Today I interview Ratko Vidakovic, owner of CeliSpeed.com and co-founder of ToyotaNation.com – both thriving online communities.
When did you create your first website and what was it?
My first website was one of those free Angelfire sites back around 1997. It was just a personal site with a quick list of my interests and favorite links. Of course, I had to have the requisite blinking marquee text back then, you know, to conform with the standard.
If you mean *real* website, then it was a small site that protested the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. No business model or anything, just expressing freedom of speech.
You have been involved in a number of online communities, such as ToyotaNation.com and Celispeed.com – what is your attraction to online communities?
In 2001, at the time ToyotaNation began, I was noticing a large trend in mismanaged communities within the Toyota niche. Some of the problems stemmed from either dictatorial forum admins / moderators, or else forum leaders who were simply absent. My attraction to online communities began with my involvement. In other words, being part of the core community, not simply puling strings behind the scenes. It gave me a strong connection to the whole concept of virtual communities, and what it means to share a common point of interest.
TattooFans.com is one of your new forums – how are you getting it established and attracting traffic?
It’s still in the infant stages, but to answer your question, a few things. It first began with a few friends who posted some topics and posts (not many) just to populate the forums so they weren’t empty. Second, I began a routine link exchange effort that consisted of probably a day or two of work. This was an effort to get a base of links from related sites and a few directories. As a result, a few hundred uniques became the daily norm, and slowly the sign-ups began to climb. Now that SE traffic is beginning to pick up I have a lot of work ahead of me in order to establish authority in the rankings.
Well hopefully this interview will help! Take us through your average day – How many hours do you work on your sites and what are your daily tasks for your sites?
I work from a mind map application (Freemind) that has a visual breakdown of my sites, along with a list of action items for each. I don’t have a set number of hours that I dedicate to any site, I just merely work on items that I feel are important, whenever I have free time. I would say at least an hour a day is spent on changing / improving / promoting my sites. On good days, who knows, maybe 8 hours if I am on a roll (or stuck on a problem). I also spend a large amount of time reading industry sites like WebmasterWorld and a couple dozen RSS feeds, although sometimes I find that excessive reading is an easy way to procrastinate.
You don’t need to tell me about procrastination! Have you ever used paid posters on your forums? Is it something you would recommend?
Nope, never tried. It might work, who knows, but for some reason I think that it’s a questionable foundation to build on.
I certainly agree with you on that one. What do you think is the most important attribute needed to build a successful online community, and what is the most important lesson you have learned about managing online communities?
The most important attribute for a successful online community is a core group of helpful members. My most important lesson has to be to listen to the members and earn respect by following through on promises.
What is the biggest mistake you have made when developing an online community?
Good question. I think I could have integrated them better into social networking sites. There is a huge market for potential members out there, and the “groups” that exist in most social networking sites just don’t cut it for good niches.
What are your most successful methods for monetising your online communities?
Mainly Adsense. Paid subscriptions work also, but you need to have a loyal and fairly large user base to go that route.
Do you ever have a problem with spam? How do you deal with it?
All the time. I guess the obvious step is to implement registration before a new user can post. I make sure that image verification is enabled (captcha), and even some kind of challenge question (offered by plugins like NoSpam! for vBulletin) to make sure it’s a not a bot. If by some chance it’s a real human, and they post spam, I use a “spam decimator” hack for vBulletin, which allows me to delete all the messages from a specific user, and ban them also, all in just 2 easy clicks.
Have you ever had to deal with abusive members in your communities? How did you resolve conflict?
I think the best way is to talk about it over PM, and issue a warning if necessary. Sometimes a follow up warning is necessary if the second infraction took place a while after the first one. Ultimately it ends in a ban, although that is really no solution for a determined troll.
How do you think online communities will develop in the future? Do you predict any new trends?
Online communities are like little countries. They all demonstrate their own philosophy and social atmosphere. Many communities these days are in some degree hierarchical and authoritarian in structure, and maybe that’s good, but just like in the real world, I think that opposing online societies will emerge, with more democratic or socialist structures. Digg is one of the first that is beginning to radically lean in that direction.
And finally, tell us a random fact about yourself that nobody else knows!
I can crack my knuckles by simply making a fist – like Bruce Lee.
Thank you for taking the time to speak to me today Ratko, it is greatly appreciated. I wish you the very best with your current and future web ventures!
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