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» BigBlueBall - September 1, 2005

“A healthy community is a microcosm of the world, and it’s most rewarding to see that community come together and work well,” says Jeff Hester, owner of BigBlueBall (www.bigblueball.com ). And, with its focus on “all aspects of instant messaging, and all instant messaging programs,” one might say bringing the world together is what BigBlueBall is all about. While many people may think of instant messaging as being fairly self-explanatory, with the expansion of instant messaging to include multi-protocol clients, video, VoIP, and other functionality, instant messaging has gone far beyond just simple text chat. To help navigate this changing technology, BigBlueBall is not only a community of helpful members, but also a provider of news, reviews, tutorials, and reference materials. Started in 1998 as, in Hester’s words, “a sandbox to share my web development skills,” BigBlueBall sat quietly in the background of Hester’s busy schedule for two years, but was relaunched in March 2001 with a new direction and a goal to cover everything related to instant messaging.

BigBlueBall
currently has 24,500+ members (mainly from North America, Europe, and Australia) and generally over 500 guests browsing at any time during the day. While the membership tends to be fairly equal with respect to gender, the age demographics closely resemble the demographic patterns of IM users, though the site’s audience tends to be more mature than the typical teen-focused IM fan sites. BigBlueBall’s younger members, however, are generally more active. The support forums for the “big three” instant messengers—AIM, MSN and Yahoo—are the most popular forums at BigBlueBall, though in typical forum fashion, the Off Topic forums are also regularly visited.

As for the software, BigBlueBall had its beginnings on Snitz Forums, running on a Microsoft SQL Server backend on a shared webhost with a shared database server. “I had been programming in ASP for several years,” says Hester, “so Snitz was a natural choice. However, as the site grew, managing the site became more of an issue than programming the site, and I needed a solution with more robust administrative features.” This led Hester to a switch to vBulletin, PHP and MySQL on a dedicated, dual-Xenon Linux server in January of this year. “We were able to migrate all of our users, posts and polls successfully, with the help of the great crew at vBulletin,” says Hester.

Hester uses quite a few add-on scripts. Among those are a mod_rewrite for keyword-rich URLs in the forum, the Community Bulletin for e-mail newsletters, ShackRat’s Secure Downloads, and cinq’s vbGlossary. Interestingly, the news articles on BigBlueBall are powered by the forum as well, based on an article that may be familiar to TAZ members, Software: vBulletin as CMS .

There are many special features at BigBlueBall, including occasional contests (such as the upcoming referral contest with an iPod Mini as the grand prize), the Member of the Month program (which awards a BigBlueBall t-shirt to a member who has proven valuable to the community), and the scheduled hosted chats with IM developers from Microsoft, Cerulean Studios, and other IM software companies. However, one of the most exciting new features of the forum is the recently-launched
Spanish language section. This section provides a unique community and support to those who prefer conversing in Spanish.

Along with Google AdSense, Fastclick, and a recently implemented direct advertising program utilizing phpAdsNew, BigBlueBall also uses premier memberships as a way to generate income. The premier membership allows access to a special forum, provides additional personalization and customization features and also gives the member an @bigblueball.com e-mail address.

In total, there are about 27 team members at BigBlueBall and Hester takes an interesting approach to staff management. “We organized the staff,” says Hester, “to follow the sections of the site, with seven Team Leaders. Each Team Leader picks their staff, consisting of Advisors (moderators) and Mentors.” While Hester does have a supportive staff, he remains the sole developer and administrator at BigBlueBall, performing most of his admin duties during the early evenings. He runs Trillian connected to all the major IM networks and Skype for voice chat. “My staff contacts me if there’s an urgent problem, but I also keep tabs on things throughout the day,” says Hester. Just what does Hester’s typical schedule look like? Here it is, in his own words:

Daily

Collect and report news stories.
Google News Alerts beta helps here.
Review new forum discussions. I can’t read all of them, so I rely heavily on the staff to point out anything that requires special attention. I also have a special “staff only” forum where we can discuss how to handle situations and provide mutual support.
Run daily web site stats (I’m analyzing using Urchin). I watch for any unusual activity or changes.
Collect newsletter ideas. If I find a hot forum topic, news item or even just an interesting link to share, I’ll make a note of it as potential material for the weekly newsletter.

Weekly

Prepare and publish e-mail newsletter. I was using Constant Contact, which was a bit pricey. I’m currently using the Community Bulletin mod for vBulletin. This takes about two hours (assuming I’ve already collected the newsletter material over the past week).
Review weekly stats. Daily numbers fluctuate. This is my chance to see trends and determine if any corrective action is required.
Update site content. I’ve got several main sections that I keep updated with fresh content. Most of the content on these main section pages is dynamically generated, but some of it requires a more human touch.
Backup database and web site. The host backs things up nightly, but I’ve found it easier to restore things from my own weekly backup. Fortunately, I’ve only had to use it once in 2 ½ years.

Monthly

Review advertiser/affiliate programs. This is one of the areas where I’ve been lazy (thank-you Adsense!) but I want to be more diligent about. My goal is to review their effectiveness on a monthly basis and then implement changes accordingly.
Featured member. It’s a great way to reward the best contributors with an article and a t-shirt.
Personal contact with staff. Keep in touch with what’s going on in the lives of the staff. Let them know they’re appreciated.

Seasonal

Gifts for moderators (a small token of appreciation at birthdays or Christmas)
Back-to-school news, features
Halloween themed features
Christmas advertising and features
Valentines Day, etc.
Set goals for next year
Taxes


As for his background, Hester is by no means new to the internet. In fact, he was a Compuserve user in the ‘80s and, having an engineering background, frequented the Autodesk forums. “Back then,” says Hester, “you paid by the hour, and access speeds were 300 bps. I’ve used BBS systems, Compuserve, Prodigy, AOL, and was quick to recognize that the Internet was going to supercede them all. My career has mirrored this, as I moved from a published expert in the AutoCAD field towards web design and development.”

For one of his first web projects, Hester created a CD-ROM that used a browser-based interface to several thousand engineering documents, all exported from an Oracle-based EDMS. “This whet my appetite,” says Hester, “and I took on more projects developing websites.” From there, Hester moved on to working for a dot-com startup as a web developer and, eventually progressed to director of web engineering. Hester’s focus today is directed toward knowledge management. “Interestingly,” he states, “KM is driven by a community model similar to that found in many website forums.”

BigBlueBall is actually just one of many sites owned by Hester and is part of a network he likes to call the “BigBlueNetwork”. But, neither BigBlueBall nor any of his other pursuits have kept Hester from enjoying his offline life. He and his wife, Karen, are at the time of this writing enjoying a trip to Paris where they are also, undoubtedly, working on their New Year’s resolution to “drink more good wine”. They also stay actively involved in the lives of their three college-aged children, as well.

“What do I enjoy most? For me,” says Hester, “it’s seeing BigBlueBall take on a life of it’s own. It’s seeing people enjoy being a part of the community, sharing their knowledge and helping others. It’s seeing people desperate for help finding an answer (and saying “thanks!”).” And certainly the help, and also the many other features provided at BigBlueBall, is something for which its members can be thankful. Congratulations to Jeff Hester and the entire staff team at BigBlueBall for their successful “microcosm of the world.”
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