Aloha TechHuians. Fresh off the plane from Tokyo, we are going through the familiar ritual of adjusting to our home time zone. We had some interesting conversations during our trip with companies thinking about launching niche networks. Over the past few months we have had similar conversations with companies and academic institutions in Hawaii interested in launching new social networks or adding social networking features to existing sites. At this point we've worked on a number of social networking projects of differing flavors and sizes. Along the way we have learned some valuable lessons. We've also picked up great pointers from others in the social networking business. Here are a few of our lessons learned:
Don't launch without a healthy amount of quality content.
To some extent, we made this mistake with TechHui. The danger is this: You launch a network and invite your circle of friends and colleagues. You may have other membership sources such as an existing membership site or a PR and marketing budget for your new network. In any case, those new members will visit your site, see that there is little of interest and, statistically, most will never return. Think of first time visitors as people interviewing your site. The first impression is of critical importance. You need to draw them in, engage them, and create the motivation for them to invite their circle of friends and colleagues.
Pick the right level of specificity.
The general social networking giants are well entrenched. Facebook has 130 million active users that spend an average of 2.6 billion minutes on the site per day. If you create a network for "People in California" you are basically competing with Facebook because there isn't enough commonality to differentiate the network. Niche social networks provide a way for people with common interests or circumstances to socialize, organize and share related content. You can also err on the opposite end of the spectrum. A social network for "Bonsai Enthusiasts on Kauai" is probably too specific to reach critical mass. It would be better to widen the network to the state or remove the geographic constraint entirely. Note: We struggled with this question during the planning phase for TechHui. We thought about a software developers only community, but decided groups within TechHui could address software development. We also considered widening the geographic constraint to cover our friends and business associates in other areas of the Pacific. This is still under discussion.
Understand the social characteristics and sensitivities of your niche.
As a number of companies in Japan learned the hard way, LinkedIn's massively successful model for business networking in the US doesn't translate to the Japanese market, at least not without modification. This is most likely because businesspeople in Japan, particularly those over 40 (read: the ones with money, connections and influence) aren't comfortable putting their resume online. I suspect this will change over time, but right now it's a non-starter.
If you aren't passionate about your niche and social networking, don't bother.
Launching a social network is a small fraction of the effort required to sustain an active community over any substantial period of time. You need to be excited about your niche and willing to make an ongoing commitment to sustain your network. Without love and care your network will quickly wither and die. As is the case with most projects worth undertaking, it's important to set clear goals. TechHui is a relatively small community, but it is beginning to achieve our goal of facilitating communication and sharing between the exciting technology related people, projects and companies flourishing in our state. We still have a long way to go, but we are thoroughly enjoying the journey.
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