5 ways to attract members to a social networking site

by Martin Reed on 24 March 2008 in Articles

Attract social network members

One of the best ways to attract members for your online community is through the quality of your content. If you have high quality, unique, relevant and up-to-date content then you are far more likely to attract members. The same goes for blogs – if you are writing quality articles, you will naturally attract visitors. You can convert these visitors into regular readers and members by encouraging them to use the commenting system.

The problem with social networks is that in comparison, they are far more closed. Most content is generated through profile pages and the internal messaging system, so how do you attract members?

Convey your community’s purpose clearly and effectively

I come across a number of social networks that all look alike. They use the same scripts that all the other sites are using, and the same default design. If you want your social network to succeed, it needs to look different and be different. If your budget only allows you to purchase an off-the-shelf script, at least customise it to make it different from all the other social networking sites out there.

Your site needs to immediately convey what it is about. Visitors to your site will form an impression (negative or positive) in less than a second. Use images, use symbols and use words to ensure that a visitor can be in no doubt as to what your community is about.

Not only should your design make your site’s purpose clear, you should also tell visitors why they should register and get involved. Sell the benefits of your community to every visitor. You have 1,000 spider collecting enthusiasts? Make it clear! You are the only social networking site for discussion on dog pooper-scoopers? Ensure this fact is displayed prominently on your site.

Offer visitors access to as much of the site as possible

You’ll struggle to attract members if visitors cannot see what your community has to offer before they register. Offer visitors as much access to your site as possible.

If people can only view limited areas of your social network, they will not have much of a chance to determine whether your site is for them. Rather than take a gamble and register, most will simply seek out your less secretive competitors.

Analyse your social network. What pages can you make visible to non-members? I would recommend opening up as much of your site as possible. Allow visitors to view profiles, allow them to use the search function – you will engage the visitor and really tempt them to take the plunge and register.

Allow users to take a tour of the members only features

Of course, there is only so much of a social network that you can make accessible for non-members. Of course, you can’t open messaging systems (or at least, you shouldn’t!) and it is perhaps advisable not to offer users access to a member control panel. What you can do though, is take visitors on a ‘tour’ of your site. Either record a video taking visitors through your site’s members only sections, or offer screenshots and a description of each area.

Depending on your coding abilities, you could even offer access to a sandboxed account for a user to play around with (just make sure they are unable to modify any settings or contact other members).

Every action you take to show exactly what you can offer helps to convert a visitor into a member. You want to be making it harder and harder for them to say ‘no’, but easier and easier for them to say ‘yes’.

Leverage and promote

As will all websites, you will need to promote your social network if you want to attract members. If you have other websites, leverage their traffic and promote the community on them. If you already have a website on the same subject as your social network, consider incorporating the social network right into that website. Exchange links with relevant websites, consider paid advertising, include your website in the signature of your emails and any forums you are a member of (subject to each forum’s terms).

Members are the best referral tool you will ever have. A recommendation from a friend is far more effective than any form of paid advertising you can do. Ensure your social network offers the facility for members to recommend profiles or the actual site itself to friends by email. You may be surprised at just how many new members your existing database can bring you.

Have a human face

When you join MySpace you receive a message from ‘Tom‘ who has a public profile and invites people to contact him with any questions. In his profile, he comes across as a regular guy who is just as involved in MySpace as other members. He gives MySpace a human face. This makes new members feel far more comfortable – there is a visible support mechanism from a guy who seems to be a regular Joe.

Have your own profile on your social network. Share information about yourself. Use your own social network. If you don’t want to get involved, why should you expect new and existing members to do so?

Your thoughts

Do you run a social network? How do you attract and retain members? Do you have any advice or tips to offer in addition to those I have come up with? Do you disagree with any of my ideas? Share your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below.

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Simon Brown March 24, 2008 at 8:33 pm

But how can you convince members to join a social networking site with no people?

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 24, 2008 at 9:25 pm

Simon – You are going to struggle to convince people to join a social network that has absolutely no members. Would you join such a site? Of course not – there would be no reason to.

You need to ensure that as soon as your site launches, you have a good number of people that are excited and ready to join. Collecting a mailing list whilst your site is in development helps – have a holding page explaining what your site will be about and offer people the ability to register to receive a notification upon launch. Promote this page even before your site launches.

You could even have yourself and your staff as the initial members. If friends and family are interested, get them involved too.

The worst thing you can do is start a social network, see it has no members then complain you can’t attract any. Always see your site from the view of a new visitor. If your site is empty, you need to work hard to get those first few members, then work even harder to attract even more.

Plumbing Course Andy March 25, 2008 at 5:27 am

I agree, may be you could check other social network websites for your reference but you have to build your own unique social network.

Charlotte at BigWhiteWall March 25, 2008 at 12:14 pm

I do agree with the above and also think that it is critical to retain the interest of the members you do have. The old hands know how the site works, will help newbies and will generally post more frequently. Ignore them at your peril – make them feel valued, indeed they are valued, tell them so!

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 25, 2008 at 12:59 pm

Charlotte – You make a very good point; it is very easy to forget about the newer members, especially as your online community grows. It is important to remember that new members are important for the future success and growth of your community – don’t forget about them, and pay attention to their needs!

Simon Brown March 25, 2008 at 1:16 pm

Would a general interest social network have a chance if it had many innovative features?

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 25, 2008 at 2:36 pm

Simon – Sure, general interest social networks can be successful, just as general interest forums and blogs can be. The problem is, you need to make sure your community is different and offers something unique. If the ‘innovative features’ are features that users truly want and will love using, then great. If they are just gimmicks, you’ll struggle to succeed.

Rauchen March 25, 2008 at 6:06 pm

I think “Take a tour” is the most important part. The best way to attract people is to make everything visible to everybody. But this wouldn’t be in the interest of the member.

Convex Mirrors March 26, 2008 at 3:16 pm

Look at how people have moved so quickly from MySpace to Facebook, I can’t believe that’s the last time that’ll happen. I think, if you’re planning on creating a brand new social site from scratch, you need to find out what users of the current popular system dislike about it, and make sure you improve on that.

Really, though, I think niche social sites are the future, targetting particular areas of interest. For example, I tend to reserve my Facebook friends to people I actually know in real life, and not add people just based on shared interests… with such a massive user base where would you start? On niche sites, however, you can be fairly sure that anyone registered and regularly using the site have a certain affinity for that niche, and so you’ll have something in common. Rather like online forums always have been, but with more modern “web 2.0″ functionality.

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 26, 2008 at 6:58 pm

Rauchen – I agree; the more open you can be, and the more you can show a potential member, the more likely they will be to join your community.

Convex – Facebook has certainly surged in popularity although it is worth mentioning that in the UK at least, MySpace is still more popular.

I completely agree with you – I think that niche communities are going to become increasingly popular as people find that the huge social networks such as Facebook and MySpace don’t cater specifically enough to their own needs and interests.

Thanks for your comment – you raised some interesting points.

Guy M'Naghten March 27, 2008 at 2:20 am

A while back I discovered Ning, a site that allows people to create their own social networking site for free. I figured that I’d create a network and link to it from my blog and that magically people would sign up. Basically, I encountered the very problem that Simon mentioned: no one wants to join a social network that has zero (or very few) members. I’ll probably try it again in the future, but this time around I’ll be sure to let all of my friends and readers know about the network in advance of the launch so that I have a good base of members to start off.

Eva White March 27, 2008 at 7:59 am

I agree content is king. But inspite of having good content, if one does not have readers to read it, then there is no use of good content. Readers are equally important as good content. If any one is absent, the site cannot be a successful site. Now I ask it is easy to put good content to the site, but how to get good readers who will read that good content for the site?

teenage love March 27, 2008 at 11:00 am

I can add I more thing:-
It should have a comprehensive abuse filtering tool. When starting in non English areas it should also concentrate on filtering regional abuses.
One more thing. Though myspace and facebook are very popular, a very few people know about them in India. Here, Orkut is like a burning fire. Its the most popular over here. Thanks.

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 29, 2008 at 3:02 pm

Guy – Just like with forums, people see how easy they are to setup but fail to realise how difficult they are to turn into a success. You really need to have a plan as to how you will develop a successful community, and need to realise that it is hugely challenging and will take up a lot of your time.

Eva – Readers are not as equally important as good content. Good content is always more important. With good content you can attract readers. Without content you have no readers!

A strategy of creating fantastic content along with consistent, effective promotion and marketing will help your community become a success.

Teenage – You make a good point that regional websites can be extremely popular, and often more so than the global social networking brands. This should act as inspiration to anyone that a niche or localised social network can still be successful.

Jordan March 30, 2008 at 12:37 am

Thanks for providing these great tips, here. With all the buzz about mammoth sites like Facebook and Myspace, it’s easy to lose site of the smaller sites popping up online. And with more and more of these being created each day, I wonder what will be the way(s) to attract people to a social network in the next 5 years when there are thousands in existence. Perhaps people will start gravitating toward extremely niche sites rather than the major social networks of today (?)

Nicole Price March 30, 2008 at 9:00 pm

I think its extremely essential to do a great amount of offline publicity as well to get the initial membership.

Chat April 1, 2008 at 4:33 am

Jordan i agree with people gravitating toward niche social networks. I kinda regret not starting a niche social network when i started mine up. Mine is sorta niche but its still very general. General/popular social networks are good for networking with current relationships but niche social networks are definitely better for meeting new people. I guess it depends what your doing online.

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 2, 2008 at 12:44 pm

Jordan – I agree with your prediction of the future; I think that social networks will become far more subject specific and cater more to niche areas of interest in the future.

Nicole – You make a good point. What kind of offline publicity do you recommend/have undertaken yourself?

Cody – General communities are good in the sense that your potential audience is huge. The challenge comes when you have to differentiate your offering in order to attract members!

Melissa April 20, 2008 at 3:18 am

Hello Martin,

I am in the process of brainstorming ideas on how to attract user. From my failed attempts from the past couple years :( I have a mailing list that I can start with. The testing phase will start this coming week….I will start with just my friends and family and then once I get their feedback….email the list and see what they have to say. Once that is complete the site will go live. I hope to have a nice group of people using the site so users will be encouraged to register.

My niche area is for the glbt community in Austin, Texas….and then as the site grows I hope to add more cities. The content will be unique in that it will allow users to connect offline as well as online. We will see how it turns out.

I did go with a software company who specializes in social networking sites…..part of the contract is that they guide you and help you with the community development part. Since I am new, I figured it was worth it. but of course I will still visit this site :) to get information.

With leverage and promotion, I plan on supporting/sponsoring organizations/events for the glbt community. That will take money but I think the result of more members will be worth it.

sorry for the long post. :)

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 21, 2008 at 2:13 pm

Melissa – Firstly, don’t apologise for making long posts; the longer the better as far as I am concerned! Having a mailing list is a huge advantage – just so long as it is legitimate and you have each person’s permission to contact them regarding your project. Getting feedback from family and friends prior to launch is also a great idea.

Starting off by focusing on a specific niche has both its positive and negative points. You are limiting your audience, but at the same time making your site potentially more attractive to people in the locality you are targeting.

I am intrigued by the company you found that provides the software and also guides you through the development of your community building strategy – care to share who they are?

Melissa April 24, 2008 at 5:55 pm

Hey Martin,

I was reading your post over promotional email mistakes and hope my email list does not fall under the spam category. I have been messing with this idea for a few years and tried to do the site on my own…which did not work. Well the last time I have kept a list of all the members that signed up under that site. Now that we are revamping the site, I was going to email all the registered members and tell them about the new site. (I probably should have posted this comment on the other post). Would that be considered spam?

I stated the company a few months ago on another post. Small World Labs (smallworldlabs.com)

They are not cheap, but for my situation, it was the best decision for me. I have been pleased.

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 25, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Melissa – Good practice dictates that you only email members who have specifically ‘opted in’ to receive such emails, even if the emails are related to the site they are a member of.

In your case, I don’t think there is anything wrong with emailing your members on this occasion as the email is specifically related to the site they are a member of. Ensure you include an option for them to unsubscribe from any future mailings, though.

Hongkies May 30, 2008 at 9:04 am

i just launched a social network site that is focused on the city i currently live; Hong Kong. Its not an easy task to make this to a success because facebook is extremely popular here in Hong Kong but this post and comments are very useful. Thanks!

Alexandra Friedman August 21, 2008 at 11:04 pm

I am the Online Community Manager for a growing community and have helped grow the site for the past six months, as well as manage the content generation, the social marketing, and the moderation of the site all together.

I pull in traffic from two different distinct resources of content:

1. SEO Traffic: Meaning traffic that comes from personalized searches via google and elsewhere
2. Linkbait: Meaning traffic that comes from social content aggregators such as Digg, fark, stumbleupon etc.

The SEO Traffic is harder to get, but more likely to click through more pages, explore, and sign-up. The linkbait user usually clicks on a link for good content, reads the content, then goes back to where they came from, but they give us huge jumps in traffic.

My current challenge is making a new feature on the site popular… which I am hoping will be mostly done by the current users after some pushing on my side. The new feature is niche specific, where users ask for other opinions and contributions to their niche topic… I will let you know what I learn… suggestions are always welcome!

Great site by the way… Helps with inspiration!

Roger September 7, 2008 at 5:41 am

Hi Martin, and all you others! What a great site – I’m so happy I found it!

I need some advice :)

My local time is now 06.06 in the morning. I’ve been up all night, doing the LAST work on my soon-to-be-launched community. – Not much different from other saturday-nights, for the past 1.5 years. (almost) – I’ve never launched or worked with online communities before. I’ve never build anything from scratch before, except an online store.

As with you Martin, I started the project back in 2007 – May actually.. It’s totally custom coded. Every codeline is written by me and a good friend, that’s why it has taken so long to finish.

I have tried to make what I believe my niche-users wants. It’s a wedding community (Phew.. this is the first time I tell what the community is all about – feels wierd, when I’ve had it as a secret for 16 months ) ;) – And relax! – It’s a Norwegian community, so I guess we won’t be competitors at all.

The community contains quite a few intuitive functions (In Norway that is).. Members can blog, upload pictures, upload movies using YouTube, create their own galleries, make profiles, send PM’s. It will also feature a paid-area, where they can create their own wedding-site, administrate budget, guestlists and wishlists. Their weddinghomepages even features a guestbook, for family and friends to sign… and of course there is a forum – phpBB for now, but still..

Well, enough about that :)

I’m here for advice! – you seem to know your stuff Martin, and I was hoping to get a few answers here, before I press the “launch-button”.

I have a small online wedding-store in Norway. I average about 300 uniques/day on that. I’ve also been building an opt-in list on that store, and I have about 4000 members on that list, which I can, and will send promotional emails to.

I have written about 10 quality articles on wedding-planning, even though I’m not that interested in weddings, as I am with online business and getting “things” to WORK – pretty much the same way as with you again Martin!

My forum is quite empty right now, but I guess I’ll get my girlfriend to help me post a few posts. Maybe some of my friends could assist me with that as well.

I’ve also written a couple of emails for promotion to my list. As I said, this is the first time I’m launching something “big” – I’m very happy with the result, and I can just hope that others will be happy with it too..

OK, muuuch talk here – felt I need to explain a little, so you actually knew what I was talking about.
- What approach would you take on this one Martin (and of course, also you other readers)

I have 4000 people on an email-list – interested in weddings.
I have an online store which avg. about 300 uniques a day
I plan to use about $350 a month, advertising on Google Adwords and Facebook
I have 10 articles ready
I have my own, my girfriend and my friends “wedding”-blog containing very few posts
I have a forum containing very few posts.

I have a KILLER online wedding community to launch
- But I don’t know what would be the best way to do it. Should I just launch it? Should I write more content, should I hire someone to write even better content then what I think I’ve done….??

I waited for 16 months to launch, I could wait a little longer – if that is what would be the smartest thing to do..!

Does anyone have any comments, suggestions, ideas – it would be much appreciated!

Oh and by the way.. Your femaleforum looks fantastic! – It’s really professional, and even though I’m a 27 year old boy from Norway – I wanted to sign up as a member, but then again – I didn’t!
(You would have to excuse my english language – I did the best I could in this neverending post).

- Roger.

Martin Reed - Blog Author September 8, 2008 at 10:45 pm

Roger – Thanks for your comment. I’ll respond in full and address all your questions/concerns tomorrow.

Gallito October 31, 2008 at 6:26 pm

The best way to attract visitors to a social networking site in my opinion is by leveraging other social networking sites. By creating personal relationships you can turn your friends into an army of marketers.

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 17, 2008 at 8:43 pm

Gallito – That’s the great thing about online communities; you create relationships and as a result develop a group of cheerleaders for your site/product.

britney January 9, 2009 at 1:49 am

I agree wit your point of quality content but can you tell me if a newbie wants to enter into the sphere of social networking how can he or she create a mark as so many networking sites have mushroomed up in a small period of time and most of of them lack that unique factor. I wonder is its the right time to venture into the sphere at this point of time

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 12, 2009 at 11:23 am

Britney – There is plenty of room for new social networks; you just need to ensure you focus on a specific niche. Offer something different and unique.

aisha January 24, 2009 at 6:49 pm

hi everyone,i have just finished building my social network…it was from off the shelf software..it is aimed at a certain criteria although i dont want to say at the minute..would love some advice from martin..how do i make it more appealing..the name clearly states what market i am targeting and it has all the usual stuff like video page,live chat,instant msg,profile,blog etc but i have only had 10 people join in the last 2 weks with a small ad i put on an advertising site..basically there isnt much to see a sit is very new..i am thinking of having a video competition and would love any other ideas..i will be launching it in 2 weeks time on face book and other sites..

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 29, 2009 at 9:00 am

Aisha – If there isn’t much to see on your site, it won’t attract members. It’s that simple. The list of features you mentioned count for nothing if you don’t have content on your site. Invite people to join and provide feedback before the ‘official’ launch. You need content if you want to attract members.

Lee March 20, 2009 at 7:03 pm

I think the biggest selling point has to be the unique features your social network site has

shiana March 23, 2009 at 12:13 am

i feel that lot of social networking sites which have mushroomed up are run of the mill kind of sites trying to cash on the social media boom and i feel its high time some social media site comes forward and brings out some interesting and refreshing feature which continues interest in it

Cheryl February 8, 2010 at 4:51 pm

This is a fantastic article! (case in point I just googled tips for social networking websites and this is still fairly high in the google ranks.) I like how you emphasize content quality, too many are of the opinion that a social network is a case of “if you build it they will come” regardless of how much effort went in to creating it. I’ve bookmarked this page and will be sending the link to quite a few of my collegues. Thanks for the great tips!

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