Yesterday I mentioned that it is always a good idea to keep an eye on the competition for inspiration for your website. I also stated that inspiration is all you should be interested in getting from your competition – if you copy what they do you will not have anything to differentiate yourself from the very people you are competing with!
It is important to be as unique as possible – after all, if users cannot find what you are offering anywhere else then they are more than likely going to stick around! Having visitors come and never return is not your aim. Having visitors come and keep coming back helps build a sustainable source of traffic and loyalty to your site and is what you should always be aiming to achieve.
Being unique can cover a lot of different angles; ideally it would cover the actual topic you are basing your community around. Of course, this is often difficult to do – chances are your community will be similar to others that are already online. Therefore, you need to look to other areas – namely customisation.
Community sites will normally start off with a forum, such as phpBB or vBulletin, for example. Both of these pieces of forum software are relatively easy to customise or have customised for you. Think of how many bog-standard forum themes you have seen – did they inspire you to join? Not only does a unique theme or ‘skin’ make you stand out from the competition, it also shows the visitor that you are making a real effort with your community.
A search on Google or any other search engine can throw up a whole heap of free themes and skins for most forum and blog software out there however, bear in mind that these designs (whilst more unique than the standard theme) will still not be exclusive to your site. It may be worth browsing sites such as SitePoint’s Marketplace for design templates. You can even post a design proposal as a contest and have people fighting for the chance to design you a 100% custom layout for your choice of forum or blog software!
Most community software can be modified or ‘hacked’ to add additional features which your members may find useful – however you should always think carefully about the actual level of value you will be adding by installing additional extras. It is pointless adding hundreds of customisations or plug-ins which nobody will use. They will slow your site down, and often confuse visitors – this is the last thing you want to do!
It may be more difficult to offer unique software for your online community unless you have a decent development budget, but having your own design shows you are committed to your site’s development and sets you apart from all those competitors sitting with a design you can see on thousands of sites all over the Web.
In future posts, I will go into more depth on specific add-ons and customisations for phpBB and WordPress – both of which I have experience in using. I also hope to bring on a guest poster or two to discuss modifications to vBulletin and other pieces of popular community software.