So, let’s say you have started with “web 2.0” and the decision has been made to start with setting up an online community. You end up with a nice website, reliable software, but little to no visitors! What has happened?! And other, maybe even more modest, projects of competitors seem to work a lot better. How do they do that? First of all you decide that the number of visitors doesn’t have to say anything about “Return on investment” in this case. On the other hand this of course doesn’t mean that you want to do without a good number of visitors.
At this stage it might be good thing to decide upon some things that you might have neglected a bit, or may have missed altogether. But what kind of things are those? At the Dutch marketing weblog Bijgespijkerd, Sjef Kerkhofs already wrote an article about a set of rules that you can use for setting up social network websites. (Article is in Dutch, obviously) In it he describes how at the Social Media Congress, Erwin Blom talked about five basic rules that you can use to make a success out of your social network website.
But, to make things even easier, I will here go through another set of five points that I myself have set up quite a while ago to help me judge if a social network site will be successful. This model is partly based on experience and partly founded on existing theories. Most of all it’s my short, but I hope thorough, description of what I think are 5 of the most important “rules”. In the end we will see that some of these points will overlap with the points that Erwin has, but I think it’s good to have a full description of some basics right here.
As said, I think there are five main points that will determine the success of a ‘social network’. It is important to note though that these five points are not definitive in the sense that they set fixed rules to things that must always be present. We all know that some of the most revolutionary ideas and projects have not conformed themselves to any rules. Nevertheless I do think that when keeping these five basic points in mind you have a good chance in “getting it right” when setting up a social network service.
The five points can be summarized with the acronym “KOPTE”, although in practice you could perhaps assert that it would be better to call it “KOPT+E”. These five points are:
Starting with the K of knowledge, I will describe what each of these five “rules” can mean for your network and I will try to explain why they are so important.
Knowledge can be subdivided into either knowledge of your product or service on the one hand and on the other hand knowledge of the internet in general and of social media in particular. To start with knowledge about the product: make sure you know enough about it and have something to say so can give well informed feedback if someone asks you for something. Fortunately the setup of many types of online networks allows you to think about your response; don’t hesitate to use this opportunity and think before you do respond! On the other side, knowledge of social media is absolutely necessary. If one of your visitors posts a picture of a cat with a funny capture and you don’t know what this is all about, it might be worth taking a short tour around the internet. Of course you do not have to know everything, but a basic knowledge of what is going on on the internet may be very useful in both interacting with your users as well as in just trying to analyze their responses on your website.
This factor, Knowledge, is in some way similar to what we would call a moderator when talking about focus group based research. A moderator can appear in different forms as well, based on the specific needs of a setup of the actual research. If the moderator is lacking skills to do the research project properly, he or she would require extra training or assistance of an other moderator. (Here we should not confuse moderator with a moderator on for example a bulletin board, the role described here is a wider definition of what a moderator is.) So it is important to think what you want to do with your social network. If you want to share, or maybe talk about, product information you would naturally be more inclined to focus on knowledge about the product. If your goal is to stay connected with customers and others, then your aim might be to focus on knowledge about the internet. Maybe in this case you would want to have someone who has knowledge about qualitative research in online environments, so you can properly assess the value of your community.
Through “knowledge” we arrive at Passion: Passion for the internet & “social networks” and passion for what you are, or will be, dealing with on a daily basis: your social network. This passion will hopefully have caused you to be fully aware of what is going on in your field of expertise and internalized the need to keep that knowledge up to date. This way we deal with two things at once: building and maintaining knowledge are assured when there is passion. Passion for your social network will involve you actively participating in that network. This will often be an “active” kind of participation: engaging in conversation, but it can also mean keeping an open mind and responding to queries of visitors. Participants in your network will value honesty, openness and involvement from you, as the host of the network, above all. Don’t try to cover up mistakes; acknowledge them and then show how you will solve any issues or tell people how you will solve them. Participate! Keep your network truly alive, setting up a system and then waiting until people start interacting will usually prove to be unsuccessful and will rip you of any control.
This way we arrive at Time: time that you will have to invest in your social network, and time as in the patience you will need; your network will probably not be a complete success on day 2 already. Of course time is very valuable, but coming back to “Passion”: cutting back on the factor time too much is the key to having your network fail. So this means; spend time on dealing with your visitors, read and act upon their questions and wishes; engage and be involved. Be committed to your task, even though your site will probably not get tens of thousands visitors by tomorrow; patience and commitment are the key. Think about what kind of visitors you want to attract and be honest to yourself and your organisation about what you can expect on the basis of that. Fortunately, passion will help you to be able to spare some valuable time.
Then we get to one of the most underestimated and indeed, hardly ever mentioned, factors to success: Original Content. Yes there are many sites out there that are little more than a copy of some other site or service, but even these usually differentiate themselves by the way of presenting their content. So be original, your visitors will need a reason to come to you, in some cases abandoning something else and switching that for your service. Give them that reason! Is your community aimed at a specific product or service? Then this will of course be your Unique Selling Proposition. Yes indeed; this old idea of the USP still holds value in some way. And on the internet this is quite often summarized as “Orginal Content”.
Is your community itself more like the centre of the service you want to offer? Then try to give it something unique; be it presentation or news that you use to “feed” the discussions. And “web 2.0” brings the opportunity of yet another option: a good and easy way for the visitors to create, present and share content themselves.
Environment is the last of the five points I would like to discuss. Yet again, this is a key factor in the success of your community. The downside is that you cannot fully control it. You can have “bad luck” and just miss out on all the fun, because, for example, someone had a similar idea and more marketing budget to push it. But do not despair; you in turn are part of the environment for everyone else out there and are thus very well capable of influencing the development of your own online community. Use your passion and knowledge to renew your community; be flexible and adapt it when needed.
You can use the environment to help you develop your community, ranging from simple banners as a promotion to using other social networks in helping to promote yours. Discuss your community, be connected; “web 2.0” may be hard to define but it is very well alive as the “spirit” in a philosophical sense that underlies the current internet culture. You can connect other networks to yours by integrating services like Flickr, or links with sites like Facebook, Bebo or Myspace. You can pass around updates from or about your site via RSS, twitter or instant messengers. All these kind of things will make the environment work for you, instead of making the environment hostile.
Thus we have seen what I think are the five main points that will help you gain “social network success”. As I have said, some of these will overlap with guidelines others might give you. In any sense, these points do not guarantee success, but at least you can be sure that you have thought of the most vital aspects of setting up a good community.
This text is a liberal translation of a Dutch article that I wrote earlier this year for marketing weblog “Bijgespijkerd”. You can find the original text, in Dutch, here.