So You Want to Start an Online Community…
This is going to be a very non-specific post. A thread I have been posting in over on LinuxQuestions.org has made me think – and you know what happens when I start thinking? That’s right, I get sleepy. And then I get writing. This being the internet and bandwidth and server space being free or low cost, every day someone decides that they will start up the next killer website/forum/mailing list/IRC channel/blog. This will be the <whatever> to end all <whatevers> and will bring in the clicks by the thousand. These people get very excited and start to post links wherever they can find a suitable site. And then what?
<as a fair man, this is only aimed at people who want to do something to bring in the public – starting any of these things as a personal project or somewhere their friends can hang out online means that these words do not apply>
If you are aiming to be a massively popular site that will be reposted endlessly and will get you into all sorts of magazines, please read this and think about what you are doing:
1. What is your aim in doing this?
A simple question, but very important. If you plan to do this as a personal project, go nuts, the internet won’t run out of space anytime soon. If you want to make money or create a huge worldwide community you will need to have a good plan to do this and be prepared to change your plan if you need to. Also bear this in mind: I have had this site active for a little over 4 years and have a low but healthy readership. Since putting ads on the site some time ago, I have made a little over nothing. Good job I’m not a full time blogger, eh? Luckily, I don’t care – I have a job and this is just for fun. But if this new site is going to provide you with a living wage, you need to do a damn sight more than I have to publicise and run your site.
2. Who is your audience?
Are you looking for a specific audience or a general one? Are you going to sell something or are you looking to have like minded people drop by? Are you looking for teens, geeks, auto freaks, people in to BDSM, S&M, AC/DC or Metallica? If you don’t have a target audience, you need to hope your product is specific enough to an audience that they will come to you. And you’ll need to do this without pissing off the Great and Powerful Google, because they will make your site hard to find if you do.
3. What are you bringing to the table that is new and different to the existing sites?
There are many many sites out there that start and end quickly because the new site is doing exactly the same thing that an existing one is already doing; and doing better. So ask yourself: what are you doing that is better than their efforts? Do you have a suitable niche that needs to be filled or are you just copying what they do? For sites that have been around for a few years, there’s usually a good reason. Either they filled a niche early on and stopped it being a niche, or they do something no one else can do, or they have people running the site that aren’t available elsewhere and are famous enough to bring in the viewers. These are your competition, can you best them? Can you get better Microsoft information than Robert Scoble, or better Mac info than the Mac forums and so on.
4. How much time do you plan to devote to this site?
Very important. In the early stages at least, you are the community and you will shape the way it forms. Look at the early posts made on many popular sites/blogs/forums – do you see the commonality? Basically the founder(s) originally spent most of their waking hours building the content and forming the site. Can you do that and hold down a job/have a family/go to school? Because when your server goes offline at 3 in the morning, that is your business going down and your community will suddenly have radio blackout. You need to respond quickly to prevent them finding other avenues to explore. You also need to make sure that you patch the software, install extras that are needed and to upgrade things, all while not taking your site down. Can you devote the energy to do this, if not, you will have difficulties becoming successful. As a side issue to this, can you afford to spend the money to buy equipment/software/things to sell. You will be doing this for some time without making money back, so you could well be broke for a while. Do you have a plan for this?
5. What is your plan if it does take off? And what is your plan if you need to take a break for a while?
If things go haywire and your site takes off, then what? Do you plan to continue to baby the site and community along or will you hand off to other people? At some point, your significant other is going to want a break and will insist you accompany them. This could mean that you’re out of action for a week or more. How do you keep the site going? If it’s a blog, you could put together a number of posts and either set them to publish each day that you’re off or have a trusted friend post them for you. The likelihood is that the trusted friend will need to do more than that though – they may need to create posts or to moderate the community or to post out your orders. If they do this correctly, your reputation will not suffer. But how trusted are they? Do they have similar views to yours? Will your very Christian best friend be happy posting out sex aids in your absence (if that’s what you sell, of course). And even if you are still around and the site takes up more and more of your time, can you give it or will you need to walk away from exhaustion? A great cautionary tale can be found on Helios’ Blog, he is doing something very worth while and has people helping him and still managed to do himself a mischief. By the way, if there are people in the Austin Texas area who have time to spare and a suitable vehicle, see if you can help him further, Helios is doing great work out there and we need more people like him. If you do disappear, will your fledgling community fragment or will they start their own community and exclude you from it? After all, you did leave them high and dry for a while….
6. Where do you plan to get your audience?
James Earl Jones once said “if you build it, they will come”. On the internet, lots of people have already built it so you either need to build it better or find a better way to make them come to you. If you simply spam your link across every message board you find, you will get banned and your link deleted – you will also come across as a spammer and no one will want to join you unless they are spammers themselves. The Busby SEO Challenge people have repeatedly tried to post here and, once I understood who they were, I marked them all as spam. The central Akismet server is now probably happily blocking them.
I am not trying to dissuade anyone from starting up a site or whatever. What I am asking is that they do so realistically and with a plan and goal in mind. If they do receive constructive criticism (and they will) I hope they take it in the manner it is offered, as a way to improve their chances.
And finally, support Helios and wish him well. He really is doing great work out there and needs as support as you can genuinely offer.
Posted on 23 August, 2009, in Computer Stuff, Generalities, Rants, Writings and tagged Austin Texas, blogging, community, facebook, forum, google, linuxquestions.org, microsoft, On the Web, Robert Scoble, start up, Weblogs. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.