Feb 142013

When the BBC bought a 75% of travel guide publisher Lonely Planet in 2007, many people were puzzled at what the travel guide added to the publicly owned broadcaster’s mandate.

In 2011 the BBC bought out the rest of the founders’ stakes and just over a year later management mistakes threaten to destroy the brand.

Lonely Planet is one of the most powerful internet media properties in the English speaking world having become the dominant travel guide in the 1980s and then successfully making the jump into the online world with its website and mobile apps.

In 2012, the site boasted of four million visitors a month with most under 35 years old.

Key to Lonely Planet’s online success has been its community. The Thorn Tree forum provided the bulk of the site’s traffic as thousands of members discussed exotic destinations and asked or answered travel questions.

The Thorn Tree also turns out to be the BBC’s undoing as management struggled to control members’ comments.

At the end of 2012, inappropriate content was bought to management’s attention, with the Jimmy Savile scandal still reverberating around the corridors of the BBC, the organisation’s management panicked and announced a temporary closure of the Thorn Tree.

Two months later, the site is back up again with strict pre-moderation of posts which has left many long time users upset and going elsewhere, if they didn’t already do so during the closure.

Online communities are a strong assets but they are surprisingly fragile, as many popular sites have found in the past.

For Lonely Planet users, there’s no shortage of other travel sites online and it’s going to be challenging for the site to recover.

The Thorn Tree saga raises the question of whether risk adverse, public sector organisations like the BBC have the risk appetite to run online forums and build communities.

By definition successful online communities are diverse and sometimes skate close to the boundaries of good taste for a careerist executive in a managerial organisation like the BBC, such risks are intolerable and have to be eliminated.

If this means shutting down the Thorn Tree forums or neutering them, then that will be done. Management careers come before the good of the organisation.

Time will tell whether Lonely Planet will continue to thrive under the BBC and its management, but the portents aren’t good.

  3 Responses to “To save the community, we had to destroy it.”

  1. Will Lonely planet survive? Probably – but only because of their lonely standing reputation and recognizable books! If it survives it will be despite BBC certainly not because of it!

    You mention the Thorntree forum – in my opinion it is all but destroyed. Old members have left in droves and those remaining do so in the hope that some of their posts/ PMs/ contacts return. The new posters won’t stick around as there are not enough ‘normal’ posters there to offer sage and helpful advice.

    At 8 years as a TTer I was certainly not an ‘old timer’ but I had certainly done my bit- I hosted complete strangers at my home when they nervously arrived in WA, I found them jobs, helped them set up bank accounts/ find a rental etc etc and if I couldn’t help you can bet your bottom dollar someone else did!

    But I received so much more than I gave! When my first marriage fell apart my plan was to escape but I had NO idea where to start- a nervous post on TT was the beginning of an amazing adventure! TTers provided me with support in my darkest hours! I’ve travelled with TTers, met them at ‘pissups’, been to their weddings, cried at their passing. I’m the Aussie Aunty to a whole UN worth of babies! We have exchanged gifts, food, sweets and photos. We have banded together to send TT friends to weddings on other continents, throw wedding reception got those who couldn’t have afforded it otherwise.

    A number of TTers married after meeting in our community (ok so my TT marriage didn’t last, but many have!) we helped each other, and new posters, thru the mine fields of immigration in at least 7 countries!!

    When new posters have asked about contraception/ feminine hygiene while travelling and other relatively taboo subjects … It was the women and me of WT and YC whole provided the honest answers mostly using their own experiences (BTW these are two branches that have not returned to the NEW Thorntree… Apparently they were not travel related!)

    TTers have provided evacuation and advice for posters stuck in the middle of conflict in Syria, information and real help for those traveling china when all forms of communication was blocked. We have provided accommodation for posted stranded in our countries (or our friends/ relatives’ countries) even tho we had never met.

    Many posters eveb wrote for LP guidebooks while on their travels, provided up to date into for the guide books as well as photos… They also genuinely promoted the guidebooks, while making travellers aware that if they wanted up to date information it was only a click away!

    Their latest stunt is- private messages will not be returning… LP’s suggestion is that poster give out personal information and use twitter or Skype to have private conversations with strangers. None of us is stupid! It’s a bad idea- already this week I couldn’t help a backpacker in WA find a job (despite knowing a number of farmers desperate for workers) as I was not going to put these farmers addresses/ email/ phone number on the public branches of TT! Nor was I willing to divulge my Skype/ twitter details on there!

    I could go on forever but suffice to say THIS WAS A COMMUNITY! And the BBC has destroyed it!

    • That’s really sad to hear and it shows just how the BBC didn’t value the community that was built.

      What really sticks out is how the BBC managers see too many risks in the conversations you were having and so had to move it off their platforms.

      19th Century managers dealing with 21st Century mediums doesn’t seem to be a recipe for success.

  2. So very true! There are so many better ways this could have been dealt with.

    Thanks for letting me comment (vent??)
    Mind you things could be about to get VERY interesting, as a source has told me that LP has been sold to a US company and that the announcement is imminent

    Great blog by the way, I’m enjoying reading it!.

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