Coming Up: Building communities from scratch

by Martin Reed on 25 November 2007 in Articles

Build an online community from scratch

I was browsing through the archives here at Community Spark this morning and noticed that I have made very few posts about how to build a successful online community from scratch. All this is about to change.

A real life case study

I will soon be setting up a brand new online community and will blog about every detail and step I take in order to get it off the ground and turn it into a success. I am a firm believer that the easiest way of learning is by example – how many of you used to enjoy the case studies in academic text books but hated reading all the theory? I was certainly one of those people!

I am currently going through the escrow process in order to acquire a domain name that I think has a lot of promise. I hope to blog about the process I am going through in setting up my new online community at least once a week, along with my usual mix of community building articles.

Every stage of the development process

The article series will begin next week – I aim to post updates each Friday but this may change depending on how things pan out. To make sure you don’t miss any of these articles, subscribe to the RSS feed. Alternatively you can receive new articles direct to your inbox by subscribing via email.

The first article will fill focus on identifying a niche for an online community – having fewer competitors gives you a great initial advantage. For that reason, and to make the case study series ‘fair’, I will not initially be revealing the URL. I may change this policy in the future, though.

Your comments

As I begin this journey of setting up a brand new online community and blogging about my progress, I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions. Let me know if there are any particular areas of community development you want me to focus on. Let me know about your biggest challenges so I can write about how I address them when setting up my new community.

I look forward to reading your ideas and thoughts.

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Michael @ Freshome November 25, 2007 at 2:56 pm

I’m waiting for the first post. After that I’ll might have ideas, and suggestions. :)

online gaming November 25, 2007 at 5:42 pm

I am in the process of developing a new community from scratch as well; it’s not the easiest process, but if you truly believe in the community you are forming it will become a success. The biggest problem is of course making it unique, the second is offering a service, and the third is creating a buzz. Best of luck, and keep us posted

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 25, 2007 at 11:30 pm

Michael – That’s great; I look forward to hearing your suggestions.

online gaming – Seeing as you are in the process of starting a new community too, I expect to see lots of comments and shared thoughts and opinions in the coming weeks!

Online furniture store November 26, 2007 at 3:35 am

Thanks Martin, i will be reading your inputs with keen attention. As of now I am still only a reader and commentator on blogs, but am really tempted to have my own blog, there is so much i want to say about so many things. The things that are holding me back right now are lack of know-how, and the fact that we are to relocate to a new city soon so it has to wait. I have a lot to learn, so thanks for all that i learn here.

Amish Made Furniture November 26, 2007 at 2:34 pm

I too would like to see the first post and I am sure that it will enthuse me to comment.

Vyoma November 26, 2007 at 7:38 pm

Eagerly waiting for this series.

I would like to compare it with what I am doing with the community that has just take its first few steps.

moonwalks November 26, 2007 at 8:37 pm

You mean a forum? Online community equals a forum?

Online furniture store November 27, 2007 at 3:58 am

Thanks Amish (Ramana Rajgopaul i presume?) for the vote of confidence.

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 27, 2007 at 1:21 pm

Reena – Thanks for your kind comments. Blogging can certainly be a slog at times, but it certainly has its rewarding moments!

Ramana – Great, I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Vyoma – Thanks for your comment; I look forward to hearing your thoughts when the series gets started.

Moonwalks – An online community can be any website that brings people together and encourages interaction. Most people immediately think forums, but they can also include blogs, social networking sites, dating sites, penpal sites etc etc etc

Smiley November 27, 2007 at 3:04 pm

A couple more articles focused on chat rooms would be great, Martin. Forums & blogs are widely covered but chat rooms not so much as of yet.

Like I PM’d you the other week, too, how anonymous should the community leader be? An article with your opinions on that would be great.

Other than that, no more suggestions from me. I simply enjoy reading the stuff you provide. This is a good idea, by the way, explaining your steps as you go through them. It’ll help you remember little details that you may have otherwise missed out, too!

News Bandit November 28, 2007 at 2:36 am

Are you buying a domain that has been expired or something? I guess I am just trying to figure out what you would have to be going through escrow for?

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 29, 2007 at 1:30 pm

Smiley – No worries, there will be a few articles on chat rooms coming up in the future and one regarding admin anonymity.

News Bandit – I am buying a domain name from someone who has already registered it; hence my use of escrow.

Smiley November 29, 2007 at 2:32 pm

Brilliant, I look forward to them!

Michelle from the Coulee Region November 30, 2007 at 6:17 pm

I’m looking forward to this as well. I’ve been working on my social networking site for about a year, now, and there’s still much to do. I haven’t had any luck building a community but I know that’s my fault because I go far too long without posting. I have some more work to do on the infrastructure and then I plan on going on a content spree and see if I can jumpstart things.

Thanks for all the advice you have on here. I’m taking notes. :)


Martin Reed - Blog Author December 1, 2007 at 2:30 pm

Michelle – Thanks for your comment. Continuing to create quality content on a consistent basis can be a huge challenge. Keep at it though, and you will see results.

Melissa Odom January 21, 2008 at 12:08 pm

I have not visited this blog in a while, but I am glad I thought about it today.

For the past couple years (sad huh?) I have been trying to build an online community and have not been successful due to not being as technical or knowledgeable about how to create it.

Recently, I have chosen to use a software company that specializes in community websites to help me accomplish my goal. I look forward to catching up on past entries I have missed as well as reading about your progress and thoughts on creating a site from scratch.

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 22, 2008 at 1:45 pm

Melissa – I am glad you made it back; we missed you! Would you like to share the name of the software company you are using? What made you choose them? What are you hoping to achieve by using them?

Remember – software will not make a successful community. Content and interaction is what makes a community, and these can only come about through hard work, persistence and dedication.

Melissa Odom January 22, 2008 at 2:09 pm

The name of the software company is small world labs. They are not cheap, but offer basically what I am trying to do. I am not as technical as I would like to be and tried using drupal, mambo, wordpress, tikiwiki…and I found myself not able to solve technical issues that came up. The features available through small world labs are features I am looking for (there are a few that are missing but there are work arounds for that). So for starters, it is a good match. Obviously, as the site grows, I will probably need to make adjustments. Their website is

I agree, software does not make a community successful, but a site that is not userfriendly will also not be successful. I think good software and good content as well as what you mentioned above, contribute to a successful website.

Michelle from the Coulee Region January 22, 2008 at 2:50 pm

Melissa – I looked at that site and couldn’t even find the prices. I’m guessing “not cheap” is an understatement. :)

I’ve been using Drupal for almost 3 years and love it. I do have a technical background, though, and that really helps. We keep trying to make it easier and easier to use but building a SN site on Drupal is a lot of work so I can see the benefit of going with a pre-made solution if you can afford it

I’d be interested in seeing your site when you’re done. Hope you post back here.


Martin Reed - Blog Author January 28, 2008 at 12:01 pm

Melissa – Good luck for your journey with Small World Labs. I haven’t come across them before, and hope their software works for you. Just remember – it isn’t software that makes a good community!

Michelle – I am guessing the software isn’t cheap! I was researching Drupal for my new community but it just looked far too difficult to customise, especially as I am not a coder!

Melissa Odom January 28, 2008 at 12:15 pm

Martin, How are you creating a community site from scratch since you are also not a coder? Are you paying someone to help you? Are you using open-source software? I am curious because I was never able to create the site on my own – that is why I have chosen to use small world labs. I know I can not do the technical part on my own….and it will free me up to focus on the community aspect of the site – the most important part.

Michelle from the Coulee Region January 28, 2008 at 2:33 pm

Martin – You can actually do a lot with Drupal without knowing how to code. Even though I have a coding background, I didn’t learn PHP, which Drupal uses, until I had been using Drupal for quite some time. There are around 1300 contributed modules so putting a site together is mostly a matter of choosing the right ones. Curious, what software did you end up choosing?


Martin Reed - Blog Author January 30, 2008 at 2:04 pm

Melissa – For Just Chat, I designed the site myself in Dreamweaver and simply plugged in phpBB and the epals software. I am able to modify header and footer information to ensure a good degree of integration, but that’s about as far as my coding skills go.

For my new site, I have employed a logo designer, a site designer and will also employ a site coder – all through SitePoint.

Michelle – I haven’t made a final decision regarding software for the new site yet, although I am looking closely at ExpressionEngine from the advice of a site designer/coder who has also worked with Drupal, Joomla and WordPress.

Michelle from the Coulee Region January 30, 2008 at 2:46 pm

Looks interesting. They have a nice website. You have to sign up for an account to see the prices, though, and it looks like they sell all the parts separately.

I wonder what the cost difference is between buying a commercial CMS and hiring someone to customize a Drupal site? I know Drupal sites aren’t cheap once you factor in the labor if you aren’t able to do it yourself.


Martin Reed - Blog Author February 1, 2008 at 11:53 pm

Michelle – The great thing about ExpressionEngine is everything is done though templates which makes customisation a lot easier. I didn’t have to sign up to see the prices, I just clicked on the ‘Buy Now’ link ;)

As my understanding goes, Drupal can be difficult to customise – but don’t take my word for it. Look at some sites that use the CMS and you’ll notice for yourself that many have a similar look and feel about them.

Michelle from the Coulee Region February 2, 2008 at 1:04 am

Ah, I clicked on the wrong place before. I did click by now but then I clicked on the forum option since that’s what I was most interested in. At any rate, that’s not a bad price at all if it gives you what you need out of the box. Having a Drupal site customized would run you a lot more.

As for Drupal sites looking the same… You know, we hear that a lot but it’s really not Drupal’s fault that so many people just leave the default theme up there. Any premade site will look cookie cutter if you don’t take the time to make it your own.

Here are a few Drupal sites… Do they look the same to you?

There’s tons more but you get the idea. Now, granted, not everyone has the time or budget for that much customization. But you can do a lot to dress up a site. My Coulee Region site I think isn’t too bad considering I’m not even remotely a designer.

Anyway, everyone needs to use the tool that’s right for them and I’m not saying you should switch to Drupal if EE is meeting your needs. But I do feel a need to evangalize a bit, if you will, and counter the perception that all Drupal sites look the same.


Martin Reed - Blog Author February 5, 2008 at 7:31 pm

Michelle – Thanks for the info. I am glad Drupal is working for you. At the end of the day, we should choose the software that works best for our individual needs. For me, it is essential I am able to easily customise the site myself with minimal coding knowledge, and EE’s template system allows me to do this hence the reason why it came out on top of Drupal during my research.

Michelle from the Coulee Region February 5, 2008 at 9:12 pm

“At the end of the day, we should choose the software that works best for our individual needs.”

Yeah… As I said, “everyone needs to use the tool thatís right for them”

Not everyone gets Drupal’s theme system. I know having to use stuff like “print $content” can be offputting to designers. If EE’s templating system is easier for you then by all means use it. Whatever works. All I was doing is pointing out that the fact that many sites look the same is because people don’t take the time to customize them and not because Drupal can’t be customized.


Martin Reed - Blog Author February 7, 2008 at 9:22 pm

Michelle – Thanks for sharing your experiences with Drupal. I am sure the information you have provided will be useful to other readers of this blog.