Wednesday, 04 March 2009
Building a community can be very profitable if you've got the right combination of users and income streams.
Income doesn't necessarily need to come from affiliate programs. It could be through membership subscriptions or banner ad sales. In fact, it could be a combination of all three!
Users become loyal over time and can even contribute content or introduce new users through viral promotion.
Building a community therefore sounds easy. Build a site and attract some users. Tada.
I've been trying this for some time now and still have no community. There are 3 reasons why this is so.
When choosing a niche, it needs to be small enough to dominate but large enough to attract a lot of users.
A community based site about all cars, for instance, may be too large. All good and well but there will be a distinct lack of useful information to lure in new users. A niche about a specific brand of car (but all models within this range) is a better way forward as it concentrates the conversation.
A community about a specific model of car may be too small. It could work if it has a huge amount of owners (e.g. Ford Fiesta or Vauxhall Corsa) but conversation could be a little slow for less well know or owned cars.
We could pick another niche as an example. Er, how about mortgages? Sounds dry but bear with me! A mortgage forum might not sound the best place in the world but it could be very useful to people looking for them. We could set up a forum about every mortgage and provider under the sun. We could focus on a specific niche within this (e.g. self-cert mortgages). The risk is of making it too large in scope (e.g. every mortgage under the sun) or too small (e.g. self-cert mortgages for first time buyers).
Picking the niche is paramount to setting up a community. Get it wrong here and kiss goodbye to any chance of a success.
Membership Based on Loyalty
You've got the niche. Now you need users.
I've got mailing lists of users. Some would consider that a form of community. All good and well. The problem is that a large proportion of those users are defunct, the result of running a competition. They are competition entrants who are only interested in winning stuff. People after my own heart!
To build a successful community, you need a certain type of user. They need to be contributors or hunter-gatherers. Contributors help grow your website by adding user generated content. Forums, galleries, etc.
Hunter-gatherers spread the word about you. They tell some friends. They Twitter you.
There are some users that then are a combination. These are people that grow your content but also tell people about you.
Dormant users (i.e. those that sign up for an account but never/rarely use your site) are meaningless to you and don't add value. Users who are incentivised to sign up risk falling into this category.
Users can make or break a site. Some will not care about your site. It's not important to them and so they won't respect it - be that through not contributing, not using or pro-actively being negative towards it.
Some will devote so much time to your site you'll be able to rely upon them for quality content, good referrals and good promotion.
Wrong Type of Website
The last factor is the type of website. We've picked a niche (let's use easter eggs) and we've got our users lined up. But what website do we give them?
A forum is a sensible answer but it may not be the right way to go. If you are going to be contributing the most content, a simple blog may be the way forward.
Communities can, and do, revolve around quality blogs. Take Smashing Magazine for example, with it's RSS based community of 85,500 readers. The number of comments varies wildly depending on the article. They recently managed to source 9,000 comments about the weather.
You could take the route a paid membership. In this case you need to convince potential subscribers of the merits of subscribing and remaining a subscriber. The type of website you lock away here is as critical as the membership itself. Static website, database driven, forum, blog, chat rooms, social networking, etc.
Ultimately get the wrong type of site and you've lost users. Get the wrong type of user and you've lost your income potential. Pick the wrong niche and kiss goodbye to both users and money.
It's a tricky formula but not impossible. There are very good everyday examples of sites that attract and retain visitors: Money Saving Expert, Loquax, A4U.
The trick is getting it right. It's a trick I've not yet managed. But who knows - one day perhaps...
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The hardest thing must be getting the first 100ish members and getting them chatting ?, after that the challenge of moderation etc probably starts.
Have you tried running prize draws to incentivise membership and activity?
One thing I have noticed, there is no correlation between a well designed / good looking forum and membership / popularity.
Written on Wednesday 04 March 2009 at 20:28:57 GMT (Permalink)
@Rob Barham - I agree with all points. Moderation is a pain but is necessary.
Incentivising activity is a risky business. I read a forum post the other day and read that someone was planning to do exactly this. My thoughts were that it's a short term strategy with a low chance of being successful in the long term. It would only lead to low level activity in order to reap the rewards, IMO.
As for design, that's certainly true. In fact, the ugliest forums I can think of are probably the most successful I know of.
Written on Friday 06 March 2009 at 09:46:55 GMT (Permalink)
Thank you to all previous commenters.
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