How to get the first 1000 real members to join your social network. On a shoestring budget.

Andrew Boon posted 25th of September 2015 in Social Software. 38 comments.



That’s how many members your “community” site has right after you've completed installation, initial setup, branding and customisation. Not much of a community, eh!  


In this post I’ll show you how to get the first 1000 real members join your site. Step by step, with breakdown of impact significance of each step. This guide will work best for a Dolphin.Pro-powered site, but really can be used for any start-up social network, no matter what CMS or community platform powers it. 


REALITY CHECK: If you are too lazy to can’t perform all these steps, then you should stop paying for hosting, cancel your Boonex subscription and go back to breeding chickens. 

Breathe in, breath out and let’s get to work.

When people come to a new social network they look at two things - content and community. Mostly content. Unless it is a dating site where people are the content, you should not worry too much about the place looking “lonely”. It won’t look lonely if you get the first step right.  

Step 1. Become your own dream member.



You are your own first site member. Make it a good one. This will be the profile that greets new people, profile that will set the tone and theme of the site, profile that will show if you even care about getting your community off the ground.  


a) Join your own site. Just a simple sign-up to start with. At this stage you only need to make sure that you write your “Name” the way you want other members to do it. Anonymous “username” or real “full name”, depending on your niche and Dolphin settings. 


b) Write a killer description. Your profile description is a piece of text that thousands of people will be reading every day (fingers crossed).  Keep it in 50-200 words range and relevant to the context of your site. Remember, it is the “about you” write-up that is actually not about you. It is about how your presence makes the site interesting. Don’t write - “I love paper planes…”; write - “I invented a paper plane that can fly for 25 seconds and I’ll show you how to make one”.  People don’t care about you. They care about paper planes that can fly for 25 seconds. 


c) Add a great profile photo. No, you don’t have it in your photo archive. Well, maybe you do, but most likely you don’t. Go ahead and make one. Don’t skimp on this. It’s more important than your site logo. Good light, friendly smile, open look. Fill the frame with your face, not with your body or scenery. Make it sharp. Dolphin profile photos show in retina resolution, so even small thumbnails will reveal your face features. Perhaps have a good sleep before the photoshoot. If you can’t make it look sharp and clean - send your photo to one the artists at Fiverr to make a drawing.  


d) Upload a striking profile splash image. It’s a large picture, right on top of your profile. On Dolphin-based site profile photo, username and member menu show on top of it. So, it is important to understand that it is a background. Don’t use anything with too many details, texts or contrasting color-combination. Plain, but beautiful. It is OK to use a generic pattern, landscape or illustration, but you can make the splash amplify your message or tell a story. Back to the paper-planes example - it could be a picture of your best model up in the air, with awestruck kids in the background. 


e) Make 5 compelling blog posts. It will have to take you at least a week to do this, but it must be done.  Not 1 post. Not 3 posts. Write 5 different ones, with pictures, with meaningful insight,  fun stories and useful links. This is going to be the main body of content for your site. Keep the posts relevant to your niche. Be as open and giving as you possibly can. Use engaging titles and don’t forget about style. Proofraed!   


f) Create 5 albums with 10 photos each. Each album is a story. People love photo-stories. When you were making photos, you should have thrown out 9 out of 10 shots. Now go through the ones that’s left and choose the best ones - 1 out of a thousand. Upload and annotate. Each photo caption should be 5-20 words that add “soul” to the moment.  Think to the tune of - “The red smudge on left wing is blood from my fingers. Had to get the creases right!”.


g) Upload 10 fascinating videos. It may prove to be the hardest step, but it may as well become the most rewarding. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a 1 minute video at 30 frames per second is worth  1,800,000 words! That’s a lot of words. That’s about 2000 lengthy blog posts, in just 1 minute. You could embed existing relevant Youtube videos, sure - but those count as 0.0001 of your own original ones. Don’t cheat! Make 10 awesome videos, edit them (it's easy now), annotate and upload. Dolphin will convert them for you, but make sure to set up high-quality conversion and playback. 


h) Post 50 mixed-content items. Take a 2-week vacation with resolve to post 5 amazing items a day, with 4 extra days for interlinking them. Depending on what modules you’ve activated on your Dolphin site, they will be Polls, Events, Sounds, Files, Ads, Sites, Boards, etc. Don’t make any “test” posts. Your site is already live, the game is on, it is all for-real! All items should be tidy, engaging and relevant to the site goal. Once you have them all posted, go back to each one, edit and add links between them. Link to a Poll from the Blog post, to an Album from Event, to Event from from Group. Link from within content.


i) Create 2 topics in every section of your Forum. If you added a forum category, you ought to have something in mind you want to discuss about it. Keep the first posts at 50-200 words limit. Ask real questions that you actually care to contemplate. It’s hard to be asking into empty space at first, but get over it! You’re spending time and money for software and hosting. You must make good use of it. Ask into empty space and move on to the next step.

Step 2. Bribe your family and friends into joining.



Your own social site starts from your own social circle. If you can’t get them to join, you won’t get anyone else to join. Don’t nag, bribe them! And be cool about it. If you take it as a fun adventure, it is going to be a fun adventure for everyone involved. 


a) Give your wife / husband / partner a foot-massage. …while they’re signing up. Then bring coffee or hot chocolate, sit close by and challenge them to make a profile that rivals yours (see Step 1). 


b) Throw a "paper-plane party" with 1-hour workshop. If you started a site about something, you should have real people you already know that care about this theme. Invite them over, free beers and all. They party, you work. Before things go out of control, sit everyone down and tell about your new site. Show it.  Ask their opinion and make them feel like insiders of an elite club. Explain how they’re primed to become the top influencers in the entire niche when they join the site. Lock the door and don’t give them any cake until every single one has created a profile. Make some photos on the spot to add as profile pictures. When done, say - Thank you!" and let the party roll on.


c) Connect and infect them. Over the next week or two get your first few members to “become friends”. Keep posting new content, show it to them and ask to post something, too. Even small bits will do. You would really get them engaged if you post about them and their content. This is a micro-social-network already and you need to put the first wires together. Post things like “First planes by Alex and Maggie. Beginners luck or hidden talent?” and link to their first photos. Ask questions in forums that you know your fiends can answer and send the questions to them directly. If they don’t reply, call and make a fuss. Or give another foot massage and throw one more party. 

Step 3. Use your first profiles as bait.


Now that you have your first few connected profiles with great content, it’s time to use them to scale up. The big busy world may not really care that much about your friends, and they may not be eager enough yet to promote your site on their own. Their friends care.


a) Praise, show-off and flatter your friends publicly. Take their profile and content from your site and share it to social networks - Facebook, G+, VK, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. Promote via your profile, carefully tagging and referencing. Promote on their profile, commenting on how cool the content is and how shy your friend is to not share it yet. Your goal is to make THEIR friends itch for the same treatment


b) Promote relevant content, posted by others. You are not a spammer. So, you won’t go around posting links to your site in comments and forums everywhere. You’d be hated, damned and kicked out. You will see a much better tolerance for posts like “my friend Sam tried to make the same model and we made _this funny video together_”. Naturally, you would only post such links in places where it adds value to discussion and context. Don’t embellish your posts with spammy promo words. Just be casual, like it’s not even your site.  You can do it in various groups, forums, blogs and communities that are in same interest-group as your site. Don’t post links right off the bat! Get involved first, talk to people, feel the space. Good rule of thumb is to focus on 10 such places in the first 2 weeks and start posting links not sooner than the first week. You want admins to get a bit more comfortable with you first. 

Step 4. Engage like a horse-fly. 


You know what is the best organic fertiliser, pesticide and herbicide, all-in-one? It’s the gardener’s shadow! By now you will have about 100-200 profiles on your site. They will forget about your site very quickly unless you do this…


a) Respond to every post, every action and every comment. People use social network to gain one thing - recognition. They just want to be heard, approved, validated and well… liked. Even if just by one person. This person is going to have to be you


b) Make your welcome HOT! A warm welcome is not enough. When someone new joins your site, make a big fuss. Reach out, help to build a profile, show your best content, introduce other members. Most importantly, introduce the new member to your existing ones. Make friendships happen!


c) Don’t let them slip away. Monitor your membership base and when someone hasn’t been online for a couple of weeks - reach out. Message, email, call - ask why don’t they come back. Send them a few awesome links from your site with latest content, just to show that it’s still going strong. Even go as far as posting about them on your site, and sending the link to them. People will come back to comment on posts about themselves. At this stage every member is precious, don't lose them!


d) Make friends with new members and Step 3 them. As soon as your new members  feel comfortable on your site and with yourself, connect with them outside - on external social networks and do the same thing that you did with your own friends in Step 3. Be careful - you’re still a stranger, so stay humble and only talk about achievements of your new friends. Example… “Just wanted to say thanks for the amazing photos of airplanes collection that @Jessie posted on our little community site. Wow, wonder if your friends knew about these treasures?”.

e) Keep posting your own content. Step 1 is not over. It won’t be over for a while. Keep at it.

No, double-up on Step 1!

Step 5. Cross-promote. 


Your site is not the only one. And no, other web-masters are not hostile. They are all simple people, just like you, looking for ways to bump their traffic. Work with them…


a) Fall in love with 3 other sites. Make sure the love is mutual. Focus on just 3 sites that are a active, alive and not too big (so that you could be heard by administration). The sites should be related to yours, but not directly competing. In our paper-planes site example, we’d be looking for a site about origami, a community of model-planes fans, and an official site of some popular paper-plane competition. Join those sites, mingle with the community, become a regular. Then, reach out to the administration and talk about cross-promotion. The simplest way would be to exchange small square banners (125x125 or so) with direct links. Custom-design them to look clean without jumpy “click here” spam-gans. 


b) Track referrals and keep exchange equal. Use your analytics (Google Analytics, cPanel stats, Kissmetrics, Mixpanel, etc) program to track visitors from your partner sites. Also track your outgoing traffic and see how many visitors you send. If you’re not getting a good result - talk to the partner site admin and work on solution. You’d be saying - “Hey guys, it’s been great to exchange audience, but it looks like we’ve sent 500 people your way this month and only seen 18 back… any chance you could show our banner on this and that page?”.  If things don't work out - look for another love. Don’t be tempted to choose quantity over quality. 3 partner sites that send back the same amount of traffic will double your community growth. 

That’s it. 5 steps. Total cost - $50-2000 (depending on the beer brand and what you put in the cake) and about 6 months of your life (which you would have spent for much more boring stuff otherwise).

Result - 1000+ real members that will lay foundation for the future growth. 

What’s next?


Over the next few week I’ll be sharing ideas on…


- How to scale from 1000 to 10,000 members.

- What are absolute worst things you can do to your site - what to avoid. 

- How to undercut competition.

- How to overlook things that don’t matter.

- Staying sane and healthy while building your social networking business.


We have been working with social sites for over 15 years already, both as software developers and as site operators, enjoying some successes and surviving many failures. We’ve learnt quite a bit and want to share what we know.  I’ve started this series of posts to offer some direction advice to Dolphin.Pro admins. A platform that powers your site is just a stepping stone - you do the walking and I hope that these insights would come handy. 


If you’re not using Dolphin yet (perhaps you’re stuck with another platform or you’re just plotting your plans), you would still find this series helpful. A lot can be applied to your venture. 



Boonex members will be notified about future posts. If you’re not a member yet, don’t just sit there...


...and we’ll start sending you some of the best advice you’ll ever hear about how to build a successful community site. 

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Thanks Andrew, very helpful info.
Andrew Boon
Glad you liked it. If there's something else you'd like to read about - let me know.
Andrew Boon
Thanks! So many people get a site started but never get anywhere with it. Hoping to change that.
That was me, hoping to change that pretty soon as I go through your steps.
Andrew Boon
пожалуйста, приятно что для русскоязычных язык не проблема !
Andrew Boon
Pleasure. Writing about this is actually quite inspiring. Gotta challenge myself to do the same here. ;)
Thank you Andrew, very useful information.
Andrew Boon
Thank you for reading! It is a long one :)
Solid read. I'm looking to start this phase in a couple weeks!
I've never researched such a topic as to "how to do it right" managing a social outlet. I was happy to read that many of my own thoughts and practices align with your posts. You can look at my site and see proof of much of it. I am however falling short in other areas. I am only at 162 members but 99% of my members are real legit people. I use anti spam methods and personally screen every member. Membership base is smaller but the quality is there in the smaller number. Probably block see more 50 to 75 sign ups a week. I think if Boonex would start making a "slew" of their own templates then we could have a better chance at getting the look right. Right now we wait on a couple different vendors to provide templates once in a while. Otherwise maybe if the template structure was easier to implement then more people would contribute templates. Unless an author happens to throw up a compatible template that suits my site then I am stuck with 7.1.6. Just some thoughts. Great blog posts and very relevant.
Andrew Boon
Thank you for the input. Templates are indeed very important. For us it takes enormous amount of time to add and then support a new template, so we are very very careful with introducing them. In fact we looking towards adding more customisation options to existing template to increase range of possible designs.
Templates do need flexibility. Look forward to seeing what you have in mind.
Very rich content ! Thanks
Andrew Boon
You are welcome! Hoping to publish another one next week.
Great stuff Andrew. Thanks for taking the time to put it into words. I know it took time, and wanted you to know that it is most appreciated.
Andrew Boon
Ha ha! Yes, it did take time, but it was a pleasure to write this. A lot of Dolphin operators concentrate too much on the software, and not putting enough effort into cultivating content and community. It would be really nice to see more success stories here. :)
How true. We often spend too much money on the modules and not enough time on the content. That needs to change.
we built a crazy active local niche site, around 13k members, ~99% real, 80% are active past 30days, 50% visit daily, 1.7m pageviews a month, avg user session is 19mins. i meet people in public who suggest i join my own site. anyhow, we are running a very modified 'dolphin-stein' versions of 7.2 with a ton of open source components ported in. we are working on porting out our custom mods and changes and should be posting them here in the near future.
Andrew Boon
Great story! Wow! Would be nice to hear some if the tips you may care to share about how your got to your first 1000 members?

I plan to publish "1000 to 10,000" and then "10,000 to 100,000" posts in near future, so any input on that would also be very much appreciated.
When we are going to read next part Alex?
Andrew Boon
I've been putting together some ideas and plan to publish the nest stage plan later this month.
Standing by with anticipation.
I had similar plans but need to rethink the numbers and consider the type of members we really want.
Andrew Boon
Would you mind telling a bit more? The quality vs quantity question is really really interesting in this case.
Indeed, while some community sites might be prepared to populate their database with 'fake' profiles, quality members is more important than quantity, for content-based sites.

We're interested in members who add content and value to the community; sharing their local knowledge with visitors, while encouraging others to add to our online travel guides with genuine recommendations.
As myhuntprofile, I am pleased that I am in the right, I have followed many of your coseils before you write them, and I can assure that they are wise and especially after the success obtained, never lower guard and sit on its laurels, always find new ideas and do not allow members to retire. I do not know if it's a good idea, but why not create here a place to share our results, our ideas, our experiences, our mistakes. In your tips Andrew, you say not to remain alone in his corner, but here I'm see more trying to find out what the others it remains a mystery. Otherwise, thank you to you and your team, today I have a passion, and I must admit that BoonEx, the team and its members have greatly contributed to develop this passion. Ah yes, the passion, it takes a lot, I do not think we can go far without it ....
Excellent information, I plan on using it!
Thanks; Andrew, for all the hard work you've done upgrading your product; and now in encouraging us to grow our communities, with these helpful tips.

Time to rethink our own way forward.
Andrew Boon
Yep. ;)

Seriously, though. There's theory based on anecdotal evidence that a few typical misspellings may help in keeping google's trust-rank healthy. Real humans are never perfect.
Hi Andrew, Your timing is fantastic...this is exactly where we are...0! I'll keep tabs on these user generation methodologies and keep you posted. It's nice to know that in my efforts to create a community, I've also joined one....cheers!
Thanks for this Andrew, however I have a question. You say become a member of your own site. My site is business people related. And so would my profile need to be as the administrator or as a user. ie, a user with a profile related to self development for example? So basically would my membership profile need to be congruent with the site or with my own interest as a user apart from the site? Thanks anyway. Cant wait to move to the next level.
Andrew Boon
Excellent question! I would recommend a "user" profile with your name, but you can give it admin privileges.

UNA platform is a bit more flexible in dealing with this - it features multiple profiles per account, which you can use to represent yourself as a person, company or some other role.
Thank You Andrew. Much appreciated, thats clearer now. I am also realizing that I will have to add content as admin anyway in the form of tutorials etc. Although I have too much time invested in Dolphin at present and wouldn't want to move over just yet.
Below is the legacy version of the Boonex site, maintained for Dolphin.Pro 7.x support.
The new Dolphin solution is powered by UNA Community Management System.