10 Web 2.0 Tips: $75

While the title of this post sounds like the beginning of a Mastercard commercial, it's actually describing my experiences over the past couple of months launching and running a small social network.S_dollars1_2 First, a little context and then I'll get to the tips.  A couple of days after Super Tuesday I noticed on the Obama campaign blog that the posts were getting several thousand comments each.  Curious to see what that was all about, I quickly found out that there was a little "community" in the comments section.  People were communicating with each other on various topics, most not related to the original blog post.  I also noticed that many people were "recycling" campaign gear–essentially passing gently used materials from states that had already held their primaries to those yet to vote.  It occurred to me that there was a better way to do this than blog comments, so I decided to set up ObamaCycle.com, a site where supporters can recycle used or extra campaign gear.  Over the past couple of months, the site has gotten a lot of use and attention (hundreds and hundreds of cases of recycling).  So, here are ten tips I learned from this experience:

10.  It is fast, easy and cheap to launch a community site.  I had this idea about noon and the site was up and running with its first members joining starting at 2pm that afternoon.  The first thing I did was check GoDaddy to see if I could get the domain ObamaCycle.com.  It was available so I plunked down $9.99 to buy that.  Next, I surfed over to Ning and set up a new community, which cost me the grand sum of nothing and took about 10 minutes.  After configuring the community (basically selected features like blogs, discussion forums, picture/video sharing, etc.) I bought a few premium services: custom domain name (i.e. to use ObamaCycle.com instead of obamacycle.ning.com) at $4.95 per month, remove Google adds from the site at $19.95 per month and remove the Ning promotions on the site at $7.95 per month.  The thing that took the longest was it took about 2 hours for the DNS to propagate so that ObamaCycle.com pointed to the Ning site.  So now 2 months later my total investment is $75.69 and it took me all of about 2 hours to set the site up.  I read a blog post recently that if you hear of a "stealth web services business" something is wrong because it doesn't take much time or money to launch a site. 

9.  The community is your best source of product features.  The beauty of community sites is that you have a direct line of communication to every member.  Gone are the days of doing a focus group with a few customers to get product ideas.  Just a few hours after launching, I was getting messages asking for changes to the site.  For example, I set up categories for the forums based on states and very quickly people wanted it changed to type of campaign materials.  The lesson here is that you shouldn't over think community site features in advance, rather put something up and plan on making changes after launch based on user feedback.

8.  The community is your best PR agency.  If you Google "ObamaCycle" there are almost 10K results (there were zero when I started) the overwhelming majority of which are the result of member evangelism.  Essentially members post comments on major blogs and their own blogs.  I think one metric for the vibrancy of your community is how much and how frequently members talk about it outside of your site.  That's something which you should measure and track.

7.  Members fall into three categories.  Members fall into one of three buckets: activists, participants and lurkers.  Activists are people that are incredibly engaged–they visit multiple times per day, they actively post, probably moderate and in a lot of ways act like employees.  Participants are those folks who will post or comment on occasion.  They find utility in the site, but for them it is a tool.  And finally, lurkers are people who like the concept are connected to the site, visit occasionally but do not actively participate.  My guess is that for every 1,000 members, about 900 are lurkers, 90 are participants and 10 are activists.  Each of these segments has different needs.  For example, blogs are great for activists, but polls can be a better way to engage participants.  The lesson here is to think about these segments separately.

6.  Press has a natural progression.  Over the course of a few weeks, "press" coverage progressed from small blogs and forums to major blogs and from there to regional papers / TV to national outlets.  I didn't call any press, they all called me and I'm pretty sure that if I had pitched a story I couldn't have gotten better results.  The lesson here is to go with the flow and not waste time pitching the press…let them come to you.

5.  Online press coverage is better than offline.  I installed Google Analytics about a month after launch and am really impressed with the data and presentation (and it's free to boot).  One thing that jumped out immediately was that the main sources of traffic were other online sites (i.e. very little direct traffic).  One great example was a front page article on Wired.com that was (and still is) the largest source of traffic compared to a piece on CNN which resulted in a small fraction of the Wired traffic.

4.  Forget about making money off advertising.  In the last two months, the site has generated about a half million page views.  If I did run Google ads (or something similar), I'd be looking at $0.10 CPM which best case would result in $50 of advertising revenue.  A half million page views is a lot and even that doesn't recoup my $75!  Bottom line, if you want to monetize a web 2.0 community, odds are it's going to be via something other than ads.

3.  The name is important. If I had named the site RecycleObamaCampaignGear.com, I'm pretty sure that it would not have taken off.  Many of the reporters I spoke to latched onto the name ObamaCycle.  They wanted to work that into the story…often times in the headline like "ObamaCycle: A Craigslist for Obama Campaigners."  A lot of members identified and commented on the name.  Bottom line: the name matters.

2.  Features don't really matter.  If there is a true community around your site, then members will overlook a lot of faults.  On ObamaCycle, campaign materials are "listed" in discussion forum format, but the formatting sucks and it's hard to find stuff.  Despite that a lot of people have and continue to use the site.  I think the lesson here is that if you find yourself saying, "geez, we really need to add [feature x] to get more members/usage" it's probably a bigger issue with the community, messaging, etc.

1.  You can get real work out of community members.  On the second day after I launched, a member reached out to me offering to help.  I gave her "moderator" permissions and she became hugely involved (posting a welcome note to every new member, moderating forums, helping match donors with folks in need).  I originally launched the site with a standard Ning theme and some low quality graphics I got from a screen shot of the Obama site.  A couple of days later, a member of the site sent me some custom graphics (their day job was graphic design) all unsolicited.  The lesson here is that you'd be hard pressed to get better quality of work from a paid 3rd party as compared to your activist members.