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So You Want to Start an Online Community…

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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.

In Conclusion

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.

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26 Comments

  1. drewNo Gravatar says:

    If I had more spare time to give, I live in Austin and would help out (the Helios project) but with two young children myself, I don’t have much time to myself even, along with demands from my own job.

    • rayNo Gravatar says:

      Yeah, I think many are in a similar boat. He does say that he only wants to hear from people who will e able to dedicate time and effort, rather than people who will try but get derailed by their home or work lives – not their fault, but he needs people with less demands on their time.

  2. drewNo Gravatar says:

    By the way, what thread was it that inspired this post? I haven’t been to LQ in probably 6 months or longer, I’m scared to login. ;)

    • rayNo Gravatar says:

      A thread by a guy who registered just to get new members for his BBS (yep, BBS. In 2009). I asked many of these questions and he got very very huffy and decided I hated freedom or somesuch. Just the kind of guy you need in charge of a community of geeks.

  3. ToddNo Gravatar says:

    Great post! You bring up very good points that many fail to consider. Get rich quick, or to drive traffic elsewhere seems to be the protocol of the day. What the internet is left with is a site with no real content, pages that over stimulate (probabluy by ads), and over all useless banter.

    • Yes, the situation here is the same as with spam mail, but after all, you manage to push through all that spam and spam ads that internet throws in your face every day and you get the better quality content every year, mind that also.

  4. SireNo Gravatar says:

    Let's see if I can tackle all your points ray
    1. No aim, just having fun hoping to make some loot on the side.
    2. Whoever has the sense to stop by and appreciate a good read ;)
    3. My Aussie charm, wit and self opinionated views
    4. Way too much…I should really be doing some gardening, but where's the fun in that. Man, I better look in on the kids once in a while too, not to mention the wife!
    5. If it takes off and I'm still enjoying it I'll keep it and bask in my glory, unless someone offers me a big wad of cash for it then I will sell and start again.
    6. I've built it and apart from commenting on other blogs and stuff have no marketing plan whatsoever. If they come. cool, if not I'll just keep blogging in the wind.

    Ray, thanks for all your input in my last post too mate, I really appreciate it.

    • rayNo Gravatar says:

      Rock n roll! That is a realistic plan which also means you can keep going in the face of no visitors. Same as me really. Now had you had a plan of making 10K in the first year it would have hit you hard if you hadn't made it. What disappoints me is when I write a post I think is the best ever and then it gets ignored, but a short post I wrote in 10 minutes has the visitors flooding in. My public are so fickle.

      But yeah, this is a call for realism and it seems as though my visitors already have it.

  5. hariNo Gravatar says:

    If my initial ground work had translated into traffic and content had generated revenue, I'd be the next internet millionaire. Unfortunately ever since social networking took off, traditional content-based online communities have all but vanished. Sad but true. Except the few big online forums, I believe that most of the traditional online forums are all but dead. Social networking has all but put us out of business.

  6. I asked many of these questions and he got very very huffy and decided I hated freedom, seems to be interesting

  7. SireNo Gravatar says:

    I wouldn't do this for anyone else ray, but I've done it for you mate, I've signed up for intensedebate. ;)

    • rayNo Gravatar says:

      Ray 15:13 says "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man sign up to Intense Debate for his friends" :)

      It is a useful tool and I see more and more sites using it. The initial setup (if you do use it) is a pain because it takes time to sync back to ID, but once it's up it's good for the threading and for keeping track of your comments – including ones you make on other sites.

  8. I think finding an audience that is willing to interact with you is always going to be the toughest part. Even with great content, it's difficult to garner website traffic!

  9. I think a big consideration is the fact that the bigger the site is, and the more popular it becomes, the more time will be necessary to monitor it.

  10. AndreaNo Gravatar says:

    absolutely see where you are going… like what you said, it's not to dissuade people from starting a site but instead to let people know that there are several things that need to be considered before doing so… yes, sometimes it is hit or miss, but if you come prepared you'd most likely have other options to fall back on, you'd likely be able to adapt to different situations etc… if people followed this piece of advice, i bet it will make for better, quality sites popping up…

  11. 4YouNo Gravatar says:

    Cool article! I'm a beginner in the sphere of web design and Internet and I'm interested in such information. Thanks!

  12. Your advices do look great! I believe this list can become the key to the success for some newbie. But the fact is nobody knows what exactly leads some person to the success. I don’t think that you can become the top blogger if you don’t have the detailed program of the future development and you don’t take into account the target group and the great amount of other factors which influence on your results both directly or indirectly. Though it’s not enough, there always exists some luck or good fortune, which leads you on the top of the world.

  13. Coming from a B2B background i found this article very informative. I myself have a website/forum in mind that i 'd like to setup but was quite dispersed on how to setup the thing and make it work, I totally agree with yiur points, it's very important to plan every aspects if the website befire even starting building. Will take your points in consideration and will let you know whenn its up (for sure :) . Thanks for sharing.

  14. rayNo Gravatar says:

    Nice. Looking at your site, a forum would be a logical extension. Your "customers" would have a place to discuss what worked and what didn't and you could even use the forum to beta test new offerings. Just make sure it is moderated: otherwise spammers use it to offload their junk and will quickly destroy it. Good luck!

  15. AframNo Gravatar says:

    I dont usually reply to posts but I will in this case. WOW!!!

  16. Joe CrawlerNo Gravatar says:

    I like your sense of humor.. You'll get sleepy when you think. But when I think, I can't even get near to sleepy.
    My recent post Vikings LB E.J. Henderson suffers broken leg (AP via Yahoo! Sports)

  17. JC RomeroNo Gravatar says:

    The problem with "constructive criticism" is that it may or may not be constructive. Lot's of people have theories or opinions that aren't worth the time it takes for you to hear them. The key is identifying whose opinion you should consider and whose you should ignore
    My recent post HVAC Troubleshooting: Electrical Part 1

  18. I've just google into this site and I think that the online community term is an oversaturated Market, unless you just wanna go fun and have a nice time with friends otherwise you may lose your investment. This is a dangerous investment, only works if you have some crazy good idea to revolutionate this industry!