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Socialize 101: 10 Steps to Building a Successful Social Community Site

What does it take to create a successful social community site?  This is an interesting question.  The Web 2.0 is full of clones.  I see a new Digg-like site every week.  What's the problem?  Can't Web developers come up with their own ideas?

For example, I've seen a new social site that came out recently.  I can describe it like this: MySpace + Flickr + YouTube.  That's it.  That's only it.  Of course, since the site is full of features, all are done badly.

Why are there so many clones?  Simply put, creating a clone is easy.  With low cost hosting and programming/databases technologies, anyone can create a clone.  Web 2.0 is a cloned environment.

But creating a clone doesn't guarantee success.  What does it really take to create a successful social site?  Here are my 10 tips based on my relatively short (but intensive) experience with my social site IRateMyDay.com.  I explain each and also give my own personal experience.

1) Get an Idea

Thankfully, sometimes, you get to see fresh new ideas.  And that's the start of it all: having an idea.  You know that you have *an idea* when you can't sleep and you think about it for days.  You know when you have it.

My experience: In my case, I got an idea.  I wrote it down, detailed it as much as I could.  I didn't sleep much that night.  But the feeling was great.

2) Trust Yourself

After getting the idea, there's the part where you need to decide if you go through with it.  Usually, that's where a prototype is pretty useful.  Once you know the idea can be done, you have to get started.  And that's the hardest part: you have to trust yourself.

My experience:  During the last 6 months, I've had some pretty rough times.  It's pretty hard to keep focus.  But I kept telling myself I wanted to do this and that I could do it.

3) Give Yourself Time

One thing's sure, building a social community takes time.  Unless you got a bag full of marketing money or you're a super-star of the Web 2.0 scene, you better start telling yourself that your site won't become famous in a few days.

My experience: I started up by giving myself 4 months to begin building the community.  The first months are difficult since growth is pretty slow.  But when I reached my timeframe, I knew I had to continue.

4) Friends and Family: Your First Testers

You should first try your site with people you know.  Get their first impressions.  Be present when they test your product.  Listen to their comments and suggestions.  If you can hook them with your site, you got yourself a very good start.

My experience: I showed my site to a few friends at the start.  The moment I showed the primitive beta site, they all agreed that the site was cool.  Most of them also started using my site daily from that point, which was a remarkable proof of success.

5) Set Your Market: International Users

If you can, make sure you market the whole World from the beginning.  Building a social network is about sharing with many different people.  Why limit your site to a country when you can allow anyone to use your site.

My experience: Of course, having an international market mean more work.  But if you want to do it, design your site with that in mind.  My framework is built so that I can translate my site in any languages.  Currently the site is both in English and French since I speak both.  I also designed my site so that I can support international languages in comments, like Chinese.

6) Word of Mouth: Your Marketing Strategy

You are designing a social community site, so you have to expect that word of mouth should be your strongest marketing strategy.  It's cheap and very effective.  If you can build your site primary by it, then you will reach important growth as your community expend.

My experience: So far, I can say that I spent almost no money in marketing.  The main reason that I get new users is by a reference from one existing user.

7) Be Creative: Don't Do Like Others

It might seem tempting to do like other sites.  But sometime just one tiny thing can bring the whole site down.  If you really need to copy a feature, make sure you modify it so that it seems original.

My experience: My best example of this is the World map I use to display the location of my users.  When I designed it, I thought I could use the Google Maps or Microsoft Virtual Earth APIs (like you see in all Web 2.0 sites).  However, I felt that this didn't fit well with my design.  So I developed my own map generator that truly integrates in my site.  And that's one of the first thing users notice on my site: beautifully rendered maps that doesn't look like anything else on the Internet.

8) Keep It Clean and Simple

Keep your site clean.  Don't do anything without thinking it carefully through.  Make sure the site is easy to use, put help text if it needs explanations.  Navigation in the site should be intuitive.

My experience: I got my mother to use my site every day.  Enough said! (Well, if you want more, see my previous post "Web 2.0 Personalization… To What Extend?")

9) Keep Up the Pace

The road ahead will be hard.  You will get your share of bad comments (the usual "this will never work" or "this is plain stupid").  Don't let anything stop you, stick to your original plan.  It's important that your users see that you keep doing periodical updates of the site.

My experience: at start, I received some negative comments from people that thought they were brighter than me (well, it must be, if they could say my service was not going to work).  Well, turns out I didn't listen to them.  I kept on adding new features and the service has been growing ever since.

10) Anticipate the Growth

One important aspect of creating a community is to expect reaching a high number of users.  If you don't plan this from the start, one day you will reach a point where you will loose control of your service.  You have to consider building a light and fast Web site so that your server can hold on to many simultaneous requests.  You also have to expect to keep optimizing parts of your code that slow down the user's experience.  You must make sure that your database will be able to respond quickly to queries.  One important note: never consider upgrading your hardware first; optimization is often the only intelligent choice.

My experience: before creating IRateMyDay, I had my share of optimization problems with another product I created called RSScache.com.  After a few months of the service being online, I started to see important slowdowns on the Web server and the database.  So it's been a year of optimizing the system.  The good news: I didn't change any server and have been able to continue serving more users.

Well, these are my first 10 steps that you should always keep in mind to become successful.


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