How to compete against larger online communities

by Martin Reed on 28 April 2008 in Articles

Competition in online communities

Facebook – over 70 million members. MySpace – 110 million members. How can you beat these communities? The fact is, you can’t. But you can still compete and be successful despite their dominance. This article will explain how.

Do large online communities have everything?

The huge, corporate social networks have the numbers and they have the money. That is undeniable. To successfully compete against them, you need to work out what they don’t have. Let’s say you have decided to establish a community based around your love of martial arts. Your community reflects your passion. Your community has passionate, friendly, welcoming members. As soon as new visitors join, they are welcomed and made to feel at home; they immediately feel part of a close-knit community. Large social networks cannot offer this.

Do large online communities create new friendships?

Online communities such as Facebook and MySpace attract members because people don’t want to feel left out. Some people join to find new friends and some will join to find people with shared interests. I will place a bet though, that most simply join because all their friends are members. The large social networks cannot match a niche community that is based around a subject the community owner and its members are passionate about. If your site has these qualities, you don’t need to worry about the huge players – carve out your own niche and you will find success.

Smaller communities have a bright future

Some argue that niche forums and social networks will disappear as they are overtaken in popularity by the large social networks. I disagree. People want to visit sites that are made by people that share their passion. Sure, it’s great being a member of a site where there are millions of members, but it can be easy to feel lost and unnoticed. Smaller, focused communities cater to the needs of their members based on a shared interest. This makes it easier to make changes that are appropriate for the majority of their audience.

In such a community, you are far better placed to build meaningful, personal and genuine relationships with your members. Large communities can lose the community feeling that made them attractive in the first place; as new members join, the perceived closeness of a community can suffer. This doesn’t have to be the case though – just make sure you work hard to retain a close-knit community; continue to welcome new members, encourage them to get involved, and ensure they are accepted.

Smaller communities are more personable and more personal

Large social networks sometimes forget about their members and focus on making money. If you focus on creating a close-knit, niche community that offers something unique, you can still be successful even in the presence of such giants. If you want to compete against the membership numbers of the corporate social networks, forget it. If you want to compete against the revenue they are earning, forget it. Compete only with the quality of your content, the happiness of your members and the passion you have for your niche.

Remember – don’t focus on what larger communities have. Work out what they don’t have, and make sure you offer it!

Your thoughts

Do you think smaller online communities have a future? Do you think the large social networks are taking market share away from smaller, niche communities? How do you compete against larger communities? Share your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below.

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{ 29 comments }

Daniel Wagner April 29, 2008 at 9:00 am

Interesting! Thanks for the great article again!

Only yesterday I had a discussion with my colleagues on exactly this topic. We are building an online community for freelancers (so far: in German only) and tried to figure out where OUR niche can be and how it can look like. I guess we had some great ideas… hopefully.

Actually we are also convinced that community websites won’t vanish. Our generation (born in the 1970s/80s) had to learn what online communities are. The next generation is already being socialized with those communities. So for somebody who is trying to establish such a network it really depends on what makes you unique and how are you trying to focus this uniqueness.

Greetings from Germany.
And thanks for reading!

Amish Made Furniture April 29, 2008 at 2:19 pm

Facing hard facts, the market place for community sites is over crowded. If we have to start one, it must, no two ways about it, offer something totally different that no other site offers. Ergo, it has to be a niche, which will start small and organically grow. I do not see any other alternative.

Chris Guthrie April 29, 2008 at 2:52 pm

Good points Martin. I believe some of what you’ve covered can also be applied to why people choose to go to small churches instead of giant ones with a lot of financial backing.

There’s a reason why people go to smaller churches and it’s largely due to the fact that it’s easy to be lost in the sea of people at a giant church. Likewise, it’s much easier to get involved at the smaller church and get to know people than at a giant church.

I agree with what you’ve had to say because for many people it’s never the size of the network (or church) it’s what the smaller community has to offer.

True Education April 29, 2008 at 4:26 pm

I don’t believe the twin titans – Facebook and My Space – are taking away any traffic from the smaller online communities. They certianly have a future though I must agree there are a heck of a lot of them!!

The industry I work in Higher Education, is going through some radical changes and many of the players have their hands tied. They don’t want to adopt any of the Web 2.0 hype. Or if they do, they don’t understand it. Its an old school industry and its hard to teach them new tricks.

Our company will gladly step in and hopefully fill that niche. There isn’t a lot out there that lets other share in the voice when it comes to our industry.

Upon saying that I would agree that in order to “survive” you do need to offer something that is truly unique and benefits your members. It not just enough to say your company blogs or has an online network

Smiley April 29, 2008 at 4:49 pm

Exactly, Martin, this is what I was saying in the other article. Big sites couldn’t care less about their members. So simply offer the one thing big sites don’t and won’t offer………………… a caring community with caring policies.

People will think “wow, these people genuinely care” — and there you have it. You’ve taken your first customer away from the fat cats.

Eric Martindale April 29, 2008 at 5:41 pm

Nice post -

It isn’t necessarily the fact that they’re large that creates the “big bad corporate and non-personal” feeling – it’s the fact that they don’t segment their communities once they grow to that size.

Now, I don’t think there’s a perfect size for a community segment, but that “1000 true fans” theory that Kevin Kelley came up with holds a very definite amount of truth.

If you grow beyond that 1,000 fan mark, you need to start thinking about mini-communities – tailor to these segments, allow and encourage interaction between them – and you’ll be able to keep that close-knit feeling while continuing to grow and prosper on the whole.

Another number to keep your eye on is Dunbar’s Number, which essentially suggests that the very upper limit of active relationships (friends) in any social network is around 200 – any more than that and you’re not really interacting with these people.

Basically, remember that community is king – your community needs to be interacting on some genuine level, and if you get too large without encouraging a “kernalization” of the community and the various niches within, you’ll fall victim to the same problems these large social networks have.

Angela Connor April 30, 2008 at 4:50 am

I think you’re right on the money. Members of the community I manage appreciate the personal touch and many of them meet regularly. It’s “cool” and “trendy” to have a facebook or myspace account, but it’s where you spend your real time that matters, and I think sites like ours are the future because they say: “We care.”

Martin Reed - Blog Author April 30, 2008 at 4:19 pm

Daniel – I agree with you. People are increasingly aware of social networking and as a result are becoming far more demanding. In the future, they will be less inclined to join the large mega-sites, and more interested in joining the smaller, niche communities that cater specifically to their interests. Good luck with your new venture!

Ramana – I am not sure I agree that online communities are operating in a saturated market; it all depends on the subject of the community. I do agree though, that in order to succeed, you need to strive to offer something different, and something unique.

Chris – You’re right. Online relationship building works in the same ways as offline relationship building; we can use many example from real life in the online environment with similar results.

True – I think companies will be forced to recognise and accept the power of online communities if they want to be successful and effective at building relationships with their customers. I am never surprised when I see an existing company start a new online community – I am only surprised at how long it took them to get started!

Smiley – That fat cats, eh?!? In any case you’re right; get a new ‘customer’ to visit once and leave impressed, and you’ll have a brand new cheerleader.

Eric – Looks like you’ve been doing your research; thanks for sharing that with us. I agree that a community may require segmentation as it grows – hence the reason why Just Chat offers more than just a chat room. Forums can segment by introducing new categories to cater for diversifying needs and interests. In any case, you make a great point that is well worth considering.

Angela – I couldn’t agree with you more. Smaller communities are far more attractive and engaging than the large corporate social networks, and I cannot see this changing whilst they remain in their current form.

Smiley April 30, 2008 at 6:07 pm

The fat cats — I wasn’t meaning any successful site. I mean the big fat cat sites that simply become ad farms and then no longer care about their chatters. Just leave them to it. Scrollers, abusers, perverts etc. In my opinion there’s no excuse for them to be like that.

Such as Chat-Avenue — it’s complete anarchy in that site. But because it’s a big site and it’s earning him money, he just doesn’t care about moderating it. He even mixes perverted adults with young children. It’s awful. I don’t know why his site should be allowed to exist with modern laws.

Take your site as an example, it’s a big successful site, but you haven’t simply slapped a load of ads up and shrugged your shoulders leaving your chatters to fend for themselves.

You still ensure they’re happy, you still provide them with protection. You have enough ads up to make yourself a well deserved profit, to cover the site’s bills and to provide further services for your customers, your users have staff members to turn to when they need help, you provide them with safety information.

So if you can do it……….. why can’t the fat cats do it?

And that’s why JC is carrying on to become more & more successful. Because even in your success you haven’t lost your ethics like the other big sites; and that’s something you should be proud of.

I also agree that segregation is important, too.

I think of it like a parish. There’s the main parish, but when that parish gets too big, it spreads out into surrounding hamlets.

I’ve started off with just the two chat rooms at the moment. The main “Welcome Lobby” where everyone piles into, but when that starts getting a bit too busy for the regulars (since it’s the official help/welcome room for new users really) — they all move off into the general chat room.

It sounds silly too, but for some reason users feel important if the OWNER of the site is sat there greeting to them and chatting to them? It makes them feel special.. so they stick around.

Online Furniture Store May 1, 2008 at 3:04 pm

Quite correct it is more important of put across what is unique about what you have to offer and establish your credentials before worrying about other extraneous considerations.

Mr Woc May 1, 2008 at 3:39 pm

Hi there

First of all i would like to commend smiley on his comments about chat ave, that site is a shambles, I used to link to this site, but once i saw what was going on there, instantly removed my links, this can reflect badly on chat rooms in general !

As for large communities to be honest i dont try to complete, I concentrate on my own site, I look at other sites for ideas but thats all, it only gives you a headache trying to figure out how to beat your competition.

I concentrate on adding quality content to my sites, that will attract users, I think some webmasters tend to fall into the trap of thinking their site will be an instant over night success, this very rarely happens and its usually all down to hard work and patience.

I know my post probably sounds a bit negative, but its just my opinion.

Woc

Smiley May 1, 2008 at 11:13 pm

Agreed, Mr Woc. Chat Avenue really should be shut down. Forcing sexual content from adults onto 13 year olds.. it’s sick, and the owner should be ashamed of himself, and even imprisoned for encouraging such behaviour.

Also, I agree. I don’t have any competition, I don’t consider other sites as competition.

Different sites have different atmospheres, different regs. Even if they have the same basic features (profile system, message board, chat room).. they’re all still unique in their own way.

They all have their own unique policies, unique atmosphere, unique staffing system, I’ve gone completely against the grain as far as the role of an administrator should be for example and its worked out well for me.

The users think they run the community, too, they vote on their own little rep every month who acts as a representative to the management and “is involved with decision making” – of course this is all about perception that we care and their opinions are important, and to get them more involved.

So yet again, something else unique even though I have the same basic features.

So.. no site is a competitor. Infact, if we get a type of chatter who wants a more boisterous site than mine and who doesn’t “frown” upon all that silly ASL malarky as much as FC I tell them maybe they’d feel more comfortable at Just Chat – that being the site where I essentially started off and developed loyalty to. It’s the site where I did a lot of good, gained a lot of experience, learnt what people wanted, learnt the biggest problem of chat rooms (ASL brigade and perverts) and made a lot of personal mistakes that helped me better myself so I don’t make them again on my own venture.

Different people want different kind of sites, so when sites try to compete, it’s completely illogical. They’re not going to convince the other site’s user’s to stay if the other site’s users don’t feel comfortable with the different policies, staff and atmosphere.

I’m firmly against spamming anyway.

I have to admit though, I do keep an eye on the bigger sites, and have used my experience from all teh sites I’ve used/worked at (I was PalSupport at Paltalk.. who’s admins were more customer support than bouncers, and I really liked that idea and took it further), Firetalk (who’s admins never ventured outside the help room unless requested to sort out troublemakers/perverts.. again that I really liked and adopted/developed), Just Chat, where I’ve adopted Martin’s professional running of it, doing everything by the book rather than just hiring a staff and letting them run wild and how he treats his users as customers, not users..

It’s all mix and match thrown in with my own ideas to plug the holes and it’ll either fail or succeed, either way I gave it my best and not trying to compete with anyone. Just trying to provide a friendly, safe, caring place where people want to chat without ASL ASL ASL, perverts, troublemakers, and where we promote ‘netiquette’ so chatters looking for a place like that, now have one.

Mr Woc May 2, 2008 at 9:32 am

Hi there

Interesting reading about your site smiley I had a quick look around your site also, and hope people dont mind me following up your post even if my comments are off topic here.

Interesting to see how you run your site and nice to see there are some other webmasters trying to run clean sites, i dont mind people asking ASL on our site, as our site is for people 18+ anyway, so really got to ask peoples age

But you are right about the perverts, they are generally easy to spot, cos they only want to talk in private anyhow, we have made it harder for these people, as when you private message someone the message window doesnt open straight away, the user who is receiving the pm message has to actually click a bubble to see this message, so it makes it easier for people to ignore these kinds of people.

As for the chat ave thing, i think a lot of webmasters have to take a bit of the blame, as some of us are linking to that site, I was one of them at one point lol, so slap on the wrist, if people didnt link to it he would change it !

Woc

Eva White May 5, 2008 at 9:24 am

I like smaller communities they are more personal and have that level of comfort. Well large communities are like oceans, very BIG.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 5, 2008 at 4:05 pm

Smiley – I agree with you in many regards; a lot of the large online communities seem to have little involvement in keeping members happy and creating as safe an environment as possible. Unfortunately, these are the types of sites that can give online communities a bad reputation.

Segregation is important as a community grows – just be sure you don’t add too many forum categories and chat rooms before you have the content and users to populate them!

I like your mindset of not having any competitors, but think this could be a dangerous way of thinking – you should still be aware of what they are doing in order to pick up on any trends, or ideas of things you could be doing better.

Reena – Agreed; you are always more important than your competitors. Understand your competition, but don’t become obsessed by them.

Mr Woc – You raise important points, and have the right mindset when you say that you concentrate on creating quality content to attract users. If you spend all your time worrying about your competition, you’ll never get anything done!

Eva – I completely agree with you. Nothing bits a smaller, close-knit, personal community where every member is openly welcomed, respected and valued.

Nicole Price May 6, 2008 at 10:17 am

I am a member of a very small forum dealing with small diy home projects. All of us have gotten to know each other and enjoy the conversations and tips and tricks offered. It sure feels good and worth the time.

Smiley May 6, 2008 at 10:32 am

Oh yes of course. Like I said, I still travel around the internet checking out different chat sites, seeing what they’re up to, seeing what people are wanting. Trying to find a gap that nobody else has seen.. and fill it!

Chat May 7, 2008 at 7:09 am

I think smaller communities do have a stake in the future of the web. Your right on how the giant online communities can’t offer that “at home” feeling. Niche communities i believe will be the future of online communities where you want to find people to communicate about similar interests. Giving your community quality niche content would be one way to compete against larger communities.

Angela Connor May 7, 2008 at 2:07 pm

Okay, I’m back with another comment because this whole thread is fascinating and our opportunities are endless. My online community was all abuzz last night before, during and after our primary. (NC) I monitored through the evening so that I could highlight the best posts. Well, I am happy to say that we have three our four very active blogs even this morning and people are going to town about the presidential race obviously, but also the LOCAL races. It goes back to common experiences and shared issues. That is how we compete. I amconvinced that if I keep giving them that and highlighting the content they provide, we will continue to grow.

Smiley May 9, 2008 at 3:31 pm

Larger communities, unless segregated, are very hard to moderate, too.

It’s easy to keep perverts out when you only have a few dozen chatters. But when it gets to the point where you have a few dozen hundred chatters and they’re all lumped into a couple of rooms, how do you know who the perverts are?

You could always simply hire a huge staff team, but again, how do you know they’re the right choice? Being so huge, obviously you won’t know regulars on a personal basis like you do in smaller communities. You could hire one of those perverts you want to keep out as staff for all you know.

I’ve planned for the future. I know it’s having high hopes, the site isn’t guaranteed to succeed and become mainstream, but I still planned for the future.

The forums are already segregated, plenty of different categories. In the future different co-hosts will be in charge of different categories. I will know them on a personal basis, they will know exactly how I like to run things, I’ll know they’re in safe hands.

The chat rooms, too. Different chat rooms in different categories, different co-host per category.

Lots of sub-communities within the communities, each with their own leader, each leader with their own senior staff, each senior staff with their own support staff within the different categories. These people I’ll know on a personal level and everything will run smoothly if/when it’s a big, mainstream site.

If/when we’re a mainstream site, I’ve made a public promise to all members/visitors to the community that perverts will be kept out, and I intend to keep that promise and keep the staff system & hierarchy a well oiled machine and ensure the site will stay just as moderated as it is now.

Smiley May 9, 2008 at 3:36 pm

Speaking of perverts, a chatter made me laugh yesterday. I have an advertisement at the bottom of the client (Sex Dating), it’s an advertisement for Sex In The UK.

The chatter asked “why do you have an ad soliciting sex dating if you want a perv-free clean friendly site?”

My answer — “so any visiting perverts will click on that link and bugger off away from here.”

:D it’s true, too. Any pervert is bound to click on that. They’ll go away AND they make me money. Two birds with one stone. Best way to keep a chat site clean. Make sure you have ads that will attract perverts to click on them and leave your site alone.

Chat May 10, 2008 at 5:38 am

Haha Good one smiley,

You found a great opportunity there!

If i ever open an adult-only community I will be sure to use that technique.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 12, 2008 at 7:20 pm

Nicole – Small forums can be absolutely fantastic, and just because they are small, it doesn’t mean they aren’t successful.

Cody – I agree; provide content that is focused and specific to your niche, and you’ll already be offering something that the larger communities don’t.

Angela – You have exactly the right strategy – you understand your community and know what information is of interest to them. Not only that, but you provide them with what they want. No wonder your community is buzzing; well done!

Smiley – You are starting to segment your community which is the right thing to do as your site grows to ensure you keep the community feeling. Just don’t segment your site too quickly!

I like your concept about advertising the adult sites; I considered this at Just Chat but have a personal policy to avoid all sexual content for the foreseeable future, even if it comes from advertisers.

Smiley May 15, 2008 at 6:44 pm

I agree with your personal policy, but unfortunately the Sex in the UK advertisement is the one that makes me the most money. The more revenue I get the quicker I can buy that profiles script that you showed me. I could buy it now.. but I want it without the link at the bottom so I want the full license.

I am an ethical man though and there are certain types of ads I won’t have.

I block all ads that alienate a community. Flashing/vibrating ads, pop-ups, those annoying ads that forward you to a full-page ad where you have to click “continue to such and such page” to get rid of it.

I also refuse to exchange links with sites that mix adults with minors. I’ve had a few fellow new chat communities request link exchanges, I’ve checked them out to see they allow adults and minors to mingle on the same domain.. I won’t have any of that.

So, I do have my ethics.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 25, 2008 at 4:44 pm

Smiley – Of course, only you can decide what type of content or ads you want to run on your site. I am glad you avoid pop-ups and interstitials – they really do get in the way of your content and annoy visitors; not the best course of action to take if you want to develop an engaging, user-friendly online community. I hope you didn’t think I was suggesting you are unethical – that certainly wasn’t my intention.

Stacy July 18, 2008 at 7:36 pm

Interesting article and well written, Mr. Reed. I am sorry to leave this message but there are some comments that I personally need to respond to.

I happen to be a long time user of Chat-avenue.com (5+ years) and was once a volunteer chat moderator at that site. I quit as a moderator because of relocating jobs and I am also creating my own site which i will not mention here. Never have i seen such behavior as that mentioned above by “Smiley” (owner of justchat.co.uk) and MR. WOC (owner of worldofchat.co.uk) with regards to Chat-avenue.com. Their chat rooms all have moderation and to make false accusations like you have stated is really inappropriate (both ethically and legally) I don’t think any site has true 24/7 moderation. (especially larger sites) I have seen facebook and myspace laced with pornographic content and nothing done about it. However, to suggest that chat-avenue.com encourages “mixing perverted adults with children” is completely inaccurate. There are mods on constantly throughout the day making sure this sort of activity does not occur.

I have directed this article to the owner of Chat-Avenue.com and hope he responds to it.

Speaking to the “Chatmaster” (the nickname of the person who actually hires the moderators for the chat) at the site, he told me that MR.WOC did not remove the links because of what he saw. I was told that actually Chat-avenue.com removed links to his site FIRST because they were of no meaningful value due to google banning his site (removing his PR) because their robots picked up his black hat SEO tactics at that time (many months ago) I have not verified this but he says that MR. WOC reasoning for removing the links is completely false.

As for “Smiley”. It looks like his site still links to chat-avenue.com, so if he was so concerned about chat-avenue.com activities, surely he wouldn’t link to them, would he? Oh, that would probably hurt his site SEO if they discontinued the link exchange. Hmm. Probably, just a case of jealousy and “bad-mouthing the competition” here.

I guess the moral of the story is be careful of what you read on the Internet and check the sources and the facts first.

Stacy July 18, 2008 at 7:45 pm

Oh just realized this blog which i completely stumbled upon belongs to Justchat owner. Well that explains everything lol.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 23, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Stacy – Thanks for your comment. Firstly, may I clear up your misconception that Smiley is the owner of Just Chat. He is not. I (Martin Reed) am, as stated in the about page on this blog.

I agree with you – I have never come across a website that has 24/7 moderation, and at Just Chat we make it clear that we are unable to provide this. Thank you for adding your ‘side of the story’ and addressing the comments left by a couple of this blog’s readers.

Please bear in mind that at no time have I stated any opinion as to the credibility or operations of Chat-Avenue; indeed, as you correctly state I still actively link to them from Just Chat. The views expressed by readers that comment do not necessarily represent my own view or opinion.

Patty P February 6, 2009 at 10:04 pm

Hey speaking of niche networks can anyone give me feedback on my social network.
It is Greek Strength.com and it is geared specifically towards fraternity and sorority life.
I really have a passion to connect Greek Life members, and my site allows Chapters to run their
Organizatiosn directly from my site.
Please tell me what you think, I would love to see first hand, how you guys feel!

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