My genealogical community, Heycuz, has been around since 1998. That’s way back when you had to use a telephone to get online. Today, there are between 900 and 1500 people on it right now. I mean this very second. You can check by the “Who’s Online” widget on the front page. I’ve received lots of comments from administrators of other genealogical communities saying they “wish” they had the group participation that we have on Heycuz. In other words, Heycuz has not only survived but is has thrived!
A virtual community is expensive to launch, difficult to attract visitors (participants), and poorly planned execution will make even a promising start fizzle into thin air. I’m saddened that many worthwhile groups’ and organizations’ websites die out so quickly. I want to help you by telling you how we did it. Being deliberate in your planning and construction of your new community website will minimize the chances of your visitors becoming frustrated with a poorly working or confusing roll-out and leaving your site forever.
KISS your members, don’t knock them over.
Bells and whistles are so tempting. There are so many great toys for web communities available: forums, blogs, galleries, private messaging, video chat rooms, and surveys to name a few. But, I’m telling you now KISS (keep it simple stupid) your members don’t knock them over. The “throw everything up at once and hope something sticks” is a recipe for disaster.
At Heycuz, we started out with a very simple newsgroup format. We used Yahoo groups where members could post and reply to group emails. Since most people know how to use email (in the early days we still had to teach people how to attach files), the resulting conversation was lively. Within a few months, even though we didn’t seek new members, we grew from less than a dozen core members to a couple hundred. As we grew, we began to add features to our group including a website which included the family histories and descendant trees.
Drop What Doesn’t Work, Build on What Does.
One of the first new features we tried was a weekly chat room. The sound of crickets was deafening. We tried different times; we tried different topics; we tried different chat systems; but never more than three or four people showed up. I’m not saying don’t try chat rooms, there are lots of successful ones. But, since my members didn’t enjoy it, we dropped it and no one brought it up again. On the other hand, if you find that a large group of your members are doing something you didn’t expect then build upon it. For instance, say your members enjoy posting their links to videos that they created. Take advantage of that by dedicating a whole area of the site to showcasing your members’ videos. There are lots of open-source solutions to host videos or you can even allow them to embed youtube videos. If you find many of your members posting links to their blog posts, then give them a reason to stick around by offering them a blog feature right on your group’s website. Not only will they enjoy it, but they’ll help add to your site’s content.
Give Yourself Room To Grow.
Being a genealogy group, documents are important, very important. Unfortunately, the servers that I chose didn’t see eye to eye with us. Can you believe they actually told us we had too many files? When we started I thought that we could NEVER use more than 10 gigs of space. The first time I had to pack up and move the entire site it took me three days AND nights. Talk about zombies. I slept by my computer, jumping up when my computer beeped the warning that I’d been knocked offline again. Now, there are much easier backup systems (which I will talk about later).
Also make sure that the software that you use for your site has the ability to grow. As I stated before, we started with Yahoo groups, so we were (and in some ways still are) at the mercy of Yahoo. About five years ago, Yahoo decided it would no longer save “attachments” sent along with the newsgroups posts. Another set of sleepless nights ensued as I frantically went post by post to download our precious files before they deleted them all. Remember, as I said, in genealogy documents are very important. I already had a backup system, but I didn’t want to take the chance that I had missed anything, so I saved everything again. So, learn from my mistakes, don’t use a system where you have little or no control. These days there are several newsserver systems that can be installed directly on your own server. Since my members are comfortable with Yahoo, having spent more than 13 years on it, I’ve left the newsgroup there, writing a script to send the posts to the website’s forum. It is an awkward work-around, but I stay with it because its working for now. I’m not saying don’t go with Yahoo Groups, some people are very happy with it, but if I was starting out today I wouldn’t go that route. It’s like having a landlord controlling your company.
Ask for donations or finance your site by selling advertising space.
Heycuz is a labor of love, so I never expected to make money with it. In fact, I find it laughable when going through my spam box deleting all the emails I get telling me how I can make money on my website. I know it’s just bots sending out spam, because one look at the site and you know we’re not a profit organization. For years, I was footing the bill for the hosting and cost of the extra software, and never thought to ask for donations. I just chalked it up to be an expense to feed my genealogy addiction. From time to time I would get a prospective member asking how much it cost to join the site because they couldn’t believe that they got all that they got for free. From day one we had always said that our research would be free to all who joined and I couldn’t go back on my word. Plus, I get so much more out of the website. Just think, every day I go to my website and someone has uploaded a never-before-seen family photograph, or someone else just added a complete branch that we’d never knew existed, or another member remembered it was my anniversary and sent me a dancing cow! I have even received beautiful, leather-bound family histories and credit on the dedication page to boot! For those who don’t know, family history books can be very expensive. How can you set a price on that? However, one day one of our members questioned why no one had thought of donating to the website and without even one guilt trip, I received enough money to pay for the entire year within a couple of days (by snail mail, too!) People were happy to give. So, we’ve put a donation thermometer on our site and when the goal is achieved we post it. However, don’t be annoying with your donation buttons. Don’t make your members mad. Don’t put popups that detract your visitors from enjoying and contributing to the site. My response to those sites is to just close the tab. They don’t work folks.
Since the Heycuz site is non-profit, we never had to sell advertising. But, if you’re interested in making money for your group, there are a number of ways to do it. The most obvious is to sell advertising space. There are tons of how-to sites and books that can give much better advice than I so I won’t post it here. But, you should also consider selling membership subscriptions to your site. There are some sites that give some information for free and charge you to get more information or to be able to post information. You can also have eCommerce on your site and offer group memorabilia. If people would proudly wear a T-shirt with your organization’s logo on it, for instance, you can use a site like CafePress that handles the orders, manufactures the items, and ships the product so you don’t have any overhead. When we had a reunion the ability to purchase coffee cups and other Heycuz paraphernalia was very popular amongst our members.
Protect Your Members, Protect Your Data, Protect Yourself.
When someone joins your community and adds personal information its because they trust you. Work very hard to keep that trust. Be honest with your members. Let them know your policy right off the bat and don’t change the policy without having a full discussion with your members. Also, protect your members’ privacy. Don’t sell your members’ list. Let me qualify that. It depends on what your user expects. If you’ve asked for permission or sent out a notification of your intent to allow companies to send out information, that’s between you and your members.
You should also have an email cloaking system on your forums to make sure that bots don’t comb the site and start spamming your members. We protect our members by requiring registration to access many of the features.
Building a community website takes a lot of time and it would be a disaster if all the data was lost because the site got hacked. So, have some kind of security system in place and, just in case the worst happens, have a full-site backup. Ask your web server for the services they have available before you put down your cash. If you’re already on a server that doesn’t offer a backup, which these days I find unbelievable, you can find automated backup systems easily by just searching on the web. Two of the most popular ones are Site-Vault and Handy Backup. You should be able to set up the backup to run automatically on a timely basis.
Finally, protect yourself. Running a website, especially a large community site can be exhausting. Don’t run yourself ragged. Ask for help. Give your members the opportunity to volunteer. Tell them what you need, divide it into specific tasks, and let them know how long each task should take. Not only will it relieve you of a lot of work, but it will also strengthen your community. We all want to contribute in a some way. That’s why we join a community and if we feel vital to the group, we’ll stick around. We all need to be needed.
Protect yourself legally. Heycuz is a family website, meaning we are all related in some fashion, but being related doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. No matter how much you trust your members, you need to have a few legal statements on your site. If you can’t get a lawyer to write a Terms and Conditions statement, you can find some available online. All you do is replace the generic name in the document with your own. Make sure that you include a copyright statement. Plagiarism is rampant on the web because many people are unaware of copyright laws. If you have a copyright on there, you have recourse if your valuable content that you and your members have built up, is taken.
One final word about protecting yourself–it makes me very uncomfortable to even bring it up–but some times things get out of hand. According to Ittybiz.com death threats and hate crimes on women bloggers is escalating.
Unfortunately, I’ve been the recipient of threats, so I feel for you. The advice of one workshop held recently at the Blogher ’11 conference is to document the threats and make an official report to your local police department. I advise you to read the transcript before you find yourself in this unfortunate situation.
Do you love it? Do You Really, Really, Really, REALLY love it?
Image by doug88888 via FlickrFinally, take a long, hard look at yourself. Go on. Pick up a mirror and do a thorough examination. Remember how you look cause you’ll never be the same. Now, look at the premise of your community just as thoroughly. Is this community one you want to hang-out in yourself? Do you want to hang out there for hours? Days? Weeks? Years? Do you see yourself hanging out there 10 years from now? Still feel as giddy as a school boy? Then go for it! But before you go, please drop me a line and tell me about your community. After all, if you’re still excited about it I might want to join too!