We were recently tasked with developing a highly custom online forum. It would be a place where people would spontaneously create content and commentary about articles elsewhere on the site. Our would supply big topic buckets and the audience would fill them. Our client also wanted to include a low paywall for anyone wanting to comment or create.
Now, the thing could work. With the right positioning, marketing and initial content, it could definitely become a thriving and profitable online community.
We ended up recommending to NOT launch it with all of the bells, whistles and the paywall. We did recommend launching as a simple forum, where everyone can participate until the community becomes a self-sustaining entity.
Why did we recommend holding off on the revenue-generating features? First off: Who would pay to be part of a forum with no content? Second: Our clients cost to develop the paywall and membership structure would have been relatively high for something so unproven. We didnt want to waste anyones time and money.
Heres another reason why: In the U.S. online users are mostly Spectators and Joiners. That means, were twice as likely to sign up for things that we dont use or read other peoples comments and not contribute to a forum. Were less than half as likely to be Creators (bloggers) and Conversationalists (forum commenters). The success of that forum depended on a large number of Creators and Conversationalists. So we thought: Let’s wait and see what happens for a while. Let’s see if Creators and Conversationlists naturally emerge and take over the forum. If they aren’t total jerks, that would be a great way to build the community. Then, we could add in more features and charge for those later. As long as they are realyl valuable and relevant to the user base.
This user profile information comes from a great book, Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed By Social Technologies by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. Heres a chart from the book that illustrates U.S. online user types.
The Social Technographics Profile of online U.S. adults
Note the percentages add to more than 100 percent because the groups overlap.
Keep in mind that these numbers will change based on the user segment. Women, teenagers, different nationalities, alpha moms, all have significantly different breakdowns.
The bottom line: Do your research before you start that blog or online community! And read Groundswell. Its a great book.