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So You Want To Start An Online Community?
If you're thinking of starting an online community there is a lot to consider. This article should give you some food for thought. Not all of these items may be applicable in every instance and there might be some other factors to consider not mentioned here, particularly if your community is particularly specialised, but in that case you'll likely be aware of those things already. If you'd like help refining your thoughts on these topics, please do get in touch and we'd be happy to help.
Defining "Online community"
First, it's worth defining what we mean by an online community and what one might expect to find on such a website. To us an online community ("community" for short) is simply a website which people can visit, get information and interact with the site and likely, each other. Typical features found on such websites might include editorialised content including text, images, movies and other media, discussion forums, user profiles, searchable lists of information, means by which users can privately communicate with the site's editors and each other, integration with other social networks such as feeds to and from Twitter and Facebook.
What's the purpose of your community? It sounds obvious, but if you can't define it clearly then your users are likely to be confused. Most people will probably find your site through a search engine. If they do they will probably make up their mind to stay or leave in under 2 seconds. First impressions count! Generally communities with a very clear purpose are the simplest to start. It's worth also thinking about your goals - what are you trying to achieve? What would you consider a success? You might want to reach a given audience, or achieve certain levels of use, or effect some real-world change; defining these goals at the start and using them to inform the decisions you make is an excellent way of working on a new project.
Nobody wants to be in a community of one - talking to yourself gets dull pretty fast! That being said, a community doesn't have to be huge to be a success. Instead a community needs a network of people who find it engaging to come back time and again. Who will join your site? Does it fulfil a need that people have?
Niche Markets and Established Players
Obviously some huge online communities have a strong network already and it's hard to crack that as a newcomer. However, there is plenty of room in niche markets. Also consider, some of the incumbents in a given space might be so firmly entrenched that they've become stale, taking their users for granted or adopting unpopular policies. Sometimes being the newcomer can be a big advantage.
What's the tone of your community? Is it available to everyone or only open to a certain group, genre or profession? Is it friendly and gentle within a limited range of topics? Or hard-hitting discourse on a wide range? Will you allow your users to swear? The moderation policy on this can say quite a lot about the tone of the site. Tone will also inform Style and Design of the site.
The Name and Web Address
What will your site be called? Domain names are hard to come by these days. You most likely want a name that is: short (easier to type), memorable, easy to spell (so someone can find it even if they've only heard the name in conversation), distinct (easier to stand out in a search engine), descriptive (so people know what they're getting).
All else being equal, you should generally try to get your site up and running as soon as you can. The network can take time to build and the sooner you start the sooner you can reach success. You'll also find that you get an enormous amount of completely free feedback from your users - some of the most successful sites are those which are able to pivot on their original ideas based on feedback from users.
As described when talking about the network effect, being a new community can be tricky when there are well-established websites already doing what you'd like to do. But competition isn't always a bad thing - it can validate your idea, allow you to perform a certain type of market research ("find what works for them and replicate, find what doesn't work for them and change it") and can help establish the need for something within the arena in which you'll be working. Competition shouldn't be feared but should be respected. Take a look at your competitors and ask how and why you'll be better, but don't lose too much sleep over them.
There are many elements to building a brand and no website is too small to make it worthwhile, though clearly budget will dictate what you can achieve. The most important thing is to think about your users: how can you engage them emotionally? How can you convey your tone, your goals and what you can offer? Try describing the tone of your site to someone you don't know very well - what's their very first reaction? Polite indifference or genuine enthusiasm?
Social Network Presence
Even before your site launches you can start building a social network presence. Where are your potential users to be found? What are they likely to be talking about? What will catch their eye? Answers to the questions will inform how you might best try to build a social network presence.
Style and Design
The design of your site should be informed by your tone, though of course your budget and your personal tastes will play a part too. After all, good design can be expensive and the way your site looks can be a very personal thing. The absolute best way to arrive at a design that works is to create something and test the reaction amongst your target users. You might be surprised by what you find! Some people say that if it's not worth measuring it's not worth worrying about and certainly there is some truth in that. If you don't have the resources to do this however then we'd recommend a "clean and simple" look, at least to start with; the online equivalent of painting a house for sale in magnolia. A good system will allow you to evolve the look over time. Unless you're going to spend a lot on a initial site launch (e.g. advertisements or endorsements) then getting the site up and running is probably more important than how it looks on day 1. A strong logo is a good idea because it will convey a lot about your intentions in a moment's glance - playful, intellectual, friendly, serious, etc.
We generally advise you start sooner with less functionality than later with more, unless you've got a big budget or you're trying to tackle a well established space (which you can sometimes do by offering better functionality). Generally the bare minimum is the means to deliver compelling content to your users and a way for them to communicate with you and each other, which usually means discussion forums. Discussion forums are a great feature for the editors of a website - it's all user contributed (though it might need moderating), it tends to be fresh, topical and often well-informed, and it keeps people coming back regularly. Look for a system that allows you to have dynamic content, so that when you create some content you can integrate it readily with the rest of your site without having to make lots of changes elsewhere.
Most sites, though not all, benefit from some good quality content created by the site's editors. It gives search engines something to find and thus send you visitors, it engages visitors who are seeking information and it makes your site look more established in the early days when you don't yet have a strong user network. Who will create it and on what on topics? Do you already have content you could use? Or could you get some created for the site? Unique content not published elsewhere is needed for the search engines, but users don't generally care about the origins. Content that is topical, well-researched, hard to find otherwise, or particularly full of wisdom, humour or other interest is the best option if possible.
On what system will your site run? There is lots to think about here, but as a minimum look for something that is fast, flexible and secure which meets not only your current functional requirements but will be able to accommodate other things you've not yet thought of. This can be quite tricky, given you've not yet thought of them, but users will have certain expectations that you'll keep pace with developments in technology, for example mobile access.
You need hosting for your site. Even following the current trend of cloud computing, the website has to exist on a server somewhere. To know what is the best choice you'll need to consider how many users you're expecting and how long they might stay on your site in a session. This is hard to do, so the key to success here is usually flexibility - day one you might need only part of a server and within months need several dedicated to your site. You will probably want good security right from the start, though don't go overboard unless the information on your site is personally or commercially sensitive. There are lots of "mass market" hosting companies who will provide you with a barebones server, but do you or someone working with you have the skills to maintain it? Servers need continuous updating, they need monitoring and they need regular backups as they can and will fail. "Uptime" is one measure of the reliability of a server, but it's not actually a very useful figure until you're running hundreds of servers. Instead try actually talking to the provider's help desk and see how helpful they really are.
Which person or people, or corporation, will be accountable for the website? At least one person will need to act as an editor, at least one as a moderator (though of course they might be the same person on a smaller site). Keep in mind that in many countries, including the UK, the law views the "owner" of the website as the publisher of the material it contains - this can open you to legal threats by people who don't like what they see on your site, even if it's a comment submitted by one of your users. No matter how easy to use your site is you'll get all kinds of communications from your users, from needing help to sign up or use your features, to people offering services or telling you what you're doing wrong! You can choose to ignore these, but doing so will set a certain tone for your site.
Search Engine Optimisation
This is the art of having your site listed when someone searches for something in a search enginge such as Google. Google's so dominant that you can consider it alone; the others will bring you traffic but if you're doing well on Google you'll be doing well on them too. This is so important to the success of your community it's worth considering right from the outset. Are you going to have unique content that search engines can look at and say "This is a good place to send someone who has searched for X"?
Advertising and Outreach
Are you going to advertise? Most small communities were started without advertising, but the market is ever more crowded. Couple this with decreasing effectiveness of advertising and you can appreciate the challenges you face. Larger communities can be well served by a targeted campaign and if it's a niche then advertising can work really well. How will you get the word out about your site? The most effective things for small communities is usually a combination of outreach through existing contacts and social media, partnerships and coming up with something special that people want to spread through word of mouth.
What level of skills do you and your team (if there is one) possess? Having identified the need for Internet wisdom, design skills, technical know-how, marketing experience, copy writing, legal, search, advertising, social media knowledge and so on, who is going to deliver on each of those? Which skills will you need to bring in? Do you want to work with someone who can provide all those things as a package or would you rather have several relationships? Each has its advantages and the success probably depends on your preferred style and who you choose more than anything else.
In considering who you're going to work with give some thought to the style of process that you'd like - do you want something highly iterative, which is great when you're not too sure what it is you want, or do you want everything set out in advance and something delivered which meets those requirements? Do you want to be able to conduct business face to face or are you happy working with someone remotely, perhaps even in a different timezone? Both can go well, but your preference is important in the success of either.
It's really vital that you give some thought to what kind of budget you're going to apply to starting your community. It doesn't have to be an exact figure, but at least as an order of magnitude. It's generally wise to give potential partners an idea of budget - unless you know absolutely precisely what you want to a high level of detail, in which case you can use that to form an RFP and have partner provide a proposal. More commonly though you might have a collection of great ideas, some of the many relevant skills, a wealth of experience and industry contacts and you need a partner to guide you through the implementation. Telling them what your budget is means they can make their proposal relevant - you can spend 400 pounds on a logo or 400,000 pounds and both can meet a brief, but the people, the process and the outcome are likely to be different in each case. If your provider doesn't know where you are on the scale it's very hard for them to give you meaningful information.
What other systems or websites might you need to integrate with? Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are the obvious ones, but what about other services - a typical requirement is some form of payment processing if you want to sell subscriptions, tickets or other products. PayPal is the baseline and for many sites does offer the best solution; it's ubiquity means that customers are generally pretty happy to use it. Credit card processing adds an air of respectability to a site but this means getting a merchant account from your bank, which can be difficult for brand new ventures, particularly if you're selling a sevice rather than a product. Once you have a merchant account you need to choose a means by which to process the payments online; your IT provider should be able to advise you on this. SecureTrading and SagePay are both excellent providers that you might like to consider.
The legal challenges of starting a community aren't huge, but you do need to consider some aspects quite carefully. You'll need community guidelines of some sort, to foster secure interactions between the site and its members. DSC can advise you on what works well and what doesn't. You'll also need some Terms & Conditions, to which people signing up to your site will agree. Give some thought to the ownership you want to have of user submitted materials. Some sites assume the rights of everything posted on them, others let that right remain with the contributor. In most casual communities the difference is fairly negligible, but if you're asking professionals to contribute to your site it may be a bigger issue. You'll need to comply with local legislation for the territories in which you operate; in Europe most obviously this means the EU Cookie Directive. You'll need some text on your site about it and you'll need a system that can handle the requirements.
If you'd like our help with answering these questions, please get in touch.