Practical advice on what can be done to scale your social networking website membership base from small to mid-size, maintain activity, attract organic traffic, and accelerate growth.
The second step is usually just as steep as the first, if not steeper. Paradoxically, we often take it in stride. Getting past your initial 0 to 1000 members phase is a rare achievement—the real testament to your personal perseverance and validity of your ideas. Now you know that whatever comes next, you are ready and it is worth the effort. The real fun begins!
When you just launched your community site, or even before that, ideas were theoretical. Now that you have had some activity, things may well be very different from what you expected. Perhaps you thought that everyone would jump into group chat all the time, or share their funny cat videos, but they just keep posting in forums! Maybe you were going to capture the global network of beer-lovers, but your community is active around homebrew tips and tricks.
Listen to your members and uphold whatever natural trends are developing. Don't fight it, help it. Early stages of any social community development heavily rely on early adopters, and you must support their leanings. Organic trends validate the market. If you refocus your entire site to support these patterns, you will be cementing the backbone of your membership base and addressing newcomers with a proven proposition.
Don't think about adding something that might work as well as what works well now. Reflect on how you can make what works now work better.
For example, your site is a book-reviewing community, and you see much activity happening in, say, discussion forums – the new releases section. It looks like your members want to talk about new releases and not just review books they have read. Fine! Support the trend and start including the most interesting discussions in your weekly newsletter, feature the latest topics on the home page, participate in those talks yourself more. You will see glimpses of spontaneous community activity, which is not forced – it just happens, and it is magical.
After the 1,000-member mark, doing it all yourself is not going to be fun. You need help. It may be someone from among your friends, or someone you hire, but remember – the people most passionate about your site goals are likely among your site members. That is where you need to look first.
Reach out to your community and outline the specific bottlenecks with which you need help. If someone volunteers, or even expresses interest, go ahead and talk to them -- message, call, travel, and talk. Offer whatever perks you can afford and be genuine. These are the most important people in your venture for years to come, point blank and period.
Repetitive, algorithmic jobs that take much time can be done by someone you could train. These include tasks like reviewing new registrations, clearing out spammy content, pruning dead profiles, triaging support emails, etc.
Getting someone to tackle routine tasks for you is also an excellent way to upskill your new team members, but make sure you come back to doing these yourself from time to time as well.
Swallow that humble pill and get someone else to do things you cannot do well. You might be able to photoshop together a simple blog post cover, but if it still looks like a grocery supermarket catalogue, seek help.
Often, it does not cost much to access real talent. You can start with marketplaces like Fiverr and vastly improve your act.
At some stage, however, you will need to take a good look at your venture priorities, finances, and goals. Then, decide on whom you need most, and start hiring A-class professionals -- editors, designers, developers, performers -- whoever can be better than you in the key aspects of your business.
Now is NOT the time to even look at what your competitors are doing. This would distract, sidetrack, and demotivate you. If you have 1000 members already, your market proposition is valid. It doesn't matter if it's unique or better/cheaper/faster/nicer than that of your competitors. All you need is to make sure that tomorrow your site is better than it is today.
You will be spending more time and money on your social network now. It may still be too small to generate substantial income, but you can already start careful testing of non-disruptive paid offerings.
Be cautious not to impede growth, though. Suddenly charging for initial registration or access to basic functionality may not be the best thing to do just yet. Set up a premium content area, and new actions tied to a simple, paid membership level.
When you start charging, and someone pays you, reach out and connect with them. Talk to the paying members often and learn about their experience. Be prepared to issue refunds of the money if needed or to adjust your setup. It is not about making much money now; it's about learning what would work best.
Once your membership reaches 1000 or more, you should start noticing trends. Use Google Analytics to track what kind of content performs best, examine "behaviour flow" to find what pages cause the most drop-offs, and check your referral traffic sources to see who's linking to your site. A lot of these insights will be eye-opening.
Another way to observe is to "peek". In internet terms, this is actually almost literally peeking - just use something like inspectlet.com to record and watch user sessions. It takes a bit of time to go through enough recordings to draw any conclusions, but you will quickly get a feel for what may be slowing people down, or what grabs attention.
Ideally, you need to publish public posts, albums, or featured articles to your entire membership base weekly or fortnightly. You can do this via a "featured" block on the site homepage, or as a news section. Make your site feel alive and evolving.
Moreover, there is evidence that Google gives a temporary bump in rankings for regular, freshly-posted content pieces, and maintains healthy rankings for the rest of the site in general. How many "graveyard" sites have you seen on the internet? There are plenty of blogs that haven't published anything since the year 2003, or forums with no new topics for months. Google would know to devalue such sites, so do the opposite -- post regularly and send a message that your community is active.
It sounds like a "go and buy a winning lottery ticket" kind of advice, right? Well, it's not all that rare and challenging if you know how to link your site theme with social media pop culture.
For example, your site is a bird-watchers' community, and posts about birds do not go viral on Facebook. Instead, you could create a forum discussion on your site and ask your members to share pictures of birds that look like some famous people. Once you have enough material, compile an epic "20 birds that look like celebrities" blog post, add it to the discussion, share on Facebook, and call for your members to re-share it too. See what happens.
Viral and "news" content gives excellent traffic pumps and keeps a community engaged, but the most sustainable inflow of new users is built through high-quality "evergreen" content. This is content that serves as reference material, knowledge base, go-to articles for the interest that your network is all about.
For example, if your site is a yoga-teachers community. Take a few weeks and write a MASSIVE overview of traditional Indian yogic orders with pictures, gurus, quotes, and references, maintaining Wikipedia-style accuracy, but with your own personal "voice." You should then write another one covering meditation techniques, then talk about breathing exercises, asanas, schools reviews, landmark destinations (heck, even write a yoga mat buying guide if that is your passion).
Evergreen content is a big job. You may be able to bring it out once every few months, but that is fine. It adds up. Also, make sure to revisit and update it.
An important tip is to keep your evergreen content somewhat separate from your "news." Stick to a designated blog category, or use an articles module, or even make custom pages for every post.
Don't fix what's not broken, but do fix what is broken. Some of your old posts, albums, or conversations would show poor traffic performance despite reasonably valuable content substance. Recycle them! Review, re-write and re-publish again using the insights you gained from your champion content. Often, it is just about poor formatting, or bad timing, or something as small as a poor introductory paragraph. Keep the old version intact, and make sure the new version is updated enough to be distinctly different. Reference the old one and be open about republishing. Try different titles, different summaries, different sets of images.
Amateur videos are all the rage. As internet connection speeds are improving and smartphone cameras become more and more capable, videos capture eyeballs like never before. Most are non-professional, short recordings that address some narrow field of interest.
So, get out of that shy corner, take your smartphone and start talking. Record, upload to your site, share the post link on social networks, rinse and repeat. Keep it relevant to your community niche, encourage other members to do the same, and have fun!