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» Dragging your community site into a Web 3.0 world
The Admin "gogoblender" saw my rather long and detailed posts in a variety of forum topics and asked me to submit this content as an article.
I've ran a variety of forum/community sites since 1999. I have been involved in computer technology since 1984; programming on the VIC-20 and Commodore PET back in the day, in the early 90's as a project I wrote a time-slicing multitasking OS wrapper for the Commodore 64 in machine code (not assembly; actual direct machine code) where it would split the screen and run two entirely independent BASIC prompts. In the 90's I was an authorized Commodore-Amiga dealer and warranty service shop. Throughout the 00's I ran a network consulting company doing server and infrastructure builds. I dont blabber this to toot my horn, just to show my experience in the industry. Makes me feel old; 1984 when I took my first programming course was 27 years ago. These days, I'm not much of a coder anymore.
In watching the way that computing has gone over the past 25 years, I have noticed like most users a variety of trends. In 1989 I was dialing up to BBS software, it was exciting using ASCII code to draw pictures in posts, I recall contests in threads on BBS software. I remember uploading my .MOD files to BBSes and being excited watching people download them and hearing their comments on my original songs that I wrote.
In the late 80's the 300, 1200, and 2400 bps modems were pretty cool. BBSes allowed people to chat with eachother on forum boards and in online chat. In the 90's, the internet arrived, with a few in-betweens (Prodigy and AOL for example, and prior to that, Compuserve). Chatting with other users online was a novelty and the scene was filled with geeks. Technophiles chatting with other technophiles, sometimes about things that werent even technology related! The market was largely teenage outcast boys and older tinkering men escaping in their caves from their wives or sometimes their lives as they had no wives.
As the internet took hold, the market grew larger and larger. The old BBS was replaced with the forum board. Amazingly, the most entertaining part of the old BBS infrastructure, the online turn-based game, practically didnt reappear until the introduction of online multiplayer games 15 years later, save for a few attempts.
Advertising came into the picture, where it didnt really exist before. Search engines like HotBot would allow people to sponsor search terms, forcing users to skim backwards to find the real actual spidered organic search. Google was a game-changer, almost going backwards in a race towards purity. Ironically, Google makes 90% of their revenue from advertising with a business model that was designed from the ground up to NOT muddy users's results with advertising.
There was enough eyeballs hitting the internet that commerce took hold, we saw the dot-com bubble blow up and burst, network speeds reach speeds that would blow the mind of someone time warped from 1989 straight to 2009 (300 bits per second to 10 million bits per second).
During the late 90's and throughout the 00's, forum boards popped up and became very, very popular. After portals (like the old Yahoo for example), forum boards were an almost reinvention of the old BBS format that was used 15 years earlier by the geekiest of the geeks, but this time the audience was much, much wider.
It became easier and easier to launch a forum board throughout the 00's. Whereas in 2001, one needed to bash their way through PHP and MySQL and flat file configurations, and make modifications to the code to affect how the software interacted, over time the software became better and less complicated for the forum board owner. Installers were created, pluggable modules were created, features became easier to add, hands on coding was required less and less. Today, if you open a hosting account at a major provider you can launch a forum board in one click. There are free forum board sites that allow you to create your own forum in minutes.
With all of this ease, hundreds and then thousands of forums were being created every day. By 2010, almost every internet user had at least seen and reviewed threads on a forum board, if not joined one, commented on one, been flamed on one, and witnessed the drama and politics of one. Ironically, there was a statistic (I cant recall where from) that showed that the most rapidly growing segment of new website administrators was people over the age of 55 - retired people who figured they could hit it big by launching a website; often a forum website.
During the mid to late 2000's, demand for web developers was really high because here was this group of people who didnt have the technical expertise but did have the money to pay someone who had it. My consulting business, while focused on corporate IT infrastructure, became overwhelmed with requests for individuals to create websites; in large part, CMS engines or forum boards. Business was good. The internet was hopping.
However around 2009 two things really changed. The first thing that changed the entire rules of the game was social media; Facebook hit a hundred million users. The other thing that changed the rules of the game was mobile. Users could reliably and easily browse the web on their phones, the invention and popularity of the Blackberry with full web access and the iPhone made WAP protocols totally obsolete. Social media grabbed right on board and had killer mobile apps. Social media changed the game so incredibly that it is almost the "new e-mail". "Facebook me" is now as common a term as "e-mail me", if not more common.
Administrators running a community based site have faced some brutal realities. Myself included, we saw user registrations fall, post counts fall, user submissions fall, and traffic fall. Some killer niches have barely noticed, as have those sites that already had such critical mass and a busy userbase. However the majority of community sites do not fall into these categories; the majority of community sites have a user base somewhere between 150-500 truly active users (people who havent logged on in a long time dont really count).
I have run a website that was number one in it's niche in my country since 2006 as a pet project. I saw the site go from zero users in December 2005, to 250 users by March 2006, to 1400 users by 2008, all active seeing as I deleted all users who hadnt logged in in over 4 months so I had reliable metrics of how the site was doing. However like many other administrators, I then watched as that fell to 750 in 2009, 550 in 2010, and back down to 350 in 2011.
Did I pull a classic administrator mistake and pee off all my users, sending them flying away in droves? Did I allow my site to be basked in a massive flamewar, driving quality users away? Did I lose my number one spot in my niche in my country? The answer to all of these questions is no. I was active in moderation, keeping things off topic and nuking people who got into personal attacks. I was still number one in my niche, as I regularly surveyed my competitors and they were slowing down even faster than I was. While I had the occasional outburst with a particularly abrasive user, I wasnt falling into the black hole of arguing with my users. My site was still successful enough to have users try to "cleave" off sections of my userbase to try to clone my site's model right down to the affinity products that we sold online.
No, I knew that the problem was something different. The problem was, social media was stopping my traffic from ever reaching my site. I had the users, they were registered, they came back to check their PM's regularly, sometimes on an hourly basis. A skimming of the PMs was people meeting people on my site (it is based on an extreme sport) in the forums and then asking them to "friend" them on facebook. People would still come to my site to meet people in their local area who played the sport - but then they would connect on facebook and eliminate my site altogether from their conversation.
Surely I was not operating a meet and greet site for people to connect on Facebook. That certainly wasnt my intention when I created my website and put thousands and thousands of hours of work into marketing it, handing out cards, building a nationwide network, attracting sponsors, hosting events. Facebok makes enough money and gets enough eyeballs. They certainly dont need to benefit off of all my hard work free of charge.
From 2010 through to 2011, I was painfully musing about what I was going to do about it. In order to go from watching my traffic bleed from the jugular to a jaggernaut like Facebook to watching my site bleed traffic from Facebook's juglular, some serious architechtural changes were going to be required. I was going to have to EMBRACE the social media and mobile revolutions, or I was just going to watch my site slow down and down and down until it was one of those relics of yesteryear's past, like the beloved Commodore 64, AMIGA, or dial up BBSes.
However, myself, like probably most of the people reviewing this article, had a serious conundrum. The forum/community site software I was using just was totally incapable of harnessing the social media context. While I had a CMS article based section in it, I had already had to make serious modifications to the software to make it easier to find, use, and store content. Like a lot of other busy forum board admins, I had found a million band-aid ways to help users find content like team rosters and area captains and articles on particular topics; but it was going to take a whole new back-end engine to convert my site over from this forum-centric software into something that was going to drag my community site into the social media centric future.
The very thought of ditching my old engine (and therefore all the user-generated content and business of the forums) was probably the single most scary thought bouncing around in my brain. Do nothing, and my site would slowly die and become irrellevant. Do what needed to be done, and my critical mass and hundred thousand posts would probably not be migrateable over. The entire structure of everything would have to change; it would be a learning process for both me and my users, and I was not sure I would survive it.
For over a year I mused about what I needed to do to bring my community into the future in order to survive. It was entirely an academic theoretical exercise, happening in my own mind and in discussions with other people who were also users of the site.
The hosting provider I was using had some sort of a horrible hacker attack. The site was repeatedly getting injection attacks, file drops, the URL even stopped working for a bit. It was getting worse and worse, then, their servers crashed. I had to switch hosts, and fast.
There was only one problem. My community software just wouldn't work with PHP5. I hacked and I hacked and I hacked, my site saw over three weeks of total downtime.
Faced with throwing up either yet another slightly newer engine that could handle PHP5 and possibly retain my post structure, or to bite the bullet and finally get around to modernizing my site, I took the more painful option - the latter.
What I ended up choosing was Drupal 7. I chose this engine because it was tremendously supported, had a huge developer community, and had all of the social plugins and features that I had identified that I would need to bring my site into the modern Internet 3.0 age.
What did I identify that I needed? Well I had over a year to think about it. My users were connecting on Facebook; so I had to find a way to synchronize their Facebook accounts with their accounts on my site. Users were sharing things on their facebook walls, so I needed a way for users to share their wall content with my site as well as to share content on my site with their wall. Twitter, while I personally find it a really inane and useless medium, was enormously popular; I needed to have regular Twitter updates for users who used that medium. Mobile, I needed a serious mobile solution, and fast, because again, Facebook and Twitter had been lapping me and virtually all forum board and community software owners and badly for quite some time.
Drupal was one open source software that had all of these features. There were a few others that I seriously looked at, some that cost thousands of dollars, and I seriously considered them but upon reading poor reviews I erred on the side of caution. I figured I was better off with an open source system that I could build upon than an expensive closed source system that I could end up orphaned with with a much lighter wallet.
Converting to Drupal has not been a dream. It works entirely differently from my previous software, which I could skim through the code like a ninja to make hardcoded changes. I started with Drupal 7, the latest version (they have already released beta versions of 8), only to find that a lot of the mods that I wanted to install only work with 4, 5, or 6. The forum software even with an advanced forum mod was a pittance compared to what I was using before. The learning curve was steep, and I was literally creating a production website on the fly, I had users Facebooking me asking me what was going on and when the site was going to be back up almost daily.
What I set up to replace my old engine with has fulfilled already a lot of my "wants and needs". Now, every forum post, every comment, every change of content on the site will automatically go to the site's Facebook wall feed. I already had over 700 followers on Facebook, and now they can see on their FB feeds whenever something happens on the site. Making use of a service called "Twitterfeed" I set up a variety of RSS feeds on my site and Twitterfeed will automatically submit them to both Twitter and Facebook and dump in links automatically using a URL shortening service, meaning more links to my site.
There is a service called Janrain - which allows users to sign in using their other accounts like Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. so new users no longer need to register with yet another account, have their verification e-mails forwarded to the junk box by their webmail account provider, I invoked this because even I have gotten sick of creating new usernames and passwords at all of the different sites that I may want to comment on ranging from news to here on TAZ.
Janrain also makes creating a Facebook App easy; it helped me to synchronize users Facebook accounts with their accounts on my site - it even migrates their profile picture over automatically. With a few tweaks it will migrate other peices of information over to my database and it also allows them to cross share content to one wall or the site instantly using a widget.
I have yet to set up the mobile stuff because there is just nothing out there that does what I need it to do - which is a standalone mobile App for iPhone, Blackberry, and Android that will give the indicator when there is a new private message or allow them to easily browse updates to the site. However, in the meantime, the Twitter and Facebook automatic feed updates will do.
How does it all work? Well I did catch myself while camping, hitting the Social Feeds icon on my Blackberry and noticing that there was a new post on my site. I could click it, it would bring up the post (albiet somewhat clunky because I dont have the mobile tools installed yet) and I could quickly and easily reply to it. Seeing as I have over 1300 friends on Facebook my feed moves rather quickly. However this was instrumental - it told me I was on the right track for sure. I wasnt looking for stuff happening on my site, in fact I had only set up the new site two weeks prior; but there it was and it was really neat to see.
People these days do all kinds of stuff on their mobile phones. Going and firing up the desktop or notebook is a different sort of activity these days and people may just not hit your site at all when it's fired up. It is rare that they're going to boot up their computer just to check whats going on on your site now.
The key to harnessing social media is to embrace it, rather than to fight it. I know, I would get truly annoyed when people would post links to their facebook image galleries on my forum, especially seeing as I had a fully functional image gallery right on the site that any user could upload images to in a flash. Watching users submit tons of youtube links was also truly annoyng as an admin, why would they not upload the video itself?
Well, the web has changed from 2.0 to 3.0. People dont want to upload their video to Youtube and then to your site and then to the other site. They will upload to their YT account and then submit the link everywhere; they also want people to see the other stuff on their channel. They are uploading their pictures to faceook to share them with their friends so they can tag their friends in the photos, they dont want to upload their photos AGAIN to your site so that you can control the data. They dont even want to register on a site if they have to create a new UID and password. The old days where we as community site admins could control everything, the message, the container, the format, the user, are over, and gone for good.
Banning a user because they are talking smack about your site doesnt fire them into the netherworld anymore; they may have already connected on Facebook with a bunch of your other users, and you may end up finding a long thread of smack talk about you or your site on there, and theres not much you can do about it. Users spider outwards as they are connected to eachother and you no longer have virtually any control over the message, it starts to appear in feeds as each person makes their comment on there and gives their two bits, which alerts yet more people to the post in an almost viral sort of way.
Yet social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have all of this possibility. Facebook has over 500 million users; at least SOME of those people must be in your target market. Twitter has millions of users too, without the requirement for interconnection (all Twitter comments are public) the hashtag system allows people to track particular trending topics. Instead of these monoliths slowly crushing your community, there is opportunity in there. Companies know this and are jumping all over eachother trying to get on the bandwagon. Yet us, as forum board or community site admins, are tripping all over ourselves trying to complain about how the chatter on there is crap.
The future is only going to see more social media integration. Google Plus will integrate with Google Wallet and that will integrate with Google Checkout. Facebook is partnering up with eBay which is partnered up with PayPal. We already see "like this" buttons for Facebook and a variety of other sites all over the web. We are going to see "want this" buttons and "own this" buttons that will integrate with social media accounts within the year. These features are going to be tremendously useful - think of it, if you look at your buddy's Facebook info page, you will know what sort of things that he wants when you are trying to decide what to get him for a wedding gift. If you click on the item, it will show you the eBay auction for the item, or the web page for the item, or a review of the item. No more pawing around asking people what he wants or getting him yet another awful tie that he will never wear.
When it comes to your community site, having your existing users post content from your site onto their social media wall or feed is your best medium for growth. I work in marketing for a financial services company (stock brokerage) and the adage forever has always been "referrals, referrals, referrals". The reason for this is because like attracts like. Chances are that a friend, colleague, or associate of your user is into some of the same things or shares some of the same interests. If you are running a community on automotive tinkering, chances are that your user has friend who is also into automotive tinkering. Getting your user to post stuff on their wall or feed about your site hits an instant crop of prospective users for your site.
This was something that I implemented in a really hard-core way. Any comment, any post, anything that a user submits to my site will bring up a window that will allow them to instantly synchonize this content to their wall. They can skip this step, but it takes as much time to skip the step as it does to publish it, provided they have used the social media account to sign on.
My site used to have the same useless rank structure as most community sites, as in "Number of Posts" = "Rank". We've all seen the guy who posts a billion little useless comments of little substance who has the high level rank on a community site. We've also seen the once active poster who got a high rank back in the day, who occasionally wades in and berates the newer more active users with the "well I've been on this site longer than you and I think..." sort of posts.
Seeing as post counts are going down, and going down forever, I changed the whole system.
I give ten times more rank points for starting a new topic as I do for commenting on an already existing one. I give rank points for linking their account on my site to social media; and rank points for sharing content to their social media walls. I give rank points for submitting new content, and rank points for sending private messages. The original author gets rank points when someone comments on their content. However, I also did it with a twist: all rank points now have an expiry date. A single rank point issued for logging in lasts a week. Submitting a new article, the points last a year. Sharing to social media lasts for three months. I dont do this opaquely; I do this overtly and let the users know. If they want to game the system (such as the guy who needs 25 posts to get X feature unlocked) thats fine, but they're going to do it in a way that benefits my site and more tightly integrates them into my framework. And best of all, if they dont keep it up; they're going to lose those points, so it is easier to see who the active people are and who the has-been users are.
Is it working? Well I wont really know until I've ran it for a year. On the upside, I wont need to delete accounts that havent logged in for a long time anymore to get a real determination of how many active users I have. Because those who are inactive will automatically lose their rank points all I have to do is look at the scoreboard; anyone else can look at it too, perhaps it will foster competition. I've already seen it - people want to write content and share content because they build up rank points faster. The sharing puts my site in front of more users and I get more impressions.
I watched my traffic slowly dwindle, from 50,000 hits a month to 30,000, to 15,000, to down below 5,000. Something had to be done. Right now I'm back down to a measily 3,000 post the site renewal, although I dont think that is a direct impact of what I have done to the site any more than it was a direct impact before I made these serious changes to the engine and redid everything from scractch. The site is slowly rebuilding after the traumatic down-for-three-weeks nightmare, and aside from the social media stuff, I can fix the content centric problems I had with the old site.
The thing is, while forum boards are seeing dwindling traffic, it isnt that the traffic is not there. Take a look at a news site - hundreds or thousands of comments. Look at YouTube - hundreds sometimes thousands of comments on a video. Take a look at Facebook - billions of comments. Twitter - millions of comments per day on whatever.
The paradigm shift is in place. These social media engines have just completely abosrbed the blabbering online for the sake of blabbering online type of content. All of us forum admins have seen the posts, like "who else is on xyz.com at 3 in the monring?". That stuff was the glue that kept our forum board running between the momentous or useful posts. Its all gone now. Now users are posting that drivel to their facebook or twitter feeds, and they are getting an audience - we may stick up our noses and pretend that it is good that that traffic isnt around anymore, but we would be kidding ourselves - that was our hard core userbase spending hours and hours on our site when they were bored and adding content.
Like many other forum admins, I had come up with band-aids to store content in my forum site. It became difficult to find virtually anything for newer users. Now I have a tag based content management system. Users who go into videos and watch a video may see a particular city in the tags and be interested in anything else that happened in that city. They click on the tag and it brings up all the content relevant to that particular city. Try that in a forum engine. Ever see the condescending "use the search" post after post in a technical forum posted by an annoyed veteran user who is tired of the same questions over and over again? Never again - they can just find the content via a menu and tags.
As community site operators we need to smash this marriage we have with forum board software because it is based on pre-web principles, and we are here in a Web 3.0 world. The way forum boards work hasnt changed much since 1986 with dial-up BBSes. Craigslist is better at doing buy and sell than our BST forums. Facebook is better for inane banter and chit chat and kills the software on mobile functionality. Twitter connects people to millions of others if they want to just say something and throw it out into the netherworld (or Twitterverse as they call it).
We as community site operators also have to smash this idea that if we build it, they will come. The problem is, hundreds of other people have already built it, it's been built to death. Search for this: http://www.google.ca/search?hl=en&source=hp&q=seniors+forum+post+topic&oq=seniors+forum+post+topic&aq=f&aqi=&aql=1&gs_sm=e&gs_upl=2116l9212l0l9347l24l20l0l6l0l0l487l2436l220.127.116.11.2l11l0 and you get over 8 million results on Google. There are millions of forums for senior citizens for god sakes, and you would think that of all topics to be the last frontier for forum boards or community sites, that people over age 60 would be the the one. But there are already millions of them. I hear so many community site operators ask questions about SEO, dealing with competitor sites, and how to lure users to their online real estate, but all they are doing is sitting on their computer hoping that the horde of users will be clamouring all over eachother trying to get onto their website. Not anymore, the net isnt a new thing, neither is a forum board or community site. Chances are, whatever you're doing it's been done before a million times.
What the operators do have under their control however, is how they MARKET their websites. Do you have business cards to hand out to like minded prospective users? 95% of operators dont. Have you ever put flyers out in stores, or handed them out at community events to lure prospective users? 98% of operators dont. Have you ever tried backscratching deals with local businesses to try to lure traffic to your site? Probabliy not.
So while social media is a culprit for sucking traffic away from already successful websites, poor marketing is the usual suspect for new sites that can't get off the ground.
The catch-22 dilemma of community sites like forums is that user comments are substituted for quality content. If you dont get your first 250 users who post once per day, you never get the content that gets noticed in the engine and you never get noticed, period. How do you get that first 250 users to come to your site and post? In today's Web 3.0 world, that isnt neccesarily going to come from Google searches anymore; chances are there are at least 100,000 sites that are already ahead of you.
You need good content. Quality content. Constantly updated content. Think about it, would you take the time to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper that contained mostly blank pages? Would you even buy that newspaper in the first place?
If you contrast a content-oriented community site to a forum-oriented community site you will see this paradigm shift in how users operate. All too often we confuse "community" with "forum" which is no longer the case. There is a tremendous Youtube community, and if they have forums on YT i've never seen them. News websites like Huffington Post (which was never a newspaper or TV channel) get thousands of comments on articles to the point where they have to cut the chatter off and actually close commenting.
To make your site Web 3.0 you need to factor in these things:
1. Do not fight social media. Embrace it in every design aspect of your site.
2. Forums for the sake of forums are a dead idea unless you have a tiny and totally underserved niche. Do not mistake throwing up a forum and having some users post on it for actual content. Forums arent bad, but they are a smaller and smaller slice of the pie as Web 3.0 takes hold.
3. Users want to comment on content these days, because content is so easy to find.
4. The inane banter that will keep your forum busy is gone. Expect more meaningful posts, but a lot less of them.
5. Mobile is key. Consider in every design aspect how it will be featured on mobile.
6. Make use of RSS feeds. Users will rarely add it manually, use it for your social media integration. At worst, it will help your search.
7. If you are in the process of band-aiding forum software to organize content, please, stop while you are ahead. Eventually it will scale up into a huge mess that you will need to migrate later or kill your site because it will become so complex users will never be able to navigate it like you.
8. You will never have the bells and whistles of multibillion dollar social media sites. Bells and whistles will not attract users to your site anymore. Adding polls or more smileys or another block will not help. Keep it simple and focus on content and a clean layout.
9. Search engines are smarter than you are, and if you spam them they will remove you automatically. SEO is not the answer - real on the ground marketing is, like any other business. Build content and the SEO will come later.
10. Remember, in today's web world you can no longer control the message or the users. You can no longer control the message or the users. Repeat this to yourself over and over again. The solution to this problem is embedding. Youtube video submitted to your forum? Make sure your software embeds the player. Facebook image submitted to your site? Make sure your software embeds the image. Outbound links mean users leaving your site, and they may not return for quite some time. Make it easy to make user submitted content from other sites viewable on your site. Once the eyeball leaves, it's gone and off to some other persuit.
I hope this article is helpful and useful. It comes based on nearly 30 years of experience in computer technology, programming, networking, and over 10 years of building community sites going back to 1988 (there was a decade long blip during the 90s, so that is an aggregated figure). I do not hold all the answers, I am not a genius or a savant. However I do see a trend, and it isnt looking good for those who are resistant to change.
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