfortably sanitized forum where most of the posts were only what eBay wanted you to see. They were also often a little hostile with many members setting an unfriendly tone.

On the plus side, they often had great tips for new users and their workshops were a great wealth of info for the newbie user. Many new eBay users were only able to get started on eBay because of the advice and community they found there.

I have never been a very active poster on the eBay message boards under any of my eBay IDs. The reason for this was, quite frankly, because they weren’t very helpful to me. You could always get better info off eBay where the posts weren’t sanitized and censored and you didn’t worry about getting your head bitten off. Sure, you could argue that the off-eBay community only flourished in response to the on-eBay community but if your community is so poor that it drives people to create their own discussions off site, I fail to see how that is very helpful.

Let’s talk about the message boards over on Lulu.com for a moment. Obviously a much smaller site but one with a very strong community of people with things to sell. I was a moderator on their message boards for many years and I think looking at their boards tells us something about eBay.

What could you find on Lulu’s message boards?

  • The usual drivel you’d find on any message boards, people too lazy to read the help, spam the moderators fought bravely to combat, etc
  • Amazing user tutorials on how to do very obscure things like distilling unusual fonts or setting up an RPG
  • Discussion amongst writers on their craft (such as building a story) and the profession (how to set up a book signing)
  • Tips on building your storefront and selling your items

The Lulu message boards are a very useful starting point for a new author even if they aren’t going to publish on Lulu and you can find a lot of stuff there. In a lot of ways, they share all of the above with the eBay boards, even if the content of what they are selling is different.

But you know what you cannot find on their message boards? The best selling Lulu authors.

Across the board, the authors who are the most successful on Lulu, who sell the most books and make the most money, are not active in the forums. The forums are a haven for newbies and other tentative beginners but the big boys, the best sellers, the ones making the real money have no use for them.

If the forums disappeared from Lulu tomorrow, the site would be a little quieter, a little less friendly and the newbies would have a much tougher time of it but those best sellers would be unaffected by the loss.

Taking this discussion back to eBay, I have been very successful on eBay for over a decade now and I have never been active in eBay’s forums. I also know that I am not alone in that fact. Very few of the biggest sellers on the site are also active on the community. But why believe only me? If I may quote Cliff from thingsandotherstuff, a PowerSeller that makes a large portion of his income on eBay, on this topic:

eBay was successful for me w/o my getting involved [in the community]. So, the question is is it a community if “I’m” (or you, or anyone else) isn’t in it?

His comment was directed specifically to John from 3rdPowerOutlet, a Platinum PowerSeller who also admitted that he never uses the message boards.

So, do you need the eBay message boards to have a successful eBay business? Clearly not. We just gave you three examples right there (myself, Cliff and John).

So if the community of the message boards isn’t essential to being successful and making money on eBay, how vital is it really to the working of the site?

Sure discussion boards are a nice extra feature for a site like eBay to have but if you chopped it off entirely tomorrow, the site would still run and be profitable even for people just starting out. You don’t need the discussion boards to be successful on the site, nor would most eBay businesses, especially the big ones, fold if they removed it entirely tomorrow.

I think that there are several other big parts to this discussion which I want to get to in future posts, specifically:

  • What role does personality play in online selling?
  • What is eBay: an e-commerce site with a community or the other way around?
  • What does community mean to a small seller versus a large seller?

But I want to pause here to have a discussion about the discussion boards. How much of a role do the eBay forums play in the success of your business?

If they got rid of the boards tomorrow, how would it affect your business?

How much do you use the message boards and how often?

Please leave your comments below and we’ll continue this conversation tomorrow. . .